Involuntary manslaughter case heads to district

Rhett Breedlove
Posted 6/7/24

TORRINGTON – The Goshen County District Court met at precisely 3 p.m. Monday for the preliminary hearing of Wyoming resident, Gage Zook on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Zook …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Involuntary manslaughter case heads to district


TORRINGTON – The Goshen County District Court met at precisely 3 p.m. Monday for the preliminary hearing of Wyoming resident, Gage Zook on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Zook allegedly shot and killed one Mauricio Justiniano during a duck hunting trip on the northern side of the North Platte River in Goshen County on January 20, 2024.

Representing the defense counsel of Zook was Pinedale attorney Clay Kainer, while Goshen County Deputy and Prosecuting Attorney Colby Sturgeon represented the State of Wyoming.

With Circuit Court Judge Nathaniel Hibben presiding over the hearing, the procedure began with Sturgeon calling the testimony of witness and Goshen County Sherriff Deputy, Jason Lamb, who was the primary police officer called to respond to the incident.

“I was dispatched to the location with the call being an accidental shooting of a hunting party,” Lamb testified. “It was at the end of a road in a field area where you had to take a trail down to the river, and there was a manmade blind where people can hunt. After I made the trail down to the waterfront, I talked with Jackson Harbor who was kind of talking off to the side with first responders and other hunters who were asking what had happened. He told me a friend in their party had been shot by another, and I asked who. He then pointed to his friend Gage, who was over with first responders helping Mauricio.”

Deputy Lamb then gave a full detailed testimony of information gathered and given to him on the date of January 20.

“Mauricio was not a licensed hunter,” Lamb continued. “He was just trying to experience the event and possibly become a hunter later on. He was there to make duck calls and watch Gage and Jackson hunt. After speaking with both parties through their statements it appeared Jackson was sitting to the left of Gage, while Gage was sitting in the middle. Gage had allegedly pointed his twelve-gauge at a duck, it failed to fire, and then asked Jackson if he could use his rifle. He then fired at a duck again and missed. After that, he gave the gun back to Jackson, then picked his own gun back up to try and see why it had misfired. When he laid the shotgun across his lap, the weapon was pointed in the direction of his friend. Mauricio passed away on the scene and died because of a gunshot wound according to the coroner.”

After being questioned by both Sturgeon and Kainer, deputy Lamb was permitted to step down from the stand as the state’s prosecution proceeded to make closing arguments.

“What the state has charged Mr. Gage Zook with is involuntary manslaughter,” Sturgeon stated. “What it amounts to is on January 20 of 2024 down by the North Platte River in Goshen County, Gage and his friends were hunting ducks, and a shotgun malfunctioned. Gage aimed and attempted to shoot a duck, but the gun misfired. He laid it against the tree and got a different gun, but then picked up his gun again to try and fix it. In doing so, he laid it across his lap, and the gun went off and killed Mr. Mauricio. Your Honor, it was a conscience disregard for the risk of potential harm. He pointed it at another individual and knew it had been malfunctioning all day. In doing so, that is not proper firearm handling technique. The natural consequences of doing something like that is it’s going to go off, and that’s exactly how people get hurt. Your Honor, with this we would ask the matter be bound over and proceed to district court. We have proven today this matter can proceed, there is enough [probably cause] and that’s what the state wishes to do.”

With the parents of the defendant sitting directly behind him, Kainer was then given mandatory remarks in redirected on behalf of his client.

“Your Honor, these types of cases are some the most heart-wrenching and difficult to work with,” Kainer stated. “For me as an attorney, the state, and the court they are just evident that every death is a tragedy. But this tragedy is not a crime. The state has failed to provide sufficient evidence that my client committed a criminal act. As this court knows there are generally two types of negligent homicide, and those two levels are of criminal negligence. That is more than pure negligence, thoughtlessness, or carelessness. The case the state has just presented to this court doesn’t even read that level, much less the higher level of recklessness. I think what the state has shown is perhaps mere negligence, thoughtlessness, or carelessness, but they have not given me the burden of showing Mr. Zook committed this act recklessly. We wish to dismiss this as there is no probable cause to suggest my client committed a crime.”

After hearing statements from both defense and prosecution, judge Hibben spoke in the direction of the 19-year-old defendant; reaffirming the process of Wyoming rule of law but assuring Zook he has not been convicted of anything just yet.

“This is not a trial,” Hibben said. “This is a hearing about probable cause whether there is or isn’t. I’m thinking about Mr. Kainer’s argument about the degrees of spectrum and intent. Negligence is a concept which comes from civil law, and one of the lessons we learn is it has little patience for accidents.”

“Careless driving, for example, is a little more than just negligence,” Hibben continued. “That aside, criminal law begins with negligence, and it works itself upward through different levels of intent until we arrive with what you have allegedly done. What I heard here is evidence which leads me to conclude reasonably that a jury could find either way on this issue. I do find there is probable cause in the conduct of reckless endangerment. Let me emphasize this is not a legal finding, it is not a finding of guilt, and it does nothing to overcome a presumption of your benefit. There is, however, enough evidence to be bound over to district court where you will be arraigned, and where the matter will conclude. You will remain subject to the same bond at your initial hearing, and I will sign that over this afternoon.”

The court stood in recess at 3:28 p.m.