Produced by Lisa Freed, Liza Finley, Allen Alter and Greg Fisher
[This story first aired on May 5, 2016. It was updated on July 8, 2017.]
A year-and-a-half after shooting his 19-year-old wife, Danielle, 21-year-old Skylar Nemetz is on trial in Tacoma, Washington, charged with murder in the first degree.
“I feel like my heart was — ripped outta my chest and all the veins, too, with it the day that my wife died,” Skylar Nemetz told “48 Hours” correspondent Erin Moriarty in his only interview.
“But you caused it,” Moriarty noted.
“I know,” he replied. “That’s the most painful thing out of all of this is knowing that I caused it.”
Skylar Nemetz shot his wife. No one disputes that. The only question is why? Did he pull the trigger in a jealous rage? Or was it just an accident? And will you reach the same conclusion the jurors did?
Skylar and Danielle were the picture of a happy couple. No one who knew them could have imagined the tragic events that unfolded on Oct. 16, 2014.
“None of it made sense to me,” said Danette Heller, Skylar’s mother.
Heller calls her middle child a gentle and kind soul, “very loving – caring, sensitive,” who was — and still is — very much in love with Danielle.
“She was so bubbly and fantastic,” he told Moriarty. “She was great.”
“Danielle was his everything,” Heller said. “There was no issues in their relationship.”
Except for the times they were forced to be apart. In the fall of 2014, Skylar, an infantry soldier, had been on deployment in eastern Washington for nearly three weeks of battlefield training after living in a Stryker vehicle with three guys. Skylar couldn’t wait to get home to Danielle.
“Danielle had called me that morning, and she had … bathed the dogs … she said she went and got candles,” Heller said. “She was just so excited.”
On the afternoon of October 16, Danielle was waiting at the Army base to drive Skylar home to their small, two-bedroom apartment. They ordered pizza to celebrate.
“I had a shot of Sailor Jerry’s and a glass of Fireball with Red Bull,” said Skylar.
“Were you drunk?” Moriarty asked.
“I don’t think I was drunk, but I was — I would say, I was buzzed. And tired,” he replied. “But also in a great mood.”
But less than three hours later, everything suddenly went wrong.
Skylar was taken into custody and for the next seven-and-a-half hours, everything he said and everything he did was recorded by video cameras.
The details of what led up to the shooting are sketchy, but according to Skylar, when he got home, Danielle’s rifle was in their bedroom closet. He had given her the AR-15 assault rifle for her birthday.
“She knew how to handle that rifle, load the rifle … discharge it, clean it,” said Heller.
It was something Skylar and Danielle loved to do. Skylar grew up with guns, firing his first weapon when he was just a kid.
“The rules in my home … when I had my children, your guns stay in your safe,” Heller explained. “… and always unloaded.”
And Skylar says those were the rules in his home, as well.
Skylar in police car: I’m always so big about gun safety. Always! I’m so big about gun safety. I’m the a—–e with my friends ’cause I’m so big about it. And then I’m the – I’m the g– I’m the guy that it happens to!
Sometime before 6 p.m., Skylar says Danielle brought the rifle into the small second bedroom and asked him to put it away. Danielle’s computer was also in that room; when she sat down to finish some work, her back was to Skylar.
Skylar in police car: Last thing I told her … I said… “You’re a very cute girl.”
Skylar, believing the rifle was unloaded, he says, picked it up and was checking to make sure when the gun went off.
Skylar in police car: DANIELLE… f—! … how does this happen to people? [screaming] Who does this – Who the f— does this happen to? How the f—? What the f—! What the f—! Danielle!
Skylar insists he never saw the single bullet that was in the chamber of the rifle. That bullet went through the back of Danielle’s head and into the computer screen. She died instantly.
Skylar in police car: My wife is dead. My wife! … Jesus kill me. Just kill me. My wife, my love.
Heller says her son has been suicidal ever since.
“He said, ‘Please let me die. Please let me die,” she said. “I am not positive that Skylar won’t take his own life, still.”
But Heller refuses to give up on her son. For the past year-and-a-half, the divorced mother of three has been in a desperate battle for her son’s future — a struggle she has documented for “48 Hours” in video diaries:
Heller’s video diary: [Crying] I just know that I have to fight for what I have in front me and that’s my son…
“My mom has sacrificed everything she’s had for me,” said Skylar.
Heller spent what she had and borrowed even more to get Skylar released on bail and to assemble a top-notch legal team.
