BILLINGS – A jury convened for an inquest into the May shooting death of a teenager determined the shooter, a friend of the victim, committed justifiable homicide and ruled the act was not criminal.
The coroner’s inquest into the death of MacKeon “Mackey” Schulte, 15, began Wednesday in the Yellowstone County Courthouse, overseen by Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Jones.
Deputy county attorneys Christopher Morris and Laura Watson prosecuted the inquest, which was requested by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito.
Seth James Culver, 17, killed Schulte after he and another teen went to wake Culver as a prank at about 2:30 a.m. on May 17. When the victim knocked on Culver’s window, Culver shot him through the window, apparently mistaking him for an intruder.
Twito said this type of inquest is rarely used by county attorneys in Montana. He could not remember a time when his office had used it except when required by the state as in the case of police shootings and jail deaths.
Twito said the dynamics of this case were complicated enough to justify the inquest. He said it also allowed him to be open with the public on this case. The debate about gun control did not enter into his call for the inquest, he said.
Twito could decline the inquest’s findings and still prosecute the case.
Schulte’s mother, Valerie Carr Traeholt, and Culver’s father, Len Culver, spoke briefly after the ruling. Traeholt said she was not disappointed by the jury’s findings.
“I’ve always supported Seth, and I will continue to support Seth in that decision,” Traeholt said. “I have to because you can’t let your emotions get away from what’s prudent and lawful.”
“It was an accident, it was an accident,” she said. “It was clearly an accident.”
The second teen, who watched Culver shoot Schulte through the window of Culver’s house on Alderson Avenue, testified Wednesday that he and Schulte had gone to the house as a joke.
The teen, who was 15 at the time and isn’t being identified, said when they arrived, Schulte tapped on Culver’s bedroom window and when that got no attention he placed a cinder block on the ground and stepped on it, putting him at eye level with the window. Schulte was shot almost instantly.
Schulte fell back and said, “He shot me,” the teen testified.
Culver’s video interview with officers several hours after the shooting was the only testimony provided by Culver, as he was advised by counsel not to participate in the inquest.
The interview was conducted by Billings Police Detective Jeff Chartier.
In the interview, Culver repeatedly told Chartier if he’d known it was “Mackey” at the window he would have put the revolver down.
Culver said he feared for his life when he was awakened by a noise that night. In the video, he told the officer he’d heard a noise at his window and pulled out the revolver his father had given him that he kept under his mattress. He pointed the gun with one hand while on his knees facing the window.
“I see this face pop up into the window,” Culver said. “And an arm raising around. … I saw a tree branch in the background, and I was just hallucinating because I was so tired. I said s—t, I aimed right at him with the gun and pulled the trigger.”
Culver called 9-1-1, telling the operator he shot Schulte, and he needed immediate medical attention.
“You think Mack knew you were going to shoot?” Chartier asked in the interview.
“If he did, he wouldn’t have banged on that window,” Culver said.
Culver described watching blood coming out of Schulte’s mouth and hearing his other friend tell Schulte it was going to be alright. Culver said he knew it wasn’t.
“Did you watch him die?” Chartier asked.
Culver said he saw Schulte not breathing when the body was taken away.
If he could go back to that night, Culver said he would have called out before he shot, or put the gun down, or done anything to have prevented Schulte’s death.
“I wish I could bring him back,” Culver said.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Bennett testified that Schulte was shot in the upper lip area. The bullet was fired at nearly a horizontal angle and traveled front to back into the neck, without striking the skull, so Schulte had no brain damage.
“Could he have talked? Yes. Could he have moved? Yes,” Bennett said. “Could he have been alert right after being shot? Yes.”
Bennett ruled the cause of death to be a “gunshot wound to his face” and said the area where Schulte was shot had lots of blood vessels, including the jaw area, which would have bled. Schulte would have lost circulation, and Bennett said Schulte had breathed blood into his lungs.
Bennett said there were tiny abrasions on Schulte’s face and arm where the window glass shattered and left abrasions.
Morris said he instructed the seven members of the jury to answer four questions in their verdict: whether Schulte’s death was either deliberate, mitigated, negligent or justifiable homicide. Each definition carries a different maximum sentence.
Twito said his office will determine whether charges will be sought, and he will be speaking with the two attorneys involved on Thursday. He said his reasoning behind prosecuting or not will be written out for public scrutiny.