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Orem murder trial: Was killing of brother-in-law intentional or self-defense?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 30 2011 4:58 p.m. MDT

Stephen Strate, right, appears in 4th District Court with attorney Ronald Yengich, left, on Nov. 6, 2009. Strate is on trial, accused of killing his brother-in-law, Marvin Sidwell, on Oct. 25, 2009.

Mark Johnston, AP

PROVO — A dispute that left Marvin Sidwell dead in the basement of the Orem home he shared with his mother may have been sparked by his fear that the house would be sold, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Orem businessman Stephen Strate is on trial for murder, a first-degree felony, in the shooting death of Sidwell, his brother-in-law. Opening arguments in the case were presented Tuesday.

In his fear, Sidwell, 51, left a chalk message for a neighbor he believed was interested in buying the home. The neighbor called Strate, who owned the home with his wife, Linda, Sidwell's sister. Strate then went to the home.

"On Oct. 25 (2009), the defendant had had enough," prosecutor Craig Johnson said. "He was sick and tired of his brother-in-law, Marvin Sidwell, and his antics."

Johnson said Strate — at 6 feet tall, weighing 200 pounds — then went after the 140-pound Sidwell. When Sidwell grabbed a drummer's stool, Strate opened fire, unloading seven rounds.

"This case is not a normal mystery, a whodunit you may see on TV," Johnson said. "The who, what, how is not in dispute. The question is why. Why did the defendant shoot his brother-in-law five times?"

Johnson conceded that Sidwell had problems, including a history of drug use, but neither the man's history nor his anger over a potential sale of the home justified what prosecutors say Strate did.

"The defendant killed his brother-in-law in cold blood," Johnson said. "This was not self-defense. Marvin's behavior didn't give the defendant a license to kill."

Defense attorney Ron Yengich said the prosecutor's explanation was merely a theory and emphasized that Strate had long been Sidwell's friend — the one who could best talk to Sidwell and calm him down.

"There were no last straws, because there was one person who always supported Marvin when everyone else was mad at him and that was Steve," Yengich said. "That peacemaker status continued to Oct. 25."

Yengich said Strate went to talk to Sidwell, only to find that the man was paranoid and high on methamphetamine.

"(Strate) wasn't talking to Marvin, he was talking to the methamphetamine — the paranoia that comes from methamphetamine, the strength that comes from methamphetamine," Yengich said.

He told the jury that Strate had to protect himself from a threatening Sidwell.

"If Marvin knocked (Strate) down, he could beat him with the stool or he could retreat into his room. Marvin had a veritable arsenal in that room: guns, blowguns, crossbows, darts ... (Strate) had to make a split decision," Yengich said.

Police dispatcher Shauna Desrosches answered the 911 call Strate made almost immediately after the shooting. In the recording played for jurors Tuesday, Strate told dispatchers he "killed someone." He explained that he killed his brother-in-law because "he came at me with a damn chair."

Neighbor Gary Richards said that while he was looking to buy a home for his father, the only property of Strate's he was interested in was on Center Street, not the home Sidwell lived in at 433 S. 360 West. When Sidwell left the drawing on his sidewalk, Richards said he was "nervous and confused."

Sidwell had pointed to the marking, his anger surprising to Richards.

"I've never seen him that way before — he was standing up and screaming," Richards said, rating the man's anger a "10" on a scale of one to 10.

According to Richards, the note said, "Gary, who do you think you are, trying to buy Mom and me house from under me? Don't think it's going to happen. Think wrong."

"Then he drew a scary face," which Richards described as a pumpkin with jagged teeth.

Strate's trial is scheduled for four days.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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