Heller’s video diary: The reality is I have spent every cent I have on this case.
Heller has uprooted her life – putting everything she owns into storage, leaving her teenage son, Aaron, with friends in Utah and moving to Tacoma to be with Skylar.
“She went—from living in a multimillion dollar home to living in a spare bedroom,” Skylar told Moriarty.
Heller and Skylar are staying with friends while he’s under house arrest. Skylar wears an ankle monitor, and mother and son have learned to live in very close quarters – even sharing a room.
It’s been tough on both of them.
Heller’s video diary: [Wipes eyes] I’m just really lonely and scared.
And the uncertainty of what the future holds for Skylar is always on her mind.
Heller’s video diary: I know I try to put up a good front. I … have everything under control but I don’t … It’s been really hard — just hard not knowing what’s going to happen.
“What mother wouldn’t reach to the ends of the earth to try to believe that it was an accident and try to convince themselves that their son’s not a murderer?” James Peltier told Moriarty.
But James Peltier says Danette Heller is wrong.
“Do you believe Danette is deluding herself?” Moriarty asked.
“I think she’s delusional is what I think she is,” he replied.
THE LITTLE GIRL WITH THE BIG SMILE
Before Danielle became Mrs. Skylar Nemetz, she was a beloved high school student who adored everything about life; her friends, her family, and her two favorite passions — makeup and cheerleading.
“Danielle was the happiest girl you could ever meet,” said friend Michaela Yingling.
“A little spark,” James Peltier said. “Just full of energy.”
“She just shined out there. She was beautiful to watch. Super-energetic,” said high school cheerleading coach Erin Mikolai.
Mikolai immediately cast 5 foot tall, 100-pound Danielle as “the flyer” – the lucky one who gets tossed around in the air — a role she was born to play.
“And did she like being the center of attention?” Moriarty asked.
“Loved it,” Mikolai replied. “The center of attention was where she belonged for sure.”
It was attention Danielle wasn’t really able to get at home. Her mom died of cancer when she was just a toddler, and so Danielle and her three siblings lived with their grandmother in McKinleyville, California. Money was tight. And then, when Danielle was 14, her grandmother died, too. The kids then moved in with their stepfather.
“She was the type of girl … it’s like you knew she had a hard home life, but you would never know it at the same time,” Mikolai told Moriarty. “She just didn’t dwell in it.”
Danielle and best friend Michayla Yingling formed a special bond after both losing their mothers at about the same time.
“She was always happy. Like, I didn’t know where she got it from,” said Yingling.
But deep down, Danielle longed for what she was missing, says Coach Mikolai. And she went looking for it in boys.
“Every boyfriend was the one she was gonna marry,” Mikolai said. “She always got very close with the families of the boyfriends that she had. Because they always were the most stable part of her life. But it was just that need to be loved and for that nurturing and that attention … and relationships would end, and the next one would start.”
In her junior year, Danielle found that next one on Facebook — a recent graduate from a neighboring high school who was about to join the Army — Skylar Nemetz.
“I remember I fell in love with her just like that,” he said snapping his fingers. “I was head over heels like immediately.”
“When Skylar and Danielle met … I had never seen the sparkle in his eye that he had with being with Danielle and the love he had for her,” said Heller.
Danielle shocked everyone when, just a month after meeting Skylar, she moved in with him at his mother’s home.
“I felt sorry for her, for her upbringing … I loved spoiling her, you know because she had never been spoiled,” Heller said. “But she was an absolute doll and I loved being able to help.”
“My mom saw Danielle as a daughter,” said Skylar.
“I was crazy about her. She called me mom,” said Heller.
After knowing each other for only three months, Skylar bought a diamond ring and proposed to Danielle on the top of Kneeland Mountain.
“That was a relationship that moved very quickly,” Moriarty noted to Skylar.
“Yeah, sometimes … I would sit there and be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m 18. I’m getting married.’ But the thing is though, I loved her so much and she loved me so much and we didn’t want to wait. We wanted to get married,” he explained.
“Erin, what was your reaction?” Moriarty asked Mikolai.
“It wasn’t positive,” she replied. “I felt like I needed to be the person to shake her and say, ‘Slow down …There’s no rush.’ But she’s the type of person … she was just so strong willed that there was never gonna be any convincing her. And there just wasn’t an adult in her life that could put a stop to it.”
