Judge hears testimony in heroin homicide trial
JEFFERSON — Testimony was heard Wednesday in the trial of a Fort Atkinson man who allegedly provided the heroin on which his nephew fatally overdosed.
Kurt A. Gutermuth has pleaded not guilty to first-degree reckless homicide by delivery of heroin and manufacture/delivery of a Schedule IV narcotic, Xanax (alprazolam) in connection with the April 8, 2014, death of 21-year-old Daniel K. James Belleau.
An autopsy concluded that Belleau died as a result of “acute heroin intoxication.”
In addition, Gutermuth, 46, has pleaded not guilty on an unrelated charge of possession of narcotic drugs after he allegedly nearly overdosed himself on Fentanyl in August 2015 while on probation for another charge.
Gutermuth waived his right to a jury trial, so the case is moving forward as a bench trial or trial by judge with Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy Koschnick acting as the fact-finder and ruler of law.
Jefferson County Assistant District Attorney Monica Hall was brief Wednesday in presenting her opening remarks, recognizing the judge’s familiarity with the case.
She explained that Belleau and his roommate/friend, Zachariah Johnson, collected cans and turned them into the recycling center for money on April 7, 2014. Hall said the pair used the quarters to purchase Xanax from Gutermuth.
Belleau reportedly took several Xanax orally at Gutermuth’s home while Johnson said he snorted some in the bathroom.
Upon returning to the kitchen, Gutermuth allegedly placed two lines of heroin on the table, one for Johnson and one for Belleau. Each snorted a line.
“The physical condition of Daniel started to degrade as the night went on,” Hall said. “Zac became concerned and sent some text messages to friends, who all told him to call 911 or take him to the hospital.”
The prosecutor noted that Johnson did not do so and instead went to bed, leaving a note for his roommate, Matthew Richardson, to wake him up in the morning.
However, when Richardson got home from his third-shift job, he found that Belleau had died.
Gutermuth’s attorney, Stephen Kramer, countered that Johnson should be the one on trial.
“We have a laundry list of interviews of witnesses in this case,” he said. “We have a phonebook of text messages in this case. We have a ton of evidence.”
Kramer said all that information boiled down to being about Johnson and two of his friends.
“One of his friends, Daniel Belleau, was allowed to die by Mr. Johnson that evening,” he said. “He did that to avoid any criminal responsibility in this action and to cover up what his responsibility and what his actions were that evening.”
Kramer suggested that the other friend was Gutermuth, whom Johnson has left to be charged with the crime as he gets his “golden ticket” of freedom, despite giving three inconsistent statements to authorities.
Due to the questionable nature of his testimony, Johnson was the center of attention during testimony Wednesday.
Prior to the trial, he signed a proffer agreement with the prosecutor, agreeing to testify truthfully in Gutermuth’s trial in return for the prosecutor not filing charges against him related to Belleau’s death and the subsequent investigation.
When Johnson took the witness stand Wednesday, the judge explained to him his Fifth Amendment rights to not be compelled to incriminate himself.
To prevent that further complication, Hall requested that immunity be granted Johnson, meaning he would be immune to prosecution based on his statements during the trail, unless he was being untruthful and facing perjury allegations.
Johnson already had told at least three different versions of the evening’s activities to authorities before testifying.
“I lied because I?didn’t want to get in trouble,” he said. “Now I’m sober; I just want to get justice for Daniel. “
On the day Belleau died, Johnson told police, Belleau was hanging out with friends and he had stayed home for the night. Subsequently, he obtained a lawyer and was advised not to speak to police outside of the presence of a lawyer.
In an effort to discredit Johnson’s testimony, Kramer referenced the charges that the Fort Atkinson Police Department had sought to recommend against him in connection with Belleau’s death.
From his initial contact with investigators to the point of signing the proffer agreement in November 2015, recommendations for possible charges against Johnson included resisting or obstruction, conspiracy to deliver heroin, conspiracy to deliver Xanax and failure to provide aide were developed. No charges ever were filed and Johnson remains immune to facing any charges related to that night through both the proffer agreement and the immunity granted by the judge Wednesday.
Continuing his testimony, Johnson stuck with the version of the story he offered when he met with Hall and investigators in November 2015.
Johnson said he had been in contact with Gutermuth about the purchase of Xanax prior to collecting the cans.
“We told him we were going to collect the cans for the money and then he was going to let us know when everything was ready to go,” he said.
Johnson said he reached out to Gutermuth because he had the Xanax and the duo were looking to do some Xanax that day. He indicated that he was not aware of any text messages that would indicate a purchase or gratuitous delivery of heroin from Gutermuth.
Throughout his testimony, he maintained that he and Belleau were using the can-collection money to purchase the Xanax from Gutermuth.
