Two new prosecution witnesses to testify in federal firearms case
It's Round 2 for Erik Otterbeck.
Otterbeck's first trial on a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm ended in October with a hung jury. This trial, however, includes at least two new witnesses who support the prosecution's case, including a former methamphetamine cook whose Bitterroot Valley lab got Otterbeck in trouble in the first place.
Even so, Otterbeck's second trial started Tuesday with the same element of mystery that bedeviled the first trial. Jurors heard a line of interesting facts about a rifle, a car and a January 2003 raid on a meth lab, but they'll be on their own to connect the dots when they finally start to deliberate the case.
"At some point," Otterbeck's attorney, Brian Smith, told the jury during his opening statement, "you'll ask yourself, 'Why am I here?' "
Here's the problem: Otterbeck was arrested on Jan. 13, 2003, five days after Leo James Taylor Jr. was arrested after a raid on a methamphetamine lab at Taylor's home. Otterbeck was one of a handful of alleged Taylor accomplices, and like his co-defendants, he pleaded guilty in state District Court to a lesser role in the meth lab.
Because Otterbeck had a previous felony conviction, he also was charged in U.S. District Court with being a felon in possession of a firearm. That's the charge at issue now.
However, in an effort to ensure a fair trial for Otterbeck, the specifics of his drug case can't be discussed at the current trial. That leaves jurors to draw their own conclusions about precisely how Otterbeck's life intersected those involved in the meth case.
The specific issue in the case is whether Otterbeck, on the January day he was arrested, possessed a lever-action, .30.30-caliber rifle. The gun, if the prosecution's witnesses are to be believed, was stored in a car parked along an alley near Otterbeck's Darby home.
Sensing that he was about to be arrested in the meth case, Otterbeck allegedly asked a friend, Louis Mendibles, to pick the gun up from the car and store it for a while. Mendibles testified Tuesday that he picked the gun up from the car on the day of Otterbeck's arrest and kept it at his home until he heard that Darby Marshal Larry Rose was looking for the gun.
He then turned the gun over to Rose, who passed it on to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Mendibles also testified that he'd seen Otterbeck hunt with the same rifle on the opening day of hunting season in October 2002.
Taylor himself testified Tuesday. He is awaiting sentencing on federal convictions stemming from the meth raid, and he told the jury that he'd seen Otterbeck with the same rifle during the 2002 hunting season.
"Yeah, I remember that one," Taylor said as he looked at the rifle.
In fact, Taylor said, he'd once lectured his friend on the nuances of felons and federal firearms laws.
In his cross-examinations Tuesday, Smith repeatedly questioned the prosecution's witnesses about their own criminal problems, as part of an effort to undercut their testimonies.
The trial continues Wednesday in the Russell Smith Courthouse in Missoula.
Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or 370-3330, or at email@example.com