With the Dennis Klingbeil murder trial now underway neither side is arguing whether Klingbeil shot and killed his wife, but the defense has said the state cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt he did so as a premeditated, first-degree act.
Donna Domonkos, one of Klingbeil’s two attorneys, said in her opening remarks her client accidentally shot his wife of 43 years, Donna Klingbeil.
“He brought the gun against his own head but did not do it,” Domonkos said. “When he brought the gun down the gun accidentally discharged.”
Mike Blonigen, Park County special prosecutor, is presenting a case on Klingbeil he said will show Dennis’ experience with firearms, threats leading up to the shooting and an indifference to Donna Klingbeil’s welfare after performing the act.
“This was a deliberate act of murder,” Blonigen said. “It was no reckless accident.”
Courtroom in session
The trial moved into full swing Tuesday as the first witnesses were called to the stand. Most notable of the bunch were Park County Sheriff Scott Steward, sheriff’s deputy Phil Johnson, Mark Klingbeil and Brad Lanken.
Domonkos and Rives White, Klingbeil’s other attorney, touched on Dennis Klingbeil’s cooperation with his wife in settling their ongoing trust disputes, a contentious issue up to the night of the shooting.
“He said, ‘Whatever she wants, give it to her,’” Domonkos said.
But even more central to their focus Tuesday was criticizing the Park County Sheriff’s Office and Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigations’ handling of the crime scene after the August 2018 alleged murder in Wapiti.
“A lot of assumptions have been made in this investigation,” Domonkos said. “Everything (investigators) did was to provide what they thought … They’ve been focused on it one way and didn’t look at any other alternative.”
The defense called into question gunpowder residue found on the murder weapon and Donna Klingbeil’s bloody shirt not being tested. An additional pistol was also found in the house near the crime scene a few days after the initial investigation closed. The defense also seemed to raise the possibility that the discharged bullet that killed Donna had been inadvertently moved from its original resting spot.
“Don’t you think your department could have done a better job with this investigation?” Rives asked Johnson.
Johnson did not agree, but said no investigation is perfect.
“I suppose that’s true with any investigation,” he said.
Indifference or no hope?
Domonkos said in her opening statements the defense intends to prove that Dennis accidentally shot his wife. Through the first two days she relied on the ambiguity of the bullet’s first resting location to try and prove the point scientifically.
Blonigen pushed in a different direction, fueling his 27-minute-long opening argument around the fact Klingbeil never called 911 after the shooting, and his only instructions to Mark Klingbeil were to come take care of his yellow lab dog.
“She is dying over there and you’re worried about the dog,” Blonigen said.
Domonkos countered this statement and said Dennis Klingbeil had a stepson who committed suicide and then had his body eaten by his dog before he was discovered.
“He was concerned about what would happen to Donna,” Domonkos said.
Investigators said when first arriving at the house they saw a slight twitch of the finger from Donna Klingbeil. She died about two hours later, after being airlifted to Billings.
Dennis Klingbeil attempted to commit suicide after the shooting, ingesting a large amount of painkillers and sleep medicine.
“He didn’t think he’d be in this courtroom,” Blonigen said.
Blonigen played for the courtroom five different recorded phone calls the defendant made to Mark Klingbeil in the month after the shooting from the Park County Detention Center. In the snippets of audio played before the court, Klingbeil expressed a hazy memory about the night of the shooting and confusion for how he could have shot Donna, but never expressed remorse about the loss of his wife.
Dennis Klingbeil abruptly provided a clear version of events in a call made Sept. 16, 2018.
“It was an accident,” Klingbeil told his biological son in the phone call. “I had the gun in my lap, then I started thinking and pulled the hammer back up … like I was dry firing and the gun went off.”
Trouble in the wings
Lanken, Donna Klingbeil’s biological son and Dennis’s stepson, spoke on the “unorthodox” marriage the two kept for many years.
“They would go to separate residences to sleep,” Lanken said. “But it seemed to work for them.”
Lanken said around November 2017 issues surrounding the couple’s living trust started to bubble to the surface and tensions only worsened as the months went on.
“I would have to say there was a breakdown in trust, then communication and then came animosity,” Lanken said.
Three documents related to the trust sat on the couple’s dining room table, about 5 feet from where the Klingbeils were found laying the night of the alleged murder.
Domonkos acknowledged the financial disputes the two were having but said things had taken a turn for the better in the days leading up to the incident.
“All the fuss over these deeds was taken care of,” Domonkos said.
Domonkos said when Donna Klingbeil discovered some documents still not to her liking the night of Aug. 5, 2018, she fell into a rage that never was resolved, threatening divorce and hurling insults at Dennis. She tested for a .21 blood alcohol content during the autopsy.
“When booze is involved there are certain things that should never be discussed,” Domonkos said.
Judging a jury
The court spent more than half of Monday selecting a jury.
Both parties quizzed the potential jurors on if they could keep an open mind to Dennis Klingbeil testifying, a possible double-edged sword.
“It’s darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” White explained. “He’s saving his hide or has something to hide.”
After it seemed like all 14 members had been picked, it was revealed after returning from lunch that one of the committed jurors was “distressed” according court staff, and could no longer serve.
The 26 still-eligible members of the jury pool were then contacted to return to the courthouse, from which three were picked for the now 16-person jury.