Danielle dropped out of high school and married Skylar at the courthouse the day he graduated boot camp — five months after their first date.
“It was about 10 minutes long. He wore his uniform … and he was so happy,” Heller said of the wedding.
“When she was with Skylar, she was just so grateful. And she’d always tell me how much she loved being married. She loved being Skylar’s wife,” Heller continued.
They settled into off-base housing in Lakewood, Washington, where he was stationed at Fort Lewis.
“What was it that drew her to him?” Moriarty asked Yingling.
“I think she just really wanted to … get a fresh start and try to make a family of her own and to be happy,” she replied.
“It was following a dream is what I think it was. Something bigger than right here, you know,” said James Peltier, a former neighbor who became almost a father to Danielle.
“You know, we … took ’em to the movies, out to dinner. I mean, we went to church,” he said. “We would go camping.”
Both Peltier and Yingling were concerned that Danielle was pinning her hopes on a guy she’d known for less than six months.
“He took her away and they moved away so quick like nobody really got to know him,” Yingling said. “…he just, like, ignored us.”
A guy, they say, who seemed to have no interest in knowing them.
“I met him on three occasions,” said Peltier.
Even the few times Danielle and Skylar dropped by for a visit, Peltier says Danielle was “her bubbly self,” but Skylar wanted no part of the conversation.
“I think I shook his hand. And … back to the car he went … and he left,” he said.
He says he let it go until he learned something he couldn’t ignore. Danielle told him Skylar had smashed her cell phone in a fit of anger and then immediately rushed out to buy her a new iPhone.
“I sat her, face-to-face, and I said, ‘I just need to know if there’s any big problem … ‘Cause all you have to do is … tell me you don’t wanna be with him anymore,’ and I said, ‘I can guarantee you the boy won’t even come through that door,'” Peltier told Moriarty. “And she’s, like, ‘No. I love him. I forgive him.'”
Danielle enrolled in a local high school to finish her senior year, got a new puppy, and a new job at a granite counter company. But Yingling, who Facetimed and texted her every day, felt something was not right.
“Did she ever express fear of Skylar?” Moriarty asked.
“No, but sometimes, you know, she acted a little weird,” Yingling replied. “Like, when I asked her, ‘When’s Skylar coming home?’ … And she’s, like, ‘Oh, well, I have to clean this before he gets home’ … and ‘I have to shampoo the carpets … make sure everything’s … in perfect order.'”
“Is that because she wanted to do that or she felt she had to do it for him?” Moriarty asked.
“I don’t think she wanted to do it. I think he … was forcing her to do that kinda stuff,” Yingling said. “I just had a feeling, like, in my gut.”
“When was the last time you talked to her?”
“The night she died,” said Yingling.
Skylar had just returned from a grueling 19-day training mission in Yakima. It was around 5 p.m.
“We were Facetiming and she was sitting at her computer desk– and Skylar … Skylar was in the background on the couch,” Yingling said. “And then she/ran over to him and/jumped on his lap and was acting all happy that he was home.”
“And did he talk? Could you see whether he was in a good mood?” Moriarty asked.
“He seemed like he was in a good mood,” she replied.
“Do you remember the last thing she said to you?” Moriarty asked.
“She just said that, ‘I love you so much and I can’t wait to talk to you next,'” said Yingling.
They hung up and 12 minutes later, Danielle Nemetz was dead – shot through the head with the AR-15 assault rifle Skylar had given to her for protection.
ACCIDENT OR EXECUTION?
James Peltier will never forget the last time he saw the girl he loved like a second daughter.
“She’d come through the door … and just come runnin’ over to me, jumped in the air, gave me a big ol’ bear hug,” he recalled with a smile.
“What is the hardest part, James?” Moriarty asked.
“Not hearin’ her voice. Not seein’ her,” he said in tears.
Peltier and his wife, Sam, plan to attend every day of the trial, hoping to find justice for Danielle.
“As soon as … I knew he had shot and killed her, there was no doubt in my mind that — that it … had to have been purposeful. I mean … who takes a gun and points it at somebody?” Peltier said. “…why are you pointing a gun at somebody?”
Skylar is too much of an expert to make such a mistake, says Pierce County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Greg Greer.
“It’s clear that he’s an expert when it comes to handling firearms,” Greer said. “By the time he’s in the Army, he’s building AR-15s. …It’s clear he’s obsessed with guns … how could it be accidental considering his expertise with firearms?
