Jamie Sanford was merely "driving around" with her best friend, Timothy Jon Nelson, on a Saturday night last September when she asked him to swing by another friend's place in West Duluth.
Sanford just wanted to pick up some methamphetamine and visit briefly with Christopher Floyd Boder, she told a jury Wednesday.
But the quick stop would take a tragic turn, leading to an unexpected robbery attempt, a fatal gunshot wound and a murder trial with Sanford as the key witness.
The 27-year-old Duluth woman was the first called to the stand in Boder's trial on a charge of aiding and abetting the intentional second-degree murder of Nelson on Sept. 22, 2019.
Sanford testified that she was spending time with Nelson, 33, when she arranged via text message to meet with Boder, arriving near his residence on 62nd Avenue West shortly after midnight. She said she had Nelson park around the corner, roughly a block away, while she walked to Boder's house.
Sanford told jurors that she and Boder got in his car and drove about two blocks. They were chatting in the car when Nelson unexpectedly arrived on the scene, brandishing what appeared to be a gun.
“It happened so fast,” Sanford testified. “He was grabbing (Boder) through the window. I was yelling, ‘No, stop!'"
Nelson, who did not know Boder, was apparently unaware of who was in the car, Sanford said. She testified that he was grabbing at Boder's collar and yelling something to the effect of "give me everything you've got" before Boder was able to open the door, get out and punch Nelson in the face, prompting him to leave.
“It caught me off guard," she said. "I didn’t know why he did it.”
Sanford said she accompanied Boder back to his house, where they were joined by his roommate, James Michael Peterson. One of the the men brought out a shotgun, which Peterson held in the back seat.
Sanford testified that she called Nelson in an attempt to peacefully resolve the situation, negotiating for the men to return to the scene. She said she wanted to accompany them, but Boder and Peterson decided to drop her off at a Proctor gas station. Peterson, meanwhile, made a comment about contacting Nelson's parents so they’d “know where the body is going to be," Sanford told jurors.
Sanford said she quickly called Nelson outside the gas station, but he reassured her that he'd be fine.
“I was scared," he said. "I felt like I made a big mistake by telling them where he was.”
It was around 4 a.m. that Sanford said Peterson contacted her on Facebook, saying he was scared and needed to leave town.
“He said (Nelson) kept lunging at them and that he had no other option than to pull the trigger," Sanford said of her conversation with Peterson.
Nelson, who was found sitting in his truck with a gunshot wound, was quickly pronounced dead. Former Duluth police officer Tim Crossman, one of the first on scene, testified that he found what appeared to be a flare gun sitting near an arm rest in the vehicle.
Three neighbors who testified Wednesday also stated that they heard some form of verbal altercation, followed by a gunshot. One described the confrontation as "something to do with drugs and/or guns and theft." Another said she heard a angry voice yell, "I know you've f---ing got it," before a more worried response of, "I don't have it; I don't have it."
But there were no direct witnesses to the shooting itself, attorneys on both sides told jurors.
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nate Stumme told panelists in his opening argument that surveillance video and forensic evidence would corroborate Sanford's account and prove Boder's involvement beyond a reasonable doubt.
Among other evidence, the prosecutor said jurors would hear about a rifle case seized from Boder's residence, along with ammunition that matched a spent cartridge recovered near Nelson's truck.
As he is charged with aiding and abetting Peterson, jurors could find Boder, 32, guilty of the crime without concluding that he personally shot Nelson.
“Timothy Nelson was a flawed person, just like us all, who nevertheless deserves a full measure of justice," Stumme said.
But defense attorney Jeremy Downs told jurors that they can't trust Sanford, who he described as "the only relevant witness for the state."
While Sanford has not been charged, Judge Leslie Beiers read a special instruction informing jurors that she can legally be considered an "accomplice." That means her testimony alone cannot support a conviction.
Downs told jurors that it was Peterson who shot Nelson. He indicated the defense isn't likely to call any witnesses, relying on an argument that the state has failed to prove Boder's involvement in the victim's death.
“You will see at the end of the trial that Mr. Stumme’s witnesses are actually witnesses in our case,” Downs said.
The trial is one of the first to be held at the St. Louis County Courthouse after a nearly six-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a modified courtroom, all parties and jurors are wearing masks, and witnesses are being asked to sanitize the stand as they leave.
Due to limited capacity, a handful of Boder and Nelson family members viewed the proceedings via a closed-circuit feed in another courtroom. The trial is expected to continue into early next week.