Trial in Pratt shooting marks Kansas AG’s first prosecution over death of fetus

01/25/2014 3:03 PM

08/06/2014 9:36 AM

One day this past summer, 22-year-old Alexandria Duran had a checkup to see how her pregnancy was doing.

In the exam room, Duran’s mother, Julia Rios, got to hear the fetal heartbeat. To the would-be grandmother, the beat sounded clear and strong.

But just hours later, on the night of July 24, a bullet tore through Duran’s brain. And the heartbeats ended.

Duran suffered the mortal wound after a 45-minute chain reaction of racially charged confrontations that broke out between several people in the 100 block of North Ninnescah in Pratt, a 90-minute drive west of Wichita on U.S. 54. The pregnant woman, whose house was in the middle of the block, ended up in the middle of the fight.

The chain reaction spun to an abrupt halt when gunshots rang out, setting in motion a first-of-its-kind prosecution by the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.

After a ninth bullet had burst from the barrel of a .22-caliber rifle, two adults lay on a blood-soaked front lawn now marked by a memorial. Prosecutors contend that the bullets left three victims that night: Duran, her unborn child and a 27-year-old man who suffered five wounds, including a slug lodged in his vertebra, leaving him paralyzed.

The gunfire of that night still reverberates in the legal system. Twenty-one-year-old Bryant Seba is facing trial on two counts of premeditated first-degree murder – one count for Duran and one for her fetus – and one count of attempted premeditated first-degree murder for the wounds that Brandon Wright suffered.

Seba remains in jail on a $2 million bond. At his arraignment Monday, Seba will formally enter his plea, and a trial date could be set. Neither his attorney nor his family could be reached for comment.

The case marks the first time the Kansas Attorney General’s Office has pursued such a murder charge, said Deputy Attorney General Vic Braden, who is prosecuting the case. The charge involving the fetus rests on Alexa’s Law, named after the unborn child of Chelsea Brooks, a 14-year-old Wichita girl who was nine months pregnant when she disappeared in 2006.

Days after her disappearance, investigators found her body in a Butler County field, and three men were convicted in her killing. The law lets prosecutors bring double charges against a person accused of attacking a pregnant woman and harming the fetus.

The Pratt case also is noteworthy because prosecutors allege that the shooting was motivated “in part by race,” that it involved “the defendant’s vicious words and violent actions.” Braden has filed motions seeking stiffer sentences if the jury convicts Seba of less serious crimes. The motions cite the racial component and the allegation that Seba fired a number of shots into a crowd, “placing innocent bystanders at great risk of death.”

Testimony so far

Seba’s October preliminary hearing revealed the chain of events that led to the gunshots.

The confrontations that night involved several people at two houses and an apartment house on one side of the 100 block of North Ninnescah, just a couple of blocks from the courthouse where Seba faces trial. Starting at the south end of the block and going north, there was the apartment house, then a house where the pregnant Duran lived, then the house where Seba lived.

According to a transcript of the preliminary hearing testimony, this is how it played out:

There had been a confrontation between Seba and a man who lived at the Ninnescah Apartments, two doors south of the Seba home. Seba had been accused of kicking in the resident’s door.

Seba walked to the apartments and asked the resident whether he wanted to fight. One witness heard Seba and the resident fling racial slurs at each other. Another witness heard Seba, who is white, hurl a racial slur referring to a black person. The apartment resident cursed at Seba.

It was dark, but lights along the block provided illumination. At the house between the Seba house and the Ninnescah Apartments, Angie Rios sat with her uncle and her pregnant older sister, Duran. The sisters were 11 months apart. From their porch, they had a close-up view of the unfolding tension.

When the sisters were younger, Seba and a friend would come from next door and jump on their trampoline.

“Growing up, he was OK, and then he started to get into trouble,” Angie Rios said of Seba in an interview with The Eagle.

As a juvenile, according to Pratt County District Court records, Seba was convicted of three felonies: criminal threat, obstructing the legal process by resisting or lashing out against law enforcement officers, and possession of marijuana with intent to sell. A July 2007 court document said he had “a lengthy previous history with the legal system” and this: “Juvenile is a threat to himself and others as he continues to use alcohol and or drugs, which are severely impairing his judgment and actions.”

Eventually on the night of the shooting, Seba sat outside his house with his back to the Ninnescah Apartments, yelling racial slurs. At the same time, Brandon Wright, a black man, came toward Seba’s house from the apartments, according to the preliminary hearing transcript.

Referring to Seba, Angie Rios testified, “He was making a lot of crazy different noises.” In an interview with The Eagle, Rios said Seba was making “monkey noises.”

