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Montello shooting case

Montello shooter continues on to trial in district court

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Ronald Culley preliminary hearing 1-23-14

Alleged shooter Ronald Culley listens as victim Lester Alderman testifies Thursday in Elko Justice Court during a preliminary hearing.

ELKO — After enduring accusations and rumors, Lester Alderman testified Thursday that he gave his tormentor two choices: let’s fight it out or be friends.

Seconds later, he said, Ronald Culley shot him in the ankle outside the Cowboy Bar in Montello.

In relation to the shooting, Culley is charged with battery with the use of a deadly weapon, or, alternatively, battery with a deadly weapon resulting in substantial bodily harm. At the conclusion of a preliminary hearing Thursday, Justice of the Peace Mason Simons bound over Culley to district court on both counts.

Alderman, Deputy District Attorney Tyler Ingram’s primary witness — who entered the courtroom on crutches — testified that on Dec. 20 Culley accused the victim of stealing a pair of coveralls, which escalated to a confrontation outside the bar and ended with the victim suffering a gunshot wound through his ankle and foot. The spent bullet was found inside his boot, according to Alderman.

The victim said his relationship with Culley was bad from the beginning.

In October, Alderman said, a mutual friend helped arrange an email correspondence between himself and Culley, whom he hadn’t met before. Alderman, living at the time in Salt Lake City and in need of work, agreed to move to Montello and do a few odd jobs around Culley’s house. In exchange, Alderman said, he was to receive room and board plus $100 after the jobs were complete.

Alderman said he did electrical work, hung sheetrock, installed a window, cut wood and other general work — all without pay.

“I never did complete the job because every time I turned around he was changing his mind,” he said.

In addition, Alderman said Culley didn’t uphold his end of the bargain because he didn’t provide enough food. Alderman said he had to supplement his meals with food from the food bank. And on at least one occasion, Alderman gave food to Culley, the victim testified.

During his stay, Alderman said, Culley began accusing him of stealing stuff, namely a bottle of tequila, a bottle of Jägermeister and food.

The victim continued living with Culley, however, doing small jobs, until a law enforcement officer arrived one day — sometime after Thanksgiving — and arrested Alderman. He had a failure-to-appear warrant out of West Wendover related to a 2004 DUI charge, he said. When Alderman returned to Montello from his stint in jail, Culley had removed the latch on the door to the trailer he was living in.

At that moment, Alderman said, he decided he was done living on Culley’s property, and so he moved in with and worked for a Montello resident Alderman only knew as “Russ.” Later Alderman moved in with another man from Montello.

On Dec. 20 — Alderman’s 58th birthday — he went to the Cowboy Bar with Russ and drank a couple of draft beers and a shot of alcohol. Culley came and sat at the bar near the two men and asked about coveralls Alderman had been using, which belonged to the defendant. Alderman said he told Culley they were at Russ’ house and he would return them the next day.

Later that evening, Culley began to leave the bar, and he motioned with his head that he wanted to talk to Alderman outside, the victim told the court.

Vexed, Alderman met Culley outside the bar, ready to put an end to Culley’s accusations either by talking through them and reconciling as friends or fighting “mano-a-mano,” he said. The victim said he knew Culley packed a gun around with him. He asked Culley to stow the gun in the defendant’s home next door to the bar, so it wouldn’t be used if the confrontation led to a physical fight.

“I said, ‘Go check your gun,’” Alderman told the court.

Alderman said Culley fired the first shot and said, “I checked my gun.” The victim saw a bullet hit the ground near his foot. He described himself as shocked and dumbfounded. Then two more shots were fired from Culley’s .38-caliber revolver, with the final bullet hitting his foot, he said. Alderman made his way back into the bar where he received some help bandaging up his wound and someone called 9-1-1, he said.

Sheriff’s deputies arrived about 40 minutes later and found Culley at his home. He surrendered without incident and was booked into jail.

In the defense’s closing statements, no denial was made that Culley shot Alderman.

Defense attorney Gary Woodbury said under Nevada law Culley was in the right to use deadly force against Alderman. In an interview recorded by sheriff’s detective Billy Hood, Culley said he was walking home that night when Alderman followed him outside and berated him. Culley emphatically claimed he was only trying to defend himself against Alderman’s aggression.

“I told him, ‘Get back, Lester. Get away from me,’ but he wouldn’t do it. He just kept coming after me. So I pulled the gun out and I fired one, two. But he wouldn’t back off,” Culley said on tape. “… It was self-defense.”

The first two shots were clearly warnings, Woodbury argued, but because Alderman didn’t back away or leave, Culley had no choice. (Alderman testified he was in the process of turning around when the final shot was fired.)

“From my point of view, no rational jury will ever convict him of this crime,” Woodbury said.

Montello resident Leena Carroll, who was called as a state witness, testified to hearing three gunshots on Dec. 20 from the back yard of her home, down the road from the Cowboy Bar. She said the first two shots happened in rapid fire, then a short pause, then the third shot rang out. (Alderman said the first shot was followed by a 10-second pause, then the last two shots were made in rapid fire.)

“I heard him say, ‘I got it,’” Carroll said. Although she couldn’t see the shooter very well because of darkness, she said the voice and mannerisms matched Culley’s.

Simons ruled that the state’s evidence met the “slight or marginal” standard required to bind over a defendant to trial, but emphasized the word “slight.”

Woodbury also argued for a motion to reduce bail or release Culley on his own recognizance on condition that Culley stay in Elko, abstain from alcohol and surrender additional firearms. Originally, Culley was arrested for attempted murder and held on $100,000 bail. The D.A.’s office never filed an attempted murder charge, but Culley’s bail remained at $100,000.

The prosecution argued against lowering Culley’s bail Thursday, on account of the welfare and safety of the people of Montello.

Ingram read seemingly angry selections from a stack of papers that he said were pulled from an online “blog or chatroom” allegedly written by Culley, in which the defendant referenced making the news by striking back at his enemies with firearms, including a sentence about shooting someone in the foot.

“‘I yearn for the day when I can go to the signs at each end of town and replace the M’s with an R, and replace the ‘Population of 300 plus 1’ with a ‘1’’” Ingram read.

Culley is known around Montello as “Ron Tello.” Ingram interpreted Culley’s online remarks as a wish to wipe out everyone in town, leaving only himself.

Woodbury conceded Culley’s writings were odd, but he argued they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

“This nonsensical talk … is this defendant in a nutshell,” Woodbury said to the judge. “You’ve sat here all day and listened to him and he just yaps. But there is no threat to it at all.”

Simons sided with Ingram and ordered Culley’s bail to remain the same.

Woodbury, sitting closest to Culley throughout the hearing, was the recipient of most of the defendant’s “yaps.”

At one point in the prosecution’s direct examination of the victim, Woodbury — whom Culley simply referred to as “counselor” — asked the judge for a moment, during which he told his client to stop whispering at him so he could hear the witness’ testimony.

Even after Woodbury reprimanded him for talking, Culley maintained a noticeable presence in the courtroom with nonverbal gestures and facial expressions. Culley frequently looked back at the few people sitting in the courtroom gallery and cocked an eyebrow, smiled, or furrowed his forehead. The defendant fidgeted throughout the trial, at times craned his neck to see evidence, and made exaggerated head nods in agreement or wild head shakes in rebuff, depending on that moment’s testimony.

Before the hearing began and during breaks, Culley bantered with anyone in earshot. At various points he told a lawyer joke, tried to bum a cigarette, claimed the Beatles were merely John Lennon’s first back-up band, and made sure the Free Press knew not only his “Ron Tello” moniker but also its proper spelling.

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