The detectives doubted Skylar’s story from the beginning:
Skylar Nemetz: I’m good with weapons. I’ve used weapons a lot, OK. I don’t … This time, I just…
Det. Richard Barnard: That’s just it. I don’t think you’d violate those safety rules to the back of your wife’s head if you really loved her.
Det. Todd Jordan: You might if you were pissed off.
That direct hit dead center to the back of Danielle’s head seemed more like an execution than an accident.
The more Skylar talked, the guiltier he looked in the eyes of his interrogators. In part, because he kept changing his story about how he held the gun before it went off:
Skylar Nemetz: [stands to demonstrate] And I was holding it, and I went like this, and I hit it on my thigh and when I did that, I don’t know what happened when I hit it against that, it went off.
Then, he switched to this:
Skylar Nemetz: It was on my shoulder. It was on my shoulder. It was on my breast. It was up high. It was right up here. I don’t know why I thought it was on my thigh, but, that was just …
Det. Todd Jordan: You didn’t think it was on your thigh. You thought if the story sounded better, Skylar. I’m not a f——g stupid guy.
“I’m in the interrogation room 45 minutes after Danielle dies and I’m trying to figure it all out myself. My mind is just destroyed,” Skylar told Moriarty.
Skylar Nemetz: I don’t remember where the hell they were. I don’t remember; I don’t know where they were…
But Greer says Skylar’s actions speak louder than his words.
“The strongest evidence, believe it or not, is what he does immediately after the fact,” he said.
Skylar didn’t call 911. A neighbor did. And there wasn’t a single drop of Danielle’s blood on him – a clear sign that he didn’t try to save or even comfort her, says Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jared Ausserer.
“He doesn’t render aid at all. He never checks on his wife. If it was an accident … He’s gonna drop the weapon immediately, run over, grab her, assess her. He doesn’t do that,” he said.
Skylar, sitting with his lawyer, told “48 Hours,” not holding Danielle is something he regrets to this day.
“I wish I would’ve held her,” he said.
“Why didn’t you?” Moriarty asked.
“I was scared. I was freaked out and I didn’t know what to do. I seriously didn’t — my brain was – I was not all there,” he replied.
But at trial, Greer hopes to show that Skylar knew exactly what he was doing.
“This is a case about control,” said Greer.
Greer uses Skylar’s own texts — read aloud in court — to paint him as an angry, controlling husband who wanted Danielle to know he was in charge.
“Danielle what the f–k we have Amazon you don’t need the prime s–t”
“Come on, can you ask before you shit with my money thanks.”
“You’re an idiot”
“Who talks to their wife like that at any stage of their marriage, much less the beginning stages of their marriage?” Greer commented to Moriarty.
Someone consumed by jealousy, says Greer.
In one text, Skylar accuses Danielle of going on date with Jeremy Henry, an old friend from high school. Danielle writes back: “You have either insecurities you need to work on or you don’t trust me when it comes to hanging out with Jeremy”
“I think that this truly was her friend from high school. I think everything was just in the mind of Mr. Nemetz that he believed the worst. And it got to him,” said Greer.
Greer says Skylar erupted in a jealous rage the day he got home from training, believe it or not, over those bottles.
“The most significant aspect of this case is going to be two bottles of alcohol,” said Greer.
The State’s star witness is Skylar’s Army buddy, Anthony Faas. He was supposed to buy the two bottles of alcohol for Skylar.
“I was going home early a few days before the rest of the guys so he asked if I could buy alcohol for them because they weren’t 21,” said Faas.
“And as it turns out … Faas, did not get the alcohol. Too busy. Didn’t do it,” Greer explained. “Danielle panics somewhat because she needs to get this. He really wants this alcohol.”
So Danielle gets two other guys to go with her to buy the alcohol; one is her old friend, Jeremy Henry. But Skylar had no idea until he went to thank Faas.
“And Faas gives a look and says, ‘I didn’t buy that. And you know who did,'” said Greer.
Faas claims Skylar got visibly angry.
“He was mad because she lied about how she got the booze ’cause Mr. Faas didn’t get it for her as he had promised,” Prosecutor Jared Ausserer told jurors.
And while Skylar may have appeared in a good mood on that Facetime call between Danielle and Michayla Yingling, prosecutors believe he was hiding his anger, lying in wait like a well-trained soldier.
“He waited for her to get off the phone,” Ausserer continued, “and shot her in the back of the head.”
