Attorney says state talked to guest at Estrada party

Monday, November 27, 2006
Yellow police tape remained on the path through woods on Oct. 22 when William Estrada, right rear, his relatives, friends and the Estradas' attorneys spoke about the shooting death of Fermin Estrada. (T-G Photo by Clint Confehr)

A long-time Shelbyville lawyer has confirmed that he observed a state investigator interview at least one of the people at a party that ended last March with the fatal shooting of the host.

However, Sam Short, who has an office on the east side of Shelbyville's public square, says he's uncertain about whether he would be called as a witness in a $50 million lawsuit against the city, its police department and the officer who says he shot back at Fermin Estrada Sr., 47.

Estrada, who owned Tienda Mexicana "Paty" grocery at Belmont Avenue and East Depot Street, fell dead at the edge of his woods from one of two or three bullets fired by Shelbyville Police Officer James Wilkerson on the afternoon of March 18.

That evening, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation conducted interviews at police headquarters on Lane Parkway.

"I attended an interview that evening and did a little work for those folks," Short said last week when he returned a news phone call. "I don't represent them now."

Officer Wilkerson has said an attorney was at the police station and would be able to provide a neutral assessment of what the TBI was told when guests of the Estrada party were interviewed.

"I don't see myself a neutral," Short said. "I still have an obligation. Under the ethical rules, even if my representation is terminated, I still have an obligation to them. My obligation to them continues beyond my representation."

It would appear that a request for his services had to come in the few hours remaining on the afternoon and evening of March 18 after the gunfire at about 4:20 p.m.

That was nearly seven months before Stephen King and Charles Blatteis of the Bogatin Law Firm in Memphis filed a civil rights complaint on Nov. 13 for the alleged wrongful death of Estrada.

In the weeks after the shooting, the Times-Gazette was aware of the prospect of litigation over Estrada's death and spoke with William Estrada, 24, who serves as head of the household at 216 Cedar River Road where the grocer was showing off his 14-acre estate to his out-of-state friends and relatives.

William Estrada said he and his family had contacted the Mexican Consulate in Memphis, but at that time last spring, he was unsure whether a civil complaint would be filed because of his father's death.

The Estradas' contact with the Mexican Consulate has led to a diplomatic contact from Mexico to the U.S., and shortly after the lawsuit was filed, WTVF Channel 5, Nashville, reported that the consulate has asked the FBI to investigate Estrada's death. A spokeswoman for the consulate said its officials felt an obligation to make such a request.

Estrada was a naturalized citizen of the U.S., his survivors have said.

Adding questions about the grocer's death were now-former District Attorney Mike McCown and his successor, DA Charles Crawford, who have not released a copy of the TBI report. Crawford and TBI spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson cite state law which provides an exemption for TBI reports from Tennessee's open records law.

King and Blatteis have said they intend to subpoena the TBI report and Johnson says that's one way its contents may be revealed because it would be needed for a trial. Crawford released his summary of the report saying the TBI has "bullet path reconstruction" evidence showing that "the location and angle of a bullet from Mr. Estrada's pistol established that he fired at least one round in the direction of ... officers [Wilkerson and Bruce Davis.]"

Blatteis has emphasized that one reason for the wrongful death complaint, in U.S. District Court, at Winchester is to provide answers to the Estrada family about what happened.

Early this month, Wilkerson said he believed Short would be able to provide information which probably wouldn't be seen as biased for either side.

"He sat in on all the TBI interviews," Wilkerson said of Short. "Anything I say, people will say, 'He's just trying to cover himself.'"

Public perception of what the Estradas allege through their attorneys in court could also be seen as biased, Wilkerson said.

Estrada's survivors and perhaps his guests "were represented by counsel when they came to the police department," Wilkerson said.

Police Chief Austin Swing on Tuesday night confirmed Wilkerson's information that Short observed the TBI interviews which, Wilkerson said, were video tape recorded.

Wilkerson said he believed Short had been contacted by the Nashville law firm of Bart Durham. Short said that's not so.

Short was reluctant to speak about the work and time he provided to the Estradas.

"I don't want to prejudice anyone's case," the lawyer said. "Anything I say would have to be authorized by them (clients.)"

Furthermore, "Who is telling the correct story will come out in a courtroom," Short said.

City Manager Ed Craig said Shelbyville had been served with a copy of the complaint on Nov. 17, or eight days after the document was posted on an Internet website.

Officers Wilkerson and Davis rode in Wilkerson's patrol car to the Estrada neighborhood that Saturday afternoon in March because Wilkerson was about to go off duty as Davis was starting his shift, so Davis climbed into Wilkerson's car at headquarters. The city had received a phone call from a woman who said three men were at her dog pen and one had a pistol.

At the caller's house, they were directed to woods behind her house. The woods are owned by the Estradas. As Fermin Estrada and two guests walked from the woods onto the clearing that's the back yard, he fired shots into the ground, apparently in time with music played at the party.

The officers reported they tried to get his attention. They say he turned and appeared to either shoot at them, or continued to shoot as his arm came up and around. As a result, Wilkerson shot back with a police patrol rifle.

While the district attorney's summary states the TBI has bullet path reconstruction that shows Estrada fired in the direction of the officers, the complaint states "None of the rounds fired by [Estrada] were in the direction of the officers who were hiding unseen and unannounced in the woods..."

Wilkerson began firing, the complaint alleges.

"Hearing ... Wilkerson's shots, [Estrada] turned toward ... the sound of gunfire and was struck...," the complaint states.

Attempts to reach the Estradas' Memphis attorneys have been unsuccessful when comment was sought on the DA's summary of the TBI report on Nov. 15 and now about what Short may have told them, or might be able to tell them about the TBI interview.