“He popped one right away,” Johnson said, referring to Belleau taking one orally.
Shortly after, he went to the bathroom, crushed up two Xanax pills and snorted them using a straw he found in the bathroom.
“He was nodding in and out and he said he had some really good heroin,” Johnson said of Gutermuth.
The suggestion was that Gutermuth simply was generous when he was under the influence of drugs.
Kramer made sure to highlight this point with a question.
“When Kurt gets messed up, he becomes the Andrew Carnegie of drug dealers?” he asked.
Following an explanation of who Carnegie was, Johnson answered affirmatively.
Continuing his explanation of that evening, he said that when he returned to the kitchen where Gutermuth and Belleau were, Johnson saw Belleau unclogging his nose. Belleau told him that Gutermuth had given him a line of heroin.
“I saw the residue of the one line that Daniel said he did and I saw the line that Kurt had out for me,” Johnson said.
Although he initially said no, Johnson testified Wednesday that, because of “peer pressure,” he did snort the heroin.
Afterward, the pair reportedly left the apartment on Main Street to head back to their residence on West Milwaukee Avenue.
Johnson said that, due to him also being under the influence of drugs and being scared, he did not even consider dropping Belleau at the police or fire stations they passed enroute home.
“I was not in my right state-of-mind; I was high myself,” Johnson said.
During questioning from both Hall and Kramer, Johnson appeared to recall only select calls or text messages he sent on the evening of April 7, 2014, some of which were additional lies about how the evening proceeded.
Once reaching their home, Johnson said, he only recalled getting Belleau up to his room and then playing videogames. Belleau only was able to grunt, though Johnson testified that he “made sure he was OK.”
In addition, he did not recall writing a note to Richardson asking him to awaken him upon arriving home.
“Matthew comes in the room and said ‘wake up, Daniel’s dead,’” Johnson recalled, suggesting that was the next thing he remembered.
Further details of Belleau’s death were established with testimony from Richardson and the homeowner, Thomas Witte, who is referred to as “Pa” among the roommates.
Witte indicated that he tries to help young people who have fallen through the slats in society.
It was not clear, based on Witte’s testimony and that of Johnson, whether he collected cans as well as drove Johnson and Belleau to Walmart.
Witte testified that he recalled the duo left the house around 10:30 p.m. to go to Gutermuth’s residence and then returned around 2:15 a.m., banging on the door because he did not leave it open.
Both he and Johnson provided details about Belleau being carried into the house. However, Johnson had no recollection of the door being locked.
“Dan didn’t look good,” Witte said, noting that more than once, he encouraged Johnson to call 911.
At 5 a.m., he went up to Belleau’s room and found Johnson attempting to revive him without success.
Johnson reportedly attempted to conspire with Witte to lie to the police about the events of the previous evening. Witte was told to indicate that Belleau went out by himself and that Johnson had stayed home.
Meanwhile, Richardson recalled returning home from his third-shift job.
“I figured I would ask Dan for a movie to borrow and go to bed,” he said. “When I walked in, there was Dan lying on the bed. His head was turned to the left with foam coming out of his mouth.”
Going into the room he shared with Johnson, he awoke him and said, “what did you do, Zac’ what did you do?”
He said he saw a note on his own bed written by Johnson, urging Richardson to wake him up.
The exact wording of the note was not read in open court. However, there was an indication that Johnson had wanted Richardson to wake him up and it appeared to be urgent.
“Every day, I ask myself why he didn’t call 911?” Richardson said, noting that Johnson was drowsy and acted like he didn’t know anything happened.
“All he wanted to do was go back to bed,” he said.
Richardson also admitted to helping clear the house of any drug paraphernalia and told Johnson to call the police.
“I may not have done all the right things,” he acknowledged. “It was not right that he went to bed and didn’t take care of Dan even after he was gone.”
Meanwhile, Fort Atkinson Police Officer Dan Hefty testified about his interaction with Gutermuth on April 9, 2014, a day after Belleau’s death.
Gutermuth was located while officers were investigating reports of two suspicious persons.
Hefty indicated that Gutermuth was cleary upset and crying, indicating that his nephew had overdosed with heroin a few days earlier.
“A lot of bad (expletive) happens there,” he quoted Gutermuth as saying, referring to the home where Belleau died.
The officer said Gutermuth did not appear to be intoxicated or under the influence at the time of the contact.
In addition, former Fort Atkinson Detective Eric Brown offered testimony about the initial interviews he conducted with Johnson, confirming the inconsistent statements.
On Thursday morning, the judge was expected to listen to audio-recorded interviews authorities conducted with Johnson and Gutermuth in open court.
Additional testimony from the medical examiner and other witnesses also was scheduled Thursday.