Day 1 of the trial of the State vs. Dennis Poitra, Jr. saw the selection of a jury, opening statements and three witnesses called.
It took just over a half-day to select a fourteen-member jury – six men and eight women, with two serving as alternates – and attorneys were able to select the jury from the morning pool of fifty. Another fifty arrived in the afternoon to be on hand in case a jury could not be completely selected from the first group. Judge Fenn had the second group come into the courtroom to be officially thanked for their time and then were dismissed.
Poitra, Jr. is being tried on three counts: Count 1 – Murder in the 1st Degree; Count 2 – Conspiracy to Commit Aggravated Burglary; and Count 3 – Aggravated Burglary. It was just over one year ago, on August 26, 2009, that Poitra, Jr., along with Wyatt Bear Cloud and Dharminder Sen, allegedly broke into the Thurmond Avenue residence of Robert and Linda Ernst, stole a small amount of money and fatally shot Robert Ernst.
Opening statements in the trial began at 3 o'clock, followed by the State calling its first witness, Linda Ernst.
With her daughters Lisa Ernst Knox and Ann Ernst present in the courtroom, Mrs. Ernst recounted the events of the evening of August 25th through the early morning hours of August 26th. She testified that she and her husband had dinner and then while he went outside to tend to their flowers, she shampooed the carpets in the dining and living rooms. Robert, or Bob, came in and retrieved some portable fans while she opened windows to allow ventilation for drying the carpets. Mr. Ernst went to bed around 9; she followed about 45 minutes later. The doors to the house were locked.
Mrs. Ernst said that she was awakened from a deep sleep sometime between midnite and 1 a.m. by a bright light shining in her face. She could make out the silhouette of what she thought were two figures standing in the doorway. She said they were dressed in dark clothing, and appeared to have something covering their faces. Saying she realized they were intruders, she yelled, “Get out of here!”, which awakened Bob.
Bob sat up, and she heard a voice say, “'I'm going to shoot you, you f-ing old man!'” She testified that she ran to the kitchen to retrieve the cordless phone to call 9-1-1 and heard what she thought were two shots. When she headed back to the bedroom, she saw three spent shell casings on the floor in the hallway, and Bob lying in a fetal position on the floor. He had been shot in the chest, but at that point was still alive and conscious. She said she saw the figures run out of the house.
Attorney Matt Redle played the recording of the 9-1-1 audio for the jury, on which she told the dispatcher “There's someone in our house; there's been a shooting.” When the dispatcher asked her the condition of the victim, she said, “He's about to die. They shot him in the heart – or in the chest.” She indicated that they had run out of the house, and it appeared by a cut screen in the dining room that that is how they had entered the home.
Mrs. Ernst testified that sometime later, she had seen a light on in the basement, on Bob's desk. She said that drawers to the desk, file cabinets and the safe were open. When asked if the safe were locked, she said “No. The lock was set at 0.”
EMS transported Robert Ernst to Sheridan Memorial Hospital. When opening her wallet to retrieve information at the hospital, she told police that about $25 - $30 in cash was missing.
Dr. Barry Mangus then took the stand. He is a General Surgeon at Sheridan Memorial. He said that he and Dr. Jost attempted to revive Robert Ernst, but he died about thirty minutes later, having sustained extensive internal bleeding.
The final witness of the day was Sheridan Police Officer Randall Pitchford, who was on patrol duty the night of August 26th, 2009. He was one of three officers in the area when the call from dispatch came in, and the first to arrive on the scene. Officer Pitchford testified that he parked his patrol car on Colorado near Thurmond, entering the home to secure the area before EMT personnel arrived. He said that Linda Ernst met him at the door and took him back to where Bob was lying in the bedroom. He said he saw three spent shell casings in the hall, and upon entering the bedroom saw Bob lying on his right side in a fetal position. He was breathing and his eyes were open, Officer Pitchford said, but he was not speaking. He then directed EMT to the room, careful to avoid the shell casings, and after Bob was transported to the hospital, Officer Pitchford took position on Thurmond to block traffic.
Day One of testimony ended at 4:45 pm.