Superior Court Judge Amy Mead delivers an instruction in court on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, as she presides over the case of a man charged with killing his friend. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Superior Court Judge Amy Mead delivers an instruction in court on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, as she presides over the case of a man charged with killing his friend. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Yakutat killing trial begins with statements and witnesses

Attorneys for both sides are establishing the timeline of events.

The trial of a man accused of killing a man in Yakutat in 2018 began in earnest Thursday morning as the defense and prosecution presented their opening statements and witnesses began to testify.

John Lee Stapleton, 50, faces charges of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of John Fergerson.

“We’re here today because of the choices the defendant made, the choice to stab his friend John Fergerson three separate times,” said district attorney Angie Kemp, leading the prosecution, in her opening statement. “The trip to Alaska was meant to be the trip of a lifetime. It was meant to be a dream vacation.”

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Stapleton and Fergerson, along with Tracy Sitherwood and her father Dennis Sitherwood, traveled to Yakutat that October to fish and to give Fergerson a chance to return to the state he had been born in but had not returned to for years, according to both prosecuting and defense attorneys.

“John Fergerson’s dream of a lifetime was to come to Alaska and go fishing,” said public defender Eric Hedland, leading the defense, in his opening statement. “(Fergerson) and Mr. Stapleton had worked together for years on the Washington state ferry.”

Witnesses began testifying Thursday, including Dennis and Tracy Sitherwood and Daniel Schimelpfenig, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employee who knew the Sitherwoods when they had lived in Yakutat and was hosting them on their visit.

Dennis met Fergerson for the first time before the group departed from Washington to Alaska, in the car with Stapleton as they drove around getting fishing kit for the trip. Dennis Sitherwood said Fergerson and he talked about both being in the Army.

Stapleton was drinking, according to Dennis Sitherwood, and became contentious with him from the backseat as they drove around while Fergerson drive, insulting him and questioning Sitherwood’s masculinity. He had very recently broken up with Stacy Sitherwood, Dennis Sitherwood said.

Despite reservations, Dennis Sitherwood said, he went on the trip. Tracy Sitherwood warned Stapleton to control his drinking and be on his best behavior via text before they departed, Dennis Sitherwood said.

The group arrived in Yakutat, and had a first day of fishing in Schimelpfenig’s skiff that Friday, according to Dennis Sitherwood. Tracy Sitherwood stayed behind.

The next day, Fergerson went to the harbor to check the weather, but a brewing storm dashed any thoughts of going out that day.

“Some days are not worth the risk,” Kemp said. “Weather prevented them from fishing that day.”

Instead, Fergerson and Stapleton, along with Tracy Sitherwood, hung out around town and did some drinking, according to Kemp.

“The defendant began the day drinking and continued to drink throughout the day,” Kemp said. “When the travelers returned, they were drinking vodka, they were drinking beer, they were drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonades. Everyone was drinking.”

Dennis Sitherwood went to bed early, as was his habit, he said Dennis Sitherwood said he was awoken in the early hours of the morning by repeated banging on the door and the reflection of police lights.

“Dan and I went to bed,” Dennis Sitherwood said. “The next thing I knew, I heard banging on the back door of the house. I looked on the couch to see if Tracy was asleep on the couch, and Tracy wasn’t there, and I looked through the blinds and there were all these lights flashing.”

The police had been summoned by Tracy Sitherwood, who Stapleton had told to call 911 when she walked in on him around 3 a.m. administering CPR to Fergerson, who was lying on the floor of the residence they were staying in, nonresponsive. All officers arriving at the scene knew from the call was that a man was nonresponsive- — cause unknown. They were never able to get a pulse, Kemp said, and Fergerson was declared dead at the scene.

“Officers were also trying to understand why Mr. Fergerson collapsed and had injuries to his chest,” Kemp said. “As part of their attempts to understand, they spoke to the defendant.”

Stapleton was detained at this point, handcuffed while officers attempted to assess and resuscitate Fergerson.

“When they pulled up his shirt to apply the defibrillator they noticed what they saw was at least one stab wound,” Kemp said.

Fergerson had three stab wounds, Hedland said: one to the left ventricle, one to the lung, and one to the heart, killing him. The Alaska State Medical Examiner said all three stab wounds were neat, horizontal, and between 1.75 and 2 inches deep, Hedland said.

Stapleton pleaded with officers to save Fergerson’s life, Hedland said, calling Fergerson his best friend.

“The Yakutat (Borough) Police Department tends not to handle homicide cases. That’s why they called the (Alaska Bureau of Investigation,” Hedland said. “The first investigative act the troopers did was to speak to Stapleton. He agreed to talk.”

The trial will continue on Friday.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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