PROVO — Defense attorney Ronald Yengich swung a metal drum stool through the air Wednesday in court. During the testimony of Orem police detective Randy Crowther, Yengich wanted to know if the stool — which he said weighed between 6 and 7 pounds — could be used as a weapon. Crowther conceded it could.
Crowther’s testimony was one of many elicited from law enforcement officials Wednesday during the second day of Stephen Strate’s murder trial. Strate faces a first-degree felony murder charge for shooting his brother-in-law Marvin Sidwell to death on Oct. 25, 2009. The shooting occurred in Sidwell’s basement bedroom in Orem.
All day Wednesday Yengich worked to depict Sidwell’s bedroom as a dangerous area bristling with potential weapons. When Orem police evidence technician Patricia Pinkus testified, Yengich asked if she had found knives, guns, darts and even an iron club in Sidwell’s room. Pinkus remembered seeing some of the items, but not others, and Yengich pursued a similar line of questioning with a parade of law enforcement witnesses called by prosecutors Wednesday.
Throughout the questions, Yengich’s point was clear: Strate shot Sidwell in self-defense. Yengich and Strate’s defense team has consistently argued that Sidwell was angry at Strate and tried to attack him. They say Sidwell was high on meth, and therefore extra aggressive, and that Strate had gone to the home to talk. In pictures shown to the jury Wednesday, Sidwell’s bloody body was shown lying on the floor, the metal drum stool resting across his lifeless arm.
But dangerous as Sidwell — and his room — may have been, prosecutors told a very different story Wednesday, casting the shooting as an act of vicious retaliation against a man who had become an unbearable thorn in Strate’s side. Early in the day, prosecutors played a recorded interview between police and Laverne Sidwell, Marvin’s mother and Strate’s mother-in-law. The obviously ailing woman described the moments before the shooting, saying that Strate charged into her home — which Strate owned — and ran downstairs to Sidwell’s room.
“I says ‘don’t go start nothing,’ ” Laverne Sidwell told police. “Then I heard bang, bang, bang. Shooting.”
She also described an argument the morning of the shooting between Strate’s wife, Linda, and Marvin Sidwell. She also appeared to speculate that the Strates were united against Sidwell.
“I think they bet against him because they think he’s living off of me,” she said.
The relationship between the Strates and Sidwell was further illuminated Wednesday by Jeff Wright, a private investigator who was hired by Yengich shortly after the shooting. In an unusual twist, Wright was called to be a witness for the prosecution.
Wright testified that in an interview with Strate on Oct. 28, 2009 — three days after the shooting — Strate talked about a possible real estate transaction he was pursuing with Sidwell’s neighbor. Strate owned the home where Sidwell and his mother lived, and he had discussed selling it to neighbor Gary Richards.
The possible sale angered Sidwell, and Wright said that Strate recalled getting a phone call from Richards, who said a message had been written on his driveway with chalk. Sidwell’s message had to do with “taking his house away,” Wright said. Wright also said that after receiving the call from Richards, Strate drove over to Sidwell’s home and eventually killed him.
Wright also testified that the shooting was preceded by an altercation between Sidwell and Linda Strate. According to Wright, Linda saw Sidwell while at the home caring for Laverne. Sidwell confronted Linda about the possible sale of the house, and Linda later returned to her own home “very upset.”
The information shared by Wright seemed to support prosecutors’ assertions that Strate was tired of dealing with Sidwell, and may have been angry about a potentially botched real estate transaction.
Strate’s trial is scheduled to conclude next week. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.