A Yakutat police officer who was one of the first on-scene at a 2018 killing in the small borough testified today in trial.
Officer John Waldron, along with another officer, were the first to respond to an emergency call that a man was on the floor, unresponsive, the early morning of Oct. 14, 2018.
The defendant, John Lee Stapleton, 50, is being tried for the killing of John Fergerson, 61. Stapleton is charged with two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree murder. He faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted. The minimum sentence for first-degree murder is 30 years imprisonment, under Alaska statute.
“At the time, they basically said they had a person that collapsed, and then the phone went dead,” Waldron testified. “It was a female voice. I didn’t recognize the voice.”
Waldron, who said he began as a village public safety officer and has worked in several departments around the state, was coming off his shift when the call came in, but rapidly reversed course, leaving his house and arriving at the residence in minutes, while Officer Paul Pajak came from another area.
“Basically, I was looking at it as a medical call. We’re all first responder, (automated external defibrillators), CPR certified,” Waldron said. “We get there and start assistance before the ambulance gets there.”
The 911 line received another call from the woman who called, Tracy Sitherwood, this time more urgently, Waldron said.
“When I walked in, (Pajak) told me (Fergerson) did not have a pulse, and to get the AED,” Waldron said. “I went out, got the AED, and came right back. At this point, he lifted his hands, and they were covered in a red substance.”
This shifted the nature of the response, Waldron said.
“(Pajak) lifted Mr. Fergerson’s shirt and there was blood underneath, and (Pajak) told me to take over CPR, which I did. At that point, he started asking questions,” Waldron said. “What I observed, I saw what I believed to be a stab wound. We both realized that if this wasn’t a death, it was a possible assault one or two. We started securing the two people in there because we didn’t know at the time what was happening.”
Both Stapleton and Sitherwood were detained and taken to the police station, Waldron said. A recording on the scene of another officer asking Stapleton why he has blood on his mouth was played in court. Stapleton sounds muffled and woozy in the recording.
A blood test approximately an hour later gave Stapleton’s blood alcohol content as .282, Waldron said. Sitherwood registered a .228, Waldron said.
The Alaska State Troopers took over the investigation, as happens sometimes when there are crimes that take more time than patrol officers may have to give, said state trooper Andrew Adams, who has been with the troopers for over 20 years, as he testified after Waldron.
“The first actual investigative step was talking to Mr. Stapleton,” Adams testified.
Adams, who flew to Yakutat to investigate the case, said they also interviewed Sitherwood before investigating the scene of the stabbing death.
“We want to look for a couple of different things. We want to take as many photographs as we can before we move things,” Adams said. “One of the last things we do at a scene is typically move the body.”
The prosecution introduced a number of photographs from the crime scene of the environment around the residence and Fergerson as he was found and pronounced dead. Fergerson’s body remained there on the floor surrounded by his cut-away clothes and leavings from attempts to resuscitate him for about a day while investigators arrived, Waldron said.
“We were able to see three distinct stab wounds in his upper left chest. The medical examiner is typically going to do a much more thorough medical exam, but that’s days later,” Adams said. “They’re the trained professionals in telling how someone died.”
Adams will continue to testify on Wednesday morning.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.