OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – During day two of testimony in the Capital Murder trial of the man charged with killing an Auburn officer and attempting to kill two others, jurors witnessed the determination and desperation of those who tried to save 37-year-old Auburn Police Officer William Buechner’s life.
32-year-old defendant Grady Wilkes is accused of donning his National Guard body armor, shield, and helmet while wielding an AR-15 with a laser sight in the deadly shooting of Officer Buechner, and the wounding of Officer Evan Elliott and Webb Sistrunk as they responded to a domestic violence call.
We do want to caution you, testimony included the playback of distressing police body camera videos, which may be traumatic.
Opelika police officer Richard Gross was the first officer on the scene to render aid to Officer Buechner. Gross testified when he heard the emergency call over the radio, he got permission from his command to respond. Gross was familiar with the scene of the shooting, Arrowhead Mobile Home Park, because he used to live there and did work for the owner. Gross told jurors he took the back entrance to the mobile home community and waited in a field for further info. When he heard CPR was being performed via radio chatter, he drove further into the mobile home community and located two civilians performing CPR on Officer Buechner. Gross testified he pulled Buechner out of the ditch to get them on a flat surface, took over CPR, and called for backup.
Officer Gross’ body cam footage was played for the jury. They saw the desperate acts of the civilians and officers and heard the anguish in their voices as they unsuccessfully worked to get Buechner’s pulse back. Jurors saw the officer, husband, and father of two carried to a patrol unit, then transported to an ambulance.
Assistant District Attorney Clay Thomas began the prosecution’s opening statements by sharing Officer Buechner’s last words “Lord, please help me” with the jury. Later on day one of testimony Officer Will Buechner’s body cam was played for jurors. They saw Buechner running towards the threat to help his fellow officers after he heard the gunshots. Quickly, Buechner encounters Wilkes who fires several shots. Officer Buechner falls into a drainage ditch. You can hear him gasp and struggle to breathe as he whispers, “Lord, please help me.” The moans and gasps continue, indicating Buechner was Agonal breathing, a natural reflex when the brain is not getting the oxygen it needs to survive. Agonal breathing is a sign a person is near death.
“He died in the line of duty because of the intentional conduct of one person, the defendant. Grady Wayne Wilkes,” Thomas told the jury.
Wilkes’ defense team doesn’t dispute he pulled the trigger but claims he’s not guilty because of mental disease or defect. Defense attorney William Whatley told jurors in opening statements Wilkes suffers from a laundry list of mental health issues including PTSD, disassociation, and hypervigilance.
“Wayne, at the time of the shooting, was suffering from bipolar disorder, long-standing depression exacerbated by excess alcohol use,” Whatley told jurors.
Prosecutors say in May 2019, Auburn officers met with a female victim who reported Wilkes, her live-in boyfriend, and child’s father, had choked her and threatened to kill her if she didn’t leave. Tuesday, the former girlfriend testified before jurors and said Wilkes was a heavy drinker, who played video games and rarely left the house while she was busy attending school to become a veterinarian. She testified the two were staying in separate bedrooms and she was trying to break up with Wilkes, but he refused to leave. She said before that night Wilkes had never physically harmed her.
“He pushed me to the bed and began choking me. He was yelling in my face so hard he was spitting on me. He then yelled at me to get out or he would kill me,” the girlfriend testified.
The girlfriend left, hid outside, and called her mom. The mother called the police. Officer William Buechner, Officer Webb Sistrunk, Officer Evan Elliott, and Officer Ron Askelson responded. After a discussion with the police, the girlfriend agreed it would be best to stay somewhere else for the night. The officers were going to speak with Wilkes, so the girlfriend could safely pack a suitcase. According to testimony when officers got to the mobile home, Officer Buechner was positioned at the backdoor. Officers Elliott, Sistrunk, and Askelson were at the front porch. Elliott knocked on the door. Wilkes opened it, dressed and armed for battle.
“Mr. Wilkes was standing there wearing a helmet, body armor, and bearing an AR-style rifle,” Elliott testified.
The jury saw what happened next via Officer Elliott’s body cam. You can hear the officer knock on the door, then you hear the alarm in his voice as he sees Wilkes. Elliott says, “Hey Bud. Hey. Hey. Hey Bud. Hey Bud. Hold up. Hey Bud. Hey!! Get Back!!! (Gunshots). Officer hit. Officer Hit.”
Several hours later testimony reveals Wilkes was located some distance away from where the shooting happened. He later took investigators to a creek bed near Interstate 85 where he had stashed the rifle used in the shooting. Wilkes was arrested and charged with one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder.
The defense says Wilkes is not guilty and not guilty because of mental disease and defects. The defense will have the opportunity to call witnesses after prosecutors rest their case. We do not know if Wilkes will testify in his defense.
If Wilkes is found guilty by jurors, it will be up to the same jury to recommend his ultimate sentence. Prosecutors are pushing for death. The defense is working for a not guilty verdict, or to spare Wilkes’ life.