The opening arguments in the murder trial for Joseph Hotz painted a picture of a bloody, brutal scene allegedly brought on by a bad trip from psilocybin mushrooms
A jury of 11 women and three men began hearing evidence Tuesday morning in the trial that is expected to last the rest of the week. Hotz, 26, of Rushville is charged with first degree murder, attempt of a Class IA felony (attempted murder), four counts of use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony, one count of making terroristic threats and one count of attempted robbery.
Hotz was arrested Dec. 5, 2008, after allegedly attempting to break in to houses on King Street and threatening one of the residents. After his arrest, Chadron police officers found his roommate, Kenneth Pfeiffer, Jr., 22, dead in their home at 935 Shelton Street.
Doug Warner of the Attorney General’s Office took the jury through the events of the night as the state sees them in his opening statement. The evening began with a 911 call from Susan Jensen at 845 King just after 6 p.m. She reported that a man covered in blood was pounding on her door. A few minutes later, her neighbor Rolland Sayer called 911 reporting an intruder. The recording of the call will let the jury hear hacking sounds as Hotz attacks the bathroom door with a knife while Sayer is inside calling the police, Warner said.
Nancy Sayer, Rolland’s wife, was in the living room when Hotz entered their home. Warner said she heard the front door but assumed it was one of their grandchildren.
“Then around the corner appears a man in a blood-soaked shirt with two knives in his hands,” Warner said.
Hotz eventually left the Sayer home, and police responding to the 911 calls saw him leaving a yard and chased him down on Bordeaux Street. Warner said Hotz told officers the blood was from his roommate, and Officers Rick Hickstein and Mike Loutzenhizer went to the two men’s home to search for Pfeiffer. The officers entered the home through a broken patio door and found Pfeiffer laying in the hallway in a pool of blood and covered with wounds, Warner said.
The autopsy indicated Pfeiffer was stabbed 14 times and had 37 other incision wounds. Warner said four of the wounds would have been fatal, including one in the back, one in the neck, one in the back of the head and one in the shoulder. Hotz also had a stab wound in his leg, which according to Warner, Hotz said he did himself when he missed Pfeiffer with a dagger.
Warner said the two men each consumed one-eighth of an ounce of mushrooms and smoked marijuana the afternoon of Dec. 5, and Hotz began to think Pfeiffer was trying to kill him.
“He had a Darwinian realization of survival of the fittest,” Warner said. Hotz grabbed a knife, which Pfeiffer was able to wrestle away from him, but when Pfeiffer let him go, Hotz found another weapon, Warner said. He then apparently entered Pfeiffer’s bedroom where, from the disarray, it appears much of the attack occurred. Hotz then left the home and tried to get into the homes on King Street.
Warner said Hotz has admitted to using mushrooms before and to having a bad experience with the drugs, believing the CIA and ghosts were chasing him.
“This is someone who knew exactly the effects of these mushrooms … and now he’s saying he can’t be responsible,” Warner said.
Jeff Pickens of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy delivered the defense’s opening statement. He told the jury that witnesses will testify that Hotz and Pfeiffer were good friends and that Hotz was known as a peaceful person. Once the mushrooms began to take effect, Hotz first experienced spiritual hallucinations, Pickens said.
“But that changed, and he then became very paranoid, fearful – fearful of Kenny.”
With those thoughts in his head, Hotz threatened Pfeiffer with a knife, but the larger man was able to bear-hug him and get the knife away. Hotz then ran to the basement of the home looking for another weapon, Pickens said.
“He started to feel an evil sensation. He thought he was dying. He felt he had lost God’s love.”
Pickens said his client believed Pfeiffer was part of an elaborate plan to kill him and says he heard a voice saying “God can’t save you.” He also heard people surrounding the home and believed he was in a position of “kill or be killed.”
Hotz remembers charging into Pfeiffer’s bedroom, stabbing him once in the arm and once in the head.
“He told investigators otherwise it’s a blur,” Pickens said.
When he left the home the two men shared, he still believed he was in danger and went to the homes on King Street calling for help. Even when he was arrested, Pickens contends, his client thought the police were fake and were going to kill him. While in the patrol car, he was asked several times if he’s OK or hurt and he kept saying he was confused and didn’t know what was going on.
“You can hear him yelling and screaming for his friends. … He’s convinced he’s going to die. You can hear him begging and praying for mercy the way a dying person begs for mercy,” Pickens said, referring to the in-car recordings.
Hotz cooperated with investigators and told them everything he could remember, he added. Two psychiatric experts evaluated Hotz and reviewed the evidence for the defense and determined that Hotz suffered from a drug-induced psychosis and drug-induced delirium, Pickens said.
“At the time of these acts, Mr. Hotz’s mental capacity was impaired to such an extent that he neither knew right from wrong nor knew the nature of what he was doing.”
He used the mushrooms with the intention of having a good, spiritual experience, which he’d had on several occasions with the drug, Pickens said. The state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to kill Pfeiffer with deliberation and malice, he reminded the jury.
Hotz has pled not guilty by reason of insanity, a defense that his lawyers must prove by a “greater weight of evidence” that he did not know what he was doing the evening of Dec. 5.
“I am confident you will find Mr. Hotz not responsible by reason of insanity,” Pickens concluded.
By KERRI REMPP
November 3, 2009
The Chadron Record