Wright, in an interview with The Eagle, said he became involved after getting a call that night from his cousin; his cousin’s boyfriend was the man with whom Seba had been verbally sparring. The cousin lived at the apartment where Seba had been accused of kicking in the door.

Wright said he went to Seba’s house “to get both sides of the story.”

When Seba noticed Wright approaching, the two men met on the front lawn. Angie Rios testified that she saw Wright flip Seba over his parked motorcycle after the two men had words.

Wright said in The Eagle interview that Seba had called him by a racial slur.

According to Angie Rios, her uncle went to stop the fight, and the pregnant Duran stood up.

At one point, after the uncle couldn’t stop the fight, he went into his family’s house, brought out a stick and struck it on the porch “for everyone to calm down,” Angie Rios testified. “And nobody listened so he went back out there.”

The uncle tried to grab Wright by the shirt from behind, “to pull him away from everything,” Angie Rios testified. As the uncle tried to stop Brandon Wright, Wright’s younger brother, Zach Wright, put her uncle in a choke hold from behind.

Brandon Wright told The Eagle that he felt that the uncle was threatening him and his brother with the stick.

At the time of the confrontation, Seba and the Wright brothers all had criminal records, records show.

‘She just fell’

As others responded to the fight, Seba ran into his house, and the pregnant woman moved toward the fight to intervene for her uncle. Duran stepped in front of Brandon Wright because he had turned his focus to her uncle, according to testimony.

Angie Rios estimated that Seba had been in his house for about 30 seconds before he came back out. By then, Brandon Wright was “pushing my sister around in the yard,” Angie Rios testified.

Wright, in the interview, said he didn’t push Duran. The two had known each other for years, and she was facing him and saying, “No, no, no, that’s my uncle,” Wright said.

Meanwhile, Angie Rios watched as Seba exited his house with a rifle.

He stood at the top of the stairs leading down from the porch, wielding the gun at waist-level in front of him. He began firing. Angie Rios heard at least eight shots. Investigators determined there were nine.

“And the first shot,” Angie Rios testified, “the first shot she was shot in the back of the head and she just fell to the ground. And then he (Brandon Wright) was shot multiple times and then he fell.”

Wright remembers it this way: Suddenly, Duran stopped talking, and blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Her eyes widened. She fell.

He began to run from the gunfire, but “one step and that was that for me,” he said. The first bullet he felt was in his elbow. He was hit five times, he said – in his arm, hip, back and thighs.

After the gunfire, Seba went back into his house. He slammed the door.

Angie Rios called 911.

‘Told him to freeze’

Chris Chisham, one of the Pratt police officers responding, saw about 20 people in a yard. At first, he approached with caution, scanning the crowd, with his gun out of its holster.

As he got closer, Chisham testified, he heard another officer yell, “so I picked up my pace.”

From radio traffic, Chisham heard that a sergeant had taken the shooter into custody. So he holstered his gun and knelt down by Brandon Wright, who said he had been shot in the back and felt like his knees were bent up in the air. Wright said his legs were actually flat on the ground, but he had the sensation that they were angled upward.

The officer told Wright: “You need to lay as still as possible until EMS can get here.”

Wright said that as he lay on the ground near Duran, he saw her die.

Police Sgt. Ed Gimpel got the call about the shooting shortly before 11 that night. When Gimpel arrived, Zach Wright, the wounded man’s brother, yelled that Seba was the shooter and had gone into his house.

Gimpel found Seba on the north side of the house. Gimpel testified that he had his service weapon out.

“I told him to freeze, do not move. He had his hands over his head and was speaking and yelling that he was the shooter,” Gimpel said.

Gimpel put handcuffs on Seba, and as he was taking Seba to the patrol car, “he made the comment that the Wrights had attacked him while he was on his motorcycle, knocked him off his motorcycle and then also mentioned that the Wrights had pulled a gun on him first.”

Brandon Wright disputes that account, saying he and his brother had no gun there that night, and he denies that he and his brother attacked Seba.

“I’ve never owned a gun,” Wright said.

Wright said he was rebuilding his life and knew that having a gun could get him into serious trouble because of his criminal record, including a 2009 attempted aggravated battery conviction.

Seba also said, according to Gimpel, that he had shot the two people lying in the yard.

Gimpel said he told Seba to be quiet. When the prosecutor asked why, the sergeant answered: “Well, for one, I didn’t want to violate his Miranda rights. Also, I did not want the crowd to find out that I had located him because they were becoming very unruly, and I didn’t want them to come around where I was at. We were outnumbered.”

