Chesterton Tribune

Matson guilty

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By PAULENE POPARAD

It took a Porter County jury barely 90 minutes Tuesday to find Christopher Matson guilty of the May 28, 2000 murder of local businessman Rick Pinkerton at his U.S. 20 Porter home.

Following the verdict, members of both families broke into tears, one side of the courtroom in anguish and denial, the other side freed of the fear that their loved one’s killer would escape punishment.

Matson, 36, faces up to 60 years in prison on the murder conviction. The same jury of seven men and five women whose verdict was announced by Porter Superior Court Judge Thomas Webber at 7:45 p.m. were due back in court at 10 a.m. today for the eight-day trial’s second phase.

In addition to the murder count, the jury will decide whether Matson is a habitual offender, which carries a possible 30-year sentence that would in effect keep Matson behind bars for the rest of his life.

Matson previously was convicted of robbery, attempted robbery and drunk driving. At the time of the murder he was living in Las Vegas under the alias Troy Gardow but had returned to Indiana for a planned visit.

Matson did not testify on his own behalf, and the defense called just two witnesses before resting its case Tuesday.

Deputy Prosecutor Todd Shellenbarger painted a chilling scenario for the jury in closing arguments of an intended robbery gone bad, resulting in Matson shooting Pinkerton twice with a .45 caliber Colt semi-automatic pistol at his front door, perforating a lung and rupturing the vessels in his heart. A third bullet missed and was recovered in the bathtub.

Prosecution replays murder

Shellenbarger told the jury, “We pushed rewind on the tape and the bullets flew from the chest of Mr. Pinkerton into the gun in the hands of the defendant.”

Dale Paxton of Las Vegas earlier testified he had seen Matson with the same gun prior to the murder, and Indiana State Police firearms examinar Paul Fotia testified Tuesday he positively identified the three Winchester .45 caliber shell casings found on Pinkerton’s front steps, the two bullets removed from Pinkerton during autopsy and the single bullet from the tub as all having been fired from Matson’s Colt.

The prosecution contended Matson left a pizza party at the East Chicago home where he was staying, parked his vehicle in an undisclosed location and rode his bicycle—two empty Pizza Hut boxes in hand—to Pinkerton’s home posing as a delivery man.

Testimony from some of the approximately 50 witnesses called showed Matson had worked at both the Pinkerton home and nearby P&P Pinkerton Oil as a landscaper, and that Matson also worked across the street at Splash Down Dunes water park and lived for a time a short distance away near Tremont.

Of the seven people at the East Chicago pizza party with access to those boxes, said Shellenbarger, only Matson doesn’t have an alibi and was familiar with Pinkerton’s residence. Testimony from Matson’s friend, Terri Widing, showed he asked her and a second person to lie to establish an alibi for him; both refused.

Shellenbarger also said this case had an enormous amount of evidence, any one of several pieces on which the jury could convict alone, including Matson’s fingerprints found on the pizza boxes left at the murder scene. Also damning, he said, is a unique decorated folding knife identified as being in Matson’s possession just weeks prior to the murder and found in a backpack 30 feet from the murder scene.

In addition, Shellenbarger said, a tote bag recovered from Matson’s Las Vegas apartment “is the tote bag of the murderer. It is the one facet enough to prove we are in the same room with Mr. Pinkerton’s killer.”

Some of the items in the tote bag were tied to items found in the backpack and at the crime scene. Matson’s fingerprints were not found on the Colt, but a rubber glove was found in the tote bag. Shellenbarger said just as powerful as the murder weapon was a police scanner found in Matson’s vehicle programmed to receive many police frequencies.

As further evidence of guilt, said Shellenbarger, Matson risked his life running on foot into the Arizona desert to elude police who had arrived at his ex-wife’s home and recovered the murder weapon and other items he had left under her trailer for safekeeping. Matson was arrested two days later 50 miles away.

When weighing the totality of the evidence, said Shellenbarger, “(Matson) is the thread that connects everything in this case.”

Defense offers rebuttal

In his closing arguments, Public Defender Peter Boyles cited the lack of a witness line-up with Matson, and specific pieces of key evidence that were neither examined for fingerprints nor the presence of gunpowder residue. Boyles also noted the disparity between Matson’s appearance and descriptions and composites of the alleged murderer given by witnesses who Shellenbarger emphasized said themselves may not be credible likenesses.

“This is a case as much about what wasn’t done as what was done,” Boyles told the jury. “There’s nothing linking Mr. Matson to the Pinkerton residence. Innocent access doesn’t mean Mr. Matson is the killer.”

Boyles also said investigators helped along Paxton’s identification of the knife as Matson’s, and that Paxton’s observations are skewed because he testified he was under the influence of illegal drugs during some of his visits to Matson’s Las Vegas home.

No one’s DNA was tied to a ski mask found with the back pack near Pinkerton’s home, said Boyles. However, Shellenbarger later said there wasn’t enough DNA present to permit identification.

The fact a .45 caliber shell casing was found following the murder in the Tremont home where Matson once lived almost three years ago isn’t significant, said Boyles, because Matson did own the Colt in 1998. After his arrest in 2000 he said he sold the gun to David Lucas prior to Pinkerton’s murder, and that he gave Lucas the pizza boxes the night of the murder; Lucas denied the gun purchase, any involvement in Pinkerton’s death and had an alibi for May 28.

Matson told police the gun was returned to him in Indiana after the murder with three bullets missing and eventually taken by him to Arizona where he hid it. Shellenbarger said there’s a good reason why Matson would keep it: to use again in the future.

Boyles also attacked the way in which the Colt was secured and packaged after its seizure, and he implied that another man at the pizza party who wasn’t fingerprinted was known to have left the East Chicago home.

Chief Public Defender James Tsoutsouris said it wasn’t illegal for Matson to use an alias in Las Vegas, and he repeated Matson’s denials of guilt and that he couldn’t say where he really was when Pinkerton was killed because the person Matson was with was wanted by the law.

Although the state was not required to prove motive, “What in God’s name would motivate a guy drinking beer, eating pizza in East Chicago to come to Porter County, shoot a man in cold blood (and) go back to East Chicago?” asked Tsoutsouris.

“Sometimes, the simplest answer is the right one,” Shellenbarger told the jury later in rebuttal. If the target of a robbery doesn’t comply with the demands of the robber, they get killed.