'I was in shock': Testimony begins in second West Duluth murder trial
James Peterson is on trial for the death of Timothy Nelson, a 2019 case that has already resulted in one lengthy prison sentence. The defense claims he was not present for the shooting.
DULUTH — James Michael Peterson held a long-barreled gun in the back seat of his friend's car minutes before a 33-year-old man was gunned down in West Duluth three years ago, a key witness testified Monday.
Peterson also placed a phone call to the same witness a short time later to indicate that Timothy Jon Nelson had been shot after a confrontation stemming from an attempted robbery, according to testimony.
But was Peterson physically present at the scene when Nelson was shot in the abdomen early on the morning of Sept. 22, 2019?
That is the central issue for a Duluth jury to decide this week. A prosecutor maintains that Peterson was an active participant in the fatal encounter, while defense attorneys argue he had been dropped off before the shooting ever occurred.
Peterson, 41, is on trial in State District Court, charged with aiding and abetting intentional second-degree murder. It is not necessary for prosecutors to prove that he pulled the trigger — only that he played some role in assisting another person, resulting in Nelson's death.
A co-defendant, Christopher Floyd Boder, was already tried and convicted on the same charge, receiving a 25 ½-year prison term in 2020.
Tense final moments before shooting
By all accounts, the incident started when Nelson attempted to rob Boder with a BB or flare gun in the overnight hours of a dark, foggy Sunday. Jamie Sanford, who knew both men, testified that Nelson drove her to the scene so she could obtain drugs from Boder.
Rather than going directly to Boder's residence, 224 N. 62nd Ave. W., Sanford had Nelson drop her off roughly a block away. She said she walked to the house, and then got in Boder's car while he drove to a nearby dead-end location so they could smoke methamphetamine.
After 10 or 15 minutes, she testified, Nelson suddenly appeared and reached into the driver's-side window, grabbing Boder. The two men did not know each other and Nelson was apparently oblivious to the fact that Sanford, his friend, was in the passenger seat. A brief struggle ensued, with Nelson leaving empty handed after being punched by Boder, she testified.
"I was in shock," Sanford said. "It made me look bad. It made it look like I set the whole thing up."
But Sanford said Boder was oddly collected after the tense physical confrontation.
"He chuckled and said we'll take care of it," she recalled. "His reaction was way scarier than the whole situation. He was too calm."
The witness testified that Boder then drove back to his house, briefly entering the residence and reemerging armed with a long gun, followed by Peterson. Sanford said Peterson got in the back seat and held on to the weapon while Boder drove her to a Proctor gas station, where she had previously arranged to be picked up by another friend.
Sanford, now 29, told jurors of her attempts to broker a peaceful resolution. But she said Boder and Peterson did not seem interested, sharing a chuckle as they discussed finding a phone number for Nelson's parents "because someone would need to know where the body was."
"I called Tim right away and begged him to leave where he was parked," Sanford said. "I didn't think they were going to be calm about it and I didn't think it would turn out well."
Nelson was found with a gunshot wound in his truck on the 300 block of North 62nd Avenue West around 1:45 a.m. and was quickly pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Sanford testified that she received a Facebook message from Peterson around 4:30 a.m., asking her to give him a call.
"He was frantic," she recalled. "He stated he didn't mean for it to escalate the way it did, that Tim kept lunging at him, (Peterson) pulled the trigger and '(Nelson) had a pulse when we walked away.'"
Defense attorney Matthew Benfield raised questions about Sanford's credibility, getting her to acknowledge that methamphetamine use could have impaired her perception and memory of the events. He also noted that the witness waited until roughly 4 p.m. that day to go to the police and later sought favorable treatment in her own, unrelated criminal drug case.
But Sanford, who said she has been sober since March 2021, stood by her actions and said she has not gained from her cooperation with police.
"I just felt like it was the right thing to do," she testified. "So I went to tell the cops my side of the story, because there wouldn't be any justice otherwise. Tim didn't deserve to die."
Defense claims lack of evidence
Likewise, St. Louis County prosecutor Nate Stumme said Sanford actually could have placed herself in legal jeopardy by coming forward.
"Timothy Nelson is a flawed person, like all of us, who nonetheless is deserving of a full measure of justice," he told jurors in an opening statement earlier in the day.
Stumme said jurors can expect to hear testimony from neighbors, who reported a verbal confrontation followed by a gunshot, along with forensic evidence and surveillance videos that helped piece together the case and confirm Sanford's account.
He said Peterson gave a statement to police, outlining the route that was taken from the Proctor gas station back to West Duluth. Disputing Peterson's claim that he was dropped off, Stumme said the trip to the shooting scene took only about four minutes, with the car shown on surveillance video to be traveling roughly the speed limit.
Even a 30-second detour to the residence would have required the car to travel at an average speed of 84 mph along residential roads, the prosecutor said.
"The evidence will show that the timing of Mr. Peterson's version simply makes no sense," Stumme told jurors.
But defense attorney Mike Ryan was critical of the Duluth Police Department investigation, saying officers were too eager to accept Sanford's version of events.
"Missing from the information Ms. Sanford gave is anything about the shooting," he said. "Her story and knowledge ends at Minit Mart (in Proctor). But the police went all in on Jamie Sanford. They set about trying to confirm her story."
Ryan told jurors that a man getting into his car roughly 150 feet from the shooting scene saw Boder chasing after a small SUV, with no sign of the sedan Boder had been driving that evening. He said there was "more to the story," with "ample time" for Peterson to have returned to the residence prior to the shooting.
The defense attorney also contended investigators failed to properly analyze Sanford's phone to understand her activities that night.
"The state's evidence fails to show that Mr. Peterson was involved in the shooting," Ryan told jurors. "The state is asking you to guess what the actions entailed."
Judge Leslie Beiers is presiding over the trial, which is expected to continue through this week. A jury of eight women and seven men, including three alternates, was selected in two days of jury selection last week.