Trial Begins for Man Accused of Shooting Up Police Cruiser

Trent Esch

The trial for a 36–year–old Broken Bow man accused of shooting up an empty deputy sheriff's patrol car last March began in Custer County Monday.

The prosecution has painted a picture of Trent Esch as a disgruntled criminal with a personal vendetta against the chief deputy sheriff of Custer County, but the defense argues that it's actually the other way around, and that authorities are the ones targeting Esch -- without any concrete physical evidence.

Police say Esch went to Custer County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dan Spanel's home around 8:50 p.m. on March 18 of last year, and fired at least 11 rounds into Spanel's parked police cruiser, while he and his wife sat inside 20 feet away watching TV.

Custer County Deputy Attorney Glenn Clark says Esch was upset with Spanel over a prior arrest for violating the terms of his probation after being charged with three different DWIs at the same time.

"He was charged with three different DWIs – all pending at the same time," Clark said. "A condition of the bond was he test. [The deputy] went over and asked him to test, he said ‘Yea, I'll be right down to the sheriff's office,' he never showed up. Found out he went home, the deputy went to his home, he refused to give the test...and he was arrested. And we know that didn't make him very happy with the deputy."

But the defense argued in their opening statements Monday that Esch was asleep at home seven miles outside of Broken Bow at 8:25 that night -- 25 minutes before Spanel's car was blasted with bullets.

And that not only would it have been impossible for him to make it there in time to fire those shots, but there is absolutely no physical evidence linking him to the scene of the crime -- no fingerprints on the bullet casings, footprints, tire tracks or DNA evidence. And no one saw Esch or his vehicle parked at the scene.

On top of that, Esch's attorney, David Jorgensen, says that because of his client's prior run–ins with the law, his car is equipped with an ignition lock device, and that the data from that night shows Esch's car was never started -- or even attempted to be started.

Furthermore, a cigarette butt found on the scene near the bullet casings was sent to a crime lab for testing and came up negative for Esch's DNA.

But the prosecution says Esch had motive to commit the crime, and even confessed to three different people. He also purchased two firearms just days before the shooting -- a .22-caliber pistol and a .223 assault rifle -- the same gun used that night.

A forensic scientist with the Nebraska State Patrol testified that the markings on the bullet casings and fragments found on the scene match the markings made by Esch's rifle, saying that in his opinion, the shots were fired from that gun. But he also said he can't rule out the possibility that another rifle fired those shots.

Esch is charged with felony criminal mischief and using a weapon to commit a felony. He's being held at the Custer County Jail with no bond.

If convicted of both counts, Esch faces up to 55 years in prison.

The trial continues Tuesday morning and is expected to last through Wednesday.