Farmer acquitted of assault count

Jury decides he didn't fire a shotgun at ex-employee but convicts him on lesser charge

March 02, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

After deliberating an hour and 45 minutes, a Baltimore County jury found an organic farmer not guilty yesterday of firing a shotgun at a former employee who told police that the farmer had accused him of having an affair with his fiancee.

James J. Dasher, 58, owner of a nonprofit farm in Worthington Valley that provides food for Maryland soup kitchens and homeless shelters, was acquitted of first-degree assault but convicted of reckless endangerment for accidentally discharging the weapon.

The misdemeanor carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Circuit Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski did not set a sentencing date last night.

Dasher, who paced the fifth-floor hallway of the County Courts Building and the empty courtroom for much of the jury's deliberations, clenched his folded hands and then rubbed his forehead as the jurors, 11 men and one woman, confirmed their verdicts just before 6 p.m.

"It was an accident," Dasher said in an interview outside the courtroom, referring to the shooting. "Obviously, they think that."

"I kind of wish that if things are an accident and nobody is harmed," he added, his voice trailing off. He turned and walked back to the doorway, where he had been huddled with the woman to whom he was engaged for 2 1/2 years until five days before the shooting in August 2005.

Dasher originally was charged with attempted murder for allegedly shooting at David L. Wonderlin, a carpenter who had cared for the Garden Harvest farm goats and dog, constructed fences and animal pens and did other jobs around the 100-acre property.

Prosecutor William B. Bickel dismissed the attempted-murder charge Monday before trial.

Wonderlin contended that Dasher had accused him of having an affair with his fiancee and fired two shots at him from a 12-guage, double-barreled shotgun - once in Dasher's farmhouse as Wonderlin waited for his final paycheck and a second time as he ran toward the woods and cornfields on the farm.

Wonderlin, 39, who was not injured, called 911 from his cell phone to report that he had been shot at, prompting police to descend upon the Mantua Mill Road farm.

The defense countered that the shooting was an accident, and that Wonderlin made up his account to win money in a lawsuit.

Dasher testified yesterday that he left Wonderlin sitting in his kitchen with a severance check and a 20-inch hunting knife he had given him as a gift while he went into the dining room to retrieve a second gift - a hammock - for his former employee.

Upon discovering that his fiancee had not boxed it up as requested, the farmer decided instead to give Wonderlin a Spanish shotgun that Dasher had hunted rabbits with that morning.

But as he walked toward the swinging door that divides the kitchen from the dining room, Dasher testified, a hook on his boots got caught up on his laces and he tripped. The gun went off.

"I could hear footsteps running through the house," Dasher told the jurors. "In a daze, I picked up the shotgun and went to the kitchen door."

He said he called for Wonderlin and, when there was no response, understood that he had fled. Dasher testified that he saw him outside and tried to explain that the gun went off accidentally.

"I said, `David, it's OK,'" Dasher testified. "But he took off running. Not running for your life, but running."

In their closing arguments, the prosecutor and defense attorney focused jurors' attention on what they said happened in the subsequent moments.

Bickel, an assistant state's attorney, reminded the jury that Dasher admitted that he then returned to the house, swept up the shotgun pellets that sprayed the fireplace, tossed the spent shell casings and threw in a trash pit a piece of plywood that also had been hit by the blast.

"Is that consistent with someone who's innocent?" Bickel asked. He also pointed out that Dasher had fired Wonderlin the same day he broke off his engagement.

Defense attorney James G. Pyne told jurors that Wonderlin knew the gunshot in the dining room was unintentional, and that there was no second shot fired outside.

"Mr. Wonderlin was sitting in the woods trying to figure out what to do with this situation," he said in his closing argument. "You've got this wealthy guy living in Worthington Valley. Do I go back and shake hands and go about my way or do I cash in? He obviously decided to cash in."

If there was any question about Wonderlin's motives for calling 911 from the woods, Pyne told jurors, they were confirmed when the former farmhand sought money from the state's victim compensation board and then filed a lawsuit against Dasher.

"He's got no job," the defense attorney said. "He's got no place to live. I can think of a million reasons why David Wonderlin would make that call."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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