The sergeant heard someone in the crowd yelling, “Hey, I found him, I found the patrol car.”

Gimpel said he decided “it was not safe for him to remain there.”

As Gimpel took Seba to the patrol car, Seba said the gun was lying in the yard.

In a rock bed behind the carport in Seba’s backyard, police found a small brown-and-silver .22-caliber Ruger carbine. Seba’s father was “very cooperative” and allowed officers to search, police testified. Investigators found an empty gun case on the floor in an upstairs bedroom.

When Gimpel was dealing with Seba that night, he noticed something else: a strong odor of alcohol.

Agents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation deployed to the crime scene. Around the front porch steps of the Seba home, investigators found nine .22-caliber casings.

In front of a house down and across the street from where the bullets flew, investigators found a bullet hole in the rear driver’s side taillight of a pickup parked at the curb.

Duran was pronounced dead in the emergency unit of the Pratt hospital. Scott Kipper, deputy coroner/medical examiner with the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, testified that an autopsy found that the fatal bullet entered the right side of Duran’s head, passed through her brain and exited on the left side, becoming embedded in her left scalp.

The fetus appeared to be normally developed. Kipper estimated the gestational age at between 13 and 15 weeks. The mother appeared to be having a normal, healthy pregnancy.

When asked what was the cause of death for the fetus, Kipper said, “That would be due to the death of the mother.”

Legal arguments

At the end of the testimony at the October hearing, Assistant Attorney General Greg Benefiel argued that Seba made the wrong choice once he went back into his home.

“He had an opportunity to close the door, lock the door, call 911.”

Instead, Benefiel said, “He came back out of the residence with a firearm, with a .22-caliber rifle. He fired that rifle not once, not twice, but nine times.

“It immediately struck Alexandria Duran. Her death led to the death of her unborn child. That single bullet took two lives. Brandon Wright was shot multiple times.”

In arguing that it was a premeditated, intentional shooting, Benefiel told the judge: “This wasn’t a single round fired to simply scare someone, simply send a message. It was nine shots fired.”

The state, he said, thinks the likely target was Brandon Wright, possibly both Brandon and Zach Wright.

Benefiel quoted a 1967 Kansas Supreme Court case: “When a homicidal act is directed against one other than the person killed, the responsibilities of the actor is the same as it would have been had the acts been completed against the intended victim.”

The axiom, Benefiel said, “is the intent follows the bullet, the fact that the defendant was intending to kill Brandon Wright but failed and instead killed Alexandria Duran and her unborn child.”

Seba’s defense attorney, Michael Brown, argued that even though the hearing required the judge to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution, the state was asking the court to speculate on Seba’s intent. Brown contended there wasn’t enough evidence to support the charges.

In his ruling, Pratt County District Judge Francis Meisenheimer focused on how Seba reacted to the fight.

“He then went into his residence, went up a set of stairs, went into a room, would appear that he took the rifle out of the gun case, returned down to the first floor of the residence, went back out on to the porch and fired nine shots,” the judge said.

The evidence clearly showed a premeditated act, the judge said, and he found probable cause that it was an intentional killing.

“Clearly Ms. Duran was killed as a result of those shots,” the judge said. “Clearly her unborn child died as a result of her death.”

The aftermath

Wright, now 28, said he has a wife and four children and has been undergoing physical therapy at a Wichita rehabilitation hospital. Before the shooting, he said, he was working in sales at a Pratt furniture store.

Before the shooting, he said, he exercised hard and was fit enough to run eight miles in the summer heat. Now, he can’t walk. He takes hope from limited movement in his right leg.

He said he won’t accept his paralysis and is determined to overcome it.

“I refuse to be in this wheelchair,” Wright said. “ I refuse to be like this for the rest of my life.”

The night he got involved in the confrontation, he had showered and was watching TV in bed, to get rested for his job the next day. If he could do it over, he said, he would have “stayed right in bed” that night.

The other victim, Duran, left three sons, ages 1, 2 and 3.

“We’re not going to let them forget about their mom because she loved them to death,” said Duran’s mother, Julia Rios.

The oldest boy, about to turn 4, “knows Mommy’s out there,” Julia Rios said, referring to Pratt’s Greenlawn Cemetery. He knows “Mommy’s in heaven.”

The grass has yet to cover her grave, marked by a grove of carefully placed decorations: wind chimes, candlesticks, candy canes and plastic flowers.

Angie Rios, who saw the shooting unfold that night, said she has trouble accepting that she lost her pregnant sister.

“It still doesn’t feel very real,” she said.

If everything had gone as expected, the family would be preparing now for a birth.

Duran’s due date was Feb. 1.

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