Det. Richard Barnard: This was an act of rage. You were mad for some reason and you shot her.
Skylar Nemetz: [Crying] I was not mad at my wife. I…
Det. Richard Barnard: And then you went and tried to hide everything.
Skylar had told the police he stashed the gun back in the closet, emptied the bottles of alcohol and threw them off the balcony. The police believed he wanted to get rid of evidence linking him to a motive.
Det. Todd Jordan: …throw the gun in the closet like it didn’t f—ing happen. Oh, s–t, it didn’t happen.
Skylar knows it looks bad, so he is about to do something defendants rarely do.
“I can live with I am the reason Danielle died. But I can’t live with being called a murderer,” he said.
A RISKY DECISION
Danette Heller still remembers waking up in terror one autumn night in 2014.
“I had a horrible dream that Danielle shot Skylar in the head,” she recalled. “It really shook me up.”
A month later, that horrible dream became a terrible reality. Only it wasn’t Danielle who pulled the trigger — it was Heller’s son. And as the detective who broke the news put it, it didn’t look good for Skylar.
“He goes … ‘Your son’s going way for prison the rest of his life,'” said Heller.
Heller believes the detectives had their minds made up the minute Skylar walked into that interrogation room.
“They found him guilty within hours … without investigating,” she said.
Skylar Nemetz: I don’t know, if you’re trying to accuse me of killing – I understand I killed my f—ing wife, I killed my wife, OK, I killed my wife!
Det. Todd Jordan: I’m just trying to figure out why.
Heller knew she was in for a fight, and went looking for the best criminal defense lawyer she could find. She chose Michael Stewart.
“I’ve been a defense attorney for 20-plus years. Toughest case I’ve had,” Stewart told Moriarty.
Asked why, he replied, “’cause I’ve got a kid that I absolutely believe. I believe this is an accident, and the facts and the circumstances around it look bad.”
He knows the challenge will be convincing 12 jurors that a highly-skilled soldier with years of weapons training could make such a fatal mistake.
“The state wants you to believe that a dead-tired kid … could never make amistake. It had to be intentional. Because nobody makes mistakes with guns,” Stewart told the court in his opening.
But Stewart is able to get the State’s own gun experts to admit on the stand that mistakes can be made. It’s not always easy to tell when the AR-15 rifle is loaded.
Michael Stewart: If the order is not followed precisely, you can easily load a weapon thinking that you are actually clearing it, correct?
Lakewood Police officer Jason Cannon: Yes.
Next, Stewart takes aim at the contention that Skylar shouldered the gun when it went off.
Det. Todd Jordan: You put the gun to your shoulder and you pulled the trigger…
Skylar Nemetz: I don’t know. I don’t …
Stewart says the investigators pushed Skylar to admit that as he struggled to remember what happened:
Skylar Nemetz: I thought it was on my thigh…
“He told police that he had it down low … And then he said it was around here and around here,” Stewart said, motioning with his hands. “The last thing police pegged him is when he said well maybe he had it up high.”
Skylar Nemetz: I think it might have even been on my breast or my shoulder, I don’t know…”
“The police … they’re ratcheting you into a story that makes it fit how they view a case,” said Stewart.
Defense forensics expert Kay Sweeney testifies that Skylar was not shouldering the gun.
Michael Stewart: What do you believe was the height of the bullet?
Kay Sweeney: Forty-six-and-a-half inches above the floor, approximately.
That would put the gun just below his chest. But what about that direct hit to the middle of Danielle’s head?
“That is just sheer chance. And there’s so many times I’ve thought, like, ‘why couldn’t it have been two inches to the right?'” said Skylar.
On day 12 of the trial, Stewart has a heart-to-heart with his client about the single most important decision he may ever make.
“I said, ‘Kid, we’ve shown so much in this case … I don’t think you need to take the stand,” Stewart said with Skylar beside him.
Despite the risks, Skylar felt he had no choice.
“I needed to, I wanted to because — for Danielle,” he told Moriarty.
On the night before, Moriarty watched Skylar preparing for one of the toughest days of his life.
“How’re you feeling tonight?” she asked.
Skylar sighed, then said, “I’m a little overwhelmed.”
“I’m nervous, I really am nervous. I’m so nervous for Skylar,” said Heller.
Michael Stewart: Did you intend to hurt your wife?
Skylar Nemetz: [Cries] I did not. I did not intend to hurt my wife. I never did.
