Guilty verdict

A Rusk County jury finds Preston Kraft (center) guilty of the 2018 murder of Bob Pettit.

Following a five-day trial, a Rusk County jury deliberated for a little more than two hours to find a Rusk County man guilty of killing a Conrath man in a 2018 shooting.

On Friday, June 12, Preston D. Kraft, 33, was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide and felony bail jumping. 

Kraft represented himself in the case and had standby counsel from retired attorney Eugene Harrington. Representing the state was special prosecutor Dan Steffen, the assistant district attorney from Burnett County Circuit Court. Overseeing the court was Barron County Circuit Court Judge Michael Bitney. 

Following the verdict, friends and family of the victim, Robert Pettit, hugged each other.

The shooting had taken place outside of Pettit’s Conrath residence on May 18, 2018. Home video surveillance and confirming witness testimony revealed that Kraft had driven by the Pettit residence multiple times prior to coming to a rest at the end of the driveway.

In her testimony on the witness stand, Crystal Trudeau told the court she saw Kraft stopped at the end of the driveway and heard him yelling. Trudeau heard Kraft say he was going to run her over and cut her head off.

Trudeau and Tracy Pettit, Pettit’s wife, both told the court that Pettit was walking down the driveway to give Kraft a cell phone to speak with his father, in the hopes it would diffuse the situation. 

Video surveillance showed Kraft speed off, southbound on Blueberry Road, as Pettit reached the vehicle, only to return as Pettit had walked back toward his home. Parked at the end of the driveway, facing northbound, Kraft was seen firing five shots from his 9mm high point pistol through the passenger side window of the vehicle. A puff of dust is seen just prior to Pettit pausing, then falling to the ground.

Pettit received a gunshot wound to his head. Initially, Pettit was unconscious but breathing, however he later died as a result of his wounds at an Eau Claire hospital.

After Pettit was shot, Kraft drove by the residence several more times before leaving and leading law enforcement on a five-day man hunt.

The first witness on the stand on Wednesday, June 10 was Rusk County deputy Marc Egle who was involved in the search for Kraft and eventually arrested him in a field near Imalone Road, Bruce. At the time of the arrest Egle found the 9mm high point pistol at Kraft’s feet. 

The pistol was off safety, loaded with bullets in the magazine and one in the chamber. “It was ready to fire,” said Egle. 

Egle was also one of the first deputies on the scene and recalled seeing a large amount of blood. 

Kraft questioned Egle about how and why Pettit was removed from the scene and whether or not this was acceptable protocol. “Each situation is different,” said Egle.

Steffen cross examined Egle regarding the concern surrounding the situation and the measures taken. Because the whereabouts of Kraft were unknown and the chance he could return, it made for a dangerous situation for the ambulance crew. Drastic measures had to be taken to attempt to save Pettit. Pettit was gently loaded into the back of a patrol pickup truck and transported to an awaiting medical helicopter.

Also one of the first to arrive on scene was Rusk County Investigator Zach Diekman who provided scene security in case Kraft returned. In his investigation, Diekman traveled to the Medford Police Department to retrieve a box of 9mm heavy metal jacket ammunition.

Diekman testified that the ammunition collected was the same type and manufacturer of the casings recovered in the vehicle Kraft used during the shooting and in the weapon during Kraft’s arrest.

After Pettit was transported to the helicopter, Diekman returned to the scene and captured a 17 second clip of Pettit’s home surveillance video in order for law enforcement to know what suspect vehicle to locate.

Kraft questioned the legitimacy of the video and whether or not Diekman put the video on Facebook. Kraft asked multiple witnesses if they had seen the video on Facebook. Diekman and all of the other witnesses testified they had not seen the video on the Rusk County Sheriff’s Facebook page nor any other Facebook page.

Steffen cross-examined Diekman to clarify the need for the 17 second clip. In addition to an aid for law enforcement to capture Kraft, Diekman said he was unsure if the DVR would record over the video and said he wanted to make sure the evidence was preserved.

Detective Jeff Nocchi of the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office extracted the video surveillance from the Pettit’s DVR. The Pettit home had four security surveillance motion detection cameras and two of those cameras captured the incident. One camera was pointed down the length of the driveway and the other pointed at the back door. 

Without altering the video, Nocchi preserved the evidence of the shooting from the Pettit’s DVR and the video was shown to the court. Side by side, the jury was able to view the shooting in real time.

Over the course of about 25 minutes Kraft drove by multiple times, both before and after the shooting. Following the shooting, Tracy Pettit stands pointing at Kraft, who remained in the car, and yelled for him to leave; she then stayed by Pettit’s side. 

On multiple occasions, Kraft told the court he believed clips of the videos were missing time and were edited or possibly even reenacted. To that question Nocchi said, “it was everything on the DVR.” Each clip of the videos were time and date stamped and were shown consecutively without time missing.

Three bullets struck the ground and were collected as evidence. Investigator Steve Gronski testified to the evidence collected at the scene. Kraft questioned Gronski on whether or not