Family tragedy: Man who shot brother sobs with remorse
NEPHI — Eric Charlton's face depicted a man stricken by sorrow, a sheer mask of grief.
Nearly four months after the accidental shooting of his brother Cameron on the shores of Yuba Lake, Charlton's emotions were raw and unrelenting.
"The worst you could ever see somebody get," was how 17-year-old Jonathan Hummel described Charlton's condition that night. "Sheer terror. It's not a look you could fake. He was in pain and agony for his brother. It was horror."
Charlton, 27, sobbed openly and nearly constantly throughout a day-long preliminary hearing Wednesday. Fourth District Judge James Brady said he plans to take some time before deciding whether to order Charlton to stand trial for manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
Cameron Charlton, 17, had been Hummel's best friend since kindergarten. He said Cameron considered his older brother, Eric, to be his "best friend — hero." Hummel said he joined the brothers in a weekend outing at the lake.
Late Sunday and into the early morning hours of Monday, a group of people sat around a campfire. Charlton later told sheriff's deputies that they were talking about ghosts, poltergeists and other paranormal activity.
Most of the group got "spooked out" and turned in for the night. Charlton, his brother and Hummel were left alone around the campfire when the trio heard coyotes and Charlton went to his truck to retrieve a gun.
Hummel said Cameron asked his older brother to give him the weapon so he could show it to Hummel. Charlton unloaded the magazine, verified that the firearm was empty and fired it twice into a field before he handed it to Cameron, he said. The two looked at the weapon and gave it back to Charlton.
"He was showing us some techniques," Hummel said of Eric Charlton. "Just how to hold it, bringing the gun straight out from his body."
Hummel, 17, was asked to demonstrate with a fake gun exactly what Charlton did. His hands shook as he held it. He demonstrated how Charlton had handled the weapon and how, when he was done, he re-loaded the magazine and placed the gun back into the holster.
Charlton had been a Marine. His younger brother and Hummel both wanted to join as well. They talked about the Marines and brotherhood. They talked about girls.
"Eric said, 'You can't really trust any girls in high school, but you can trust me. He swung the gun out and it went off," Hummel said, before explaining what Charlton said again. "(Charlton said), 'You know you're my brother when you can trust me with this.'"
Hummel said he heard a bang and Charlton asked, "What the (expletive deleted) did I just do?" He began CPR and told Hummel to call 911. Hummel was too stunned to speak, so Charlton spoke to dispatchers himself. Hummel collapsed soon after.
Soon after, he saw Charlton with police.
"I told Eric I love him and I knew it was an accident," he testified.
He said he never saw Charlton point the gun at his brother or pull the trigger.
Juab County sheriff's deputy Andrew Davidson said he was in Nephi when he was called to the shooting.
"I saw a subject kneeling down in the grass," he said of his arrival at the scene. "He was covered in blood and crying at the time. ... He was very distraught over the situation. ... He stated, 'I did it. I shot my brother. It was an accident."
He would repeat this over and over again, Davidson said. They helped Charlton into a change of clothes and took him into a patrol car, where he submitted to a recorded interview. He said he couldn't remember why he took the gun back out.
"It's all blank right there," he said. "I wouldn't intentionally shoot my brother."
He told the deputy he had some drinks that night — two mixed drinks and maybe a couple of beers. He submitted to a blood draw four hours later. His blood alcohol level was .06.
Cameron Charlton died at the scene from a gunshot wound to the head, said Dr. Julie Adams, assistant Utah medical examiner. She testified the weapon would have been touching the skin when it was discharged.
Defense attorney Susanne Gustin called two defense witnesses, including James Gaskill, who directed the Weber State University crime laboratory for 24 years. He said it was possible the weapon had not have been pressed hard against the head, but could have come in close contact before or after the weapon was shot.
Justin Bechaver, who works in the firearm section in the state crime lab, said the gun did not appear to have any inherent issue that would cause it to misfire or accidentally discharge.
"The gun works as is designed," he said. "The safeties are all intact."
John Luthy, Charlton's platoon sergeant in the Marines and a weapons instructor, said Charlton was a mortar man in the Marines and would have had little handgun training. What training he did have was on a Berretta, which was quite different from the Springfield 1911 semiautomatic pistol Charlton had that night.
Still, when it came to loading magazines, "He was trained to slam it home," Luthy said.
Bechaver testified that on the Springfield pistol, applying a lot of force to the magazine as it is loaded could cause it to slide into the battery of the weapon and load a bullet into the chamber. It did so about one-third of the time when he tested it, he testified.
"Our position here is not that Mr. Charlton intentionally fired this weapon at his brother," Juab County Attorney Jared Eldridge said. "Our position is he handled that firearm in such a reckless manner that it caused the death of his brother."
Gustin countered that what was described in court didn't meet what the state statute requires in showing recklessness, because it didn't show that Charlton "actually perceived the risk and consciously disregarded it."
The courtroom was packed, with spectators standing and filling the jury box. A number of Cameron's friends attended, many wearing homemade white and blue ties with his nickname, "Cam Bam," written on them. He would have been a senior at Fremont High School this year.
Charlton's family, who also struggled throughout the hearing, stood behind Charlton. His father hugged him during a court break and his wife and mother held his hands as he left court.
"They are behind Eric 100 percent," Gustin said. "They've lost Cameron, they don't want to lose Eric. They don't want to lose another son. ... This was a horrible accident."
Charlton, of West Haven, is charged with manslaughter, a second-degree felony, reckless endangerment, a class A misdemeanor, and carrying a dangerous weapon under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a class B misdemeanor. Brady said he will take the case under advisement and issue a written ruling, but did not give a timeframe.
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