Stewart wants to show Skylar as a loving husband — not the controlling person depicted in those texts. He points to the scores of other texts from Skylar. Texts like: “I’m goin to bed hun I love you” and “Hey babe how was your day”
Then Stewart turns to the State’s star witness, Anthony Faas. Remember, he said Skylar was furious when he told him that Danielle had turned to two other men to buy the alcohol.
“I was not angry at all. In fact, I never had any sort of conversation with Anthony Faas,” said Skylar.
“But why would he lie? I mean, why would he under oath?” Moriarty asked.
“Why does anybody lie?” Skylar replied. “But I know that never actually happened.”
Another Army buddy, Richard Oakley, backs Skylar’s story. He testifies he didn’t even see Anthony Faas on base that day, and that Skylar was excited to see Danielle.
“They both seemed pretty happy. They were both smiling. Everything seemed good,” Oakley testified.
“You look at everything leading up to this day, and there really isn’t any of this tension,” Stewart said. “There never was a motive. This is an accident.”
But now, it’s the moment Greer has been waiting for — his chance to grill Skylar. And he wanted to show him as a killer. Greer puts the gun that killed Danielle back into Skylar’s hands hoping to burn that image into the jurors’ minds.
“I wanted to expose him. I wanted to show them he had things to hide,” said Greer.
But his repeated challenges don’t seem to rattle Skylar.
Greg Greer: Mr. Faas told you he did not purchase those two bottles.
Skylar Nemetz: I do not recall him saying that.
Skylar Nemetz: I did not talk to Anthony Faas that entire day, sir.
“He either dodged the question,” Greer said, “or claimed not to remember.”
Greg Greer: Your finger takes from safe to fire and you pull the trigger. And she’s five feet away from you, and that round hits her square in the middle of the back of the head?
Skylar Nemetz: That is not how it happened, sir.
Greg Greer: You don’t recall telling the detectives that?
Skylar Nemetz: Are you asking if I know that from my memory, sir?
Greg Greer: Mr. Nemetz, do you recall telling the detectives that?
Skylar Nemetz: Not from my memory, sir.
Greg Greer: That’s all I have, your honor.
Skylar and his attorney hope the impression that stays with the jurors is Skylar’s emotional testimony about what he says really happened that terrible day.
Skylar Nemetz: I got off the couch. And I went into the room to put this rifle away … The gun went off.
Michael Stewart: Did you pull the trigger, Skylar?
Skylar Nemetz: I don’t recall pulling the trigger. But I know the trigger had to be pulled for the weapon to go off.
Skylar Nemetz: [Cries] After the smoke cleared, I saw my wife. And she wasn’t moving. I dropped the weapon. And I — I went up to my wife on the left side. And I saw her face. And my wife wasn’t there anymore.
Michael Stewart: Did you know she was dead?
Skylar Nemetz: I knew she was dead and I didn’t know what to do. … I never meant to hurt her. [cries] I never meant to hurt her.
Stewart fears that Skylar’s tears may not be to enough to win the full acquittal they had hoped for, so he makes a stunning strategic move.
“This is hard for a defense attorney to say …” he told told the court.
He actually tells the jury to find his client guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
“It is manslaughter. It is. I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not premeditated first-degree murder,” Stewart told jurors.
“I believe his soul is pure. But his hands aren’t. He was negligent in the operation of that weapon,” Stewart told Moriarty.
What will jurors decide? They will wrestle with the case for days.
A JURY’S DILEMMA
Heller video diary: …my days are like roller coasters going up and down… just hard. My heart hurts all the time.
After a month-long trial, Skylar Nemetz’s future is in the hands of the jury.
“Most jurors are asked to decide whether someone’s guilty or innocent. That wasn’t the case for you,” Moriarty noted to a group of jurors, who shook their heads and replied “no.”
Ralph Flick, a civil lawyer, is the jury’s foreman.
“This is not a whodunit case. Like, we know who did it. …he says he pulled the trigger,” Flick explained. “So our question was what was going on in his head, which was what made this case so challenging.”
Jurors have to determine Skylar’s intent on that terrible day. If they believe he pulled that trigger to kill his wife, that’s murder, and he could face more than 30 years in prison. But if he pulled it by accident, even if a reckless accident, that’s manslaughter.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to be a swift verdict,” said James Peltier.
As the jurors deliberate, everyone else waits — day … after day … after day.
“I’m nervous, I’m wondering what the jury is doing right now,” said Skylar.
“I think when you play dangerous games, there are consequences,” said Flick.
Four jurors agreed to explain the difficult decision they had to make.
Prosecutors said Skylar shot his young wife in a jealous rage. But at trial, there was only one witness — the Army buddy, Anthony Faas, who says Skylar Nemetz was angry that day.
“Without Anthony Faas, there’s — there’s no evidence of any kind of a fight that day. The — nobody heard anything or saw anything,” said Flick.
And Faas was contradicted by other witnesses, including Skylar.
“I do not remember seeing Anthony Faas that day,” he testified.
“If it’s at all questionable,” Flick continued, “that whole part of the case falls apart.”
Jurors were troubled by Skylar’s suspicious behavior after he shot Danielle: not calling 911, and emptying bottles of alcohol. But more significant was the 12 minutes leading up to the shooting, when prosecutors claim Skylar was seething with anger.
Jurors just didn’t see it.
“Where did this jealous rage that led to an execution come from?” Flick asked.
And what did the jurors think of Skylar himself?
“Was he credible?” Moriarty asked the group.
Flick shakes his head “no.”
“It seemed very coached, very rehearsed,” Brad Hardesty replied.
“Yeah, seemed coached, rehearsed,” Shane Vandervloedt said. “Even the crying for me was a little bit theatrical-like I guess you could call it.”
“I thought he was so unreliable every time he spoke … that I don’t really think that his testimony hurt him or helped him,” Flick replied. “…it was really hard to believe anything he said.”
But what troubled the jurors most was how Skylar, a firearms expert, could make this kind of mistake.
Hardesty is a retired Army soldier.
“… you never point the weapon in the direction of anybody and pull the trigger like that — believing that it’s unloaded,” he said.
“To me, there was one key fact in the whole case,” Flick said. “Did Skylar know or did he believe that there was a bullet in the chamber.”
So jurors did their own test, recreating what the state’s gun expert had demonstrated in the courtroom.
“Was it possible that Skylar thought the gun was unloaded?” Moriarty asked.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” the jurors replied in unison.
“A round could have been in the chamber. And Skylar pulled back on the charging handle. Nothing came out. He thinks it’s empty. The bolt goes back forward, and he pulls the trigger,” said Hardesty.
Still, what about that perfect shot right to the center of Danielle’s head?
“Now, you might believe that it’s — it’s not or it’s unlikely, but it still could have been. It’s a reasonable conclusion that it could have been a mistake,” said Flick.
“If they could have given me one good piece of evidence that proved that there could have been intent, I might have taken that and said, ‘Well, that’s good enough for me,'” juror Mike Duncan added. “But it wasn’t there.”
After seven long days, the jurors finally agree on a verdict.
“When the verdict form is handed to the judge … there is nothing like it,” Michael Stewart said. “That moment when you know what your fate is going to be. Wow.”
Skylar is found guilty of manslaughter in the first degree — the reckless taking of a life. It’s a win, of sorts, for the defense and a terrible disappointment for prosecutors.
Before Skylar is taken to jail, he and his mother are allowed a final goodbye.
Three weeks later, inmate Skylar Nemetz is back in court to learn his sentence. Danette Heller is there and so are Danielle’s friends and family – including her younger sister. All eyes are on Skylar as he addresses Judge Jack Nevin.
“This is about Danielle and it always will be,” Skylar told the judge. “They were my actions and my actions alone. And I take full responsibility for them. I was reckless and negligent. And for that I will pay.”
And then, Skylar apologizes for what he’s done.
“I’m sorry to everybody here,” he addressed the courtroom. “…most of all I’m sorry to Danielle. I’m sorry that she was ripped out from this world and … I’m sorry to her friends and family and I accept any punishment that you give me.”
With that, Judge Nevin gives Skylar Nemetz the maximum sentence: 13½ years in prison.
Watching from the back of the courtroom are some of the jurors
“I kinda feel like I owe it to Danielle,” Flick explained.
He says he will be haunted forever by video of Danielle shooting a rifle.
“There she is holding a weapon just like the one that killed her … she finishes shooting, and she looks into the camera …with this big bright smile on her face, her whole future in front of her,” Flick said. “…what was lost when she was killed was, to me, captured in — that final frame of that little clip.
Skylar Nemetz is appealing his 13 1/2-year sentence.
His earliest possible release will be in 2028. Skylar will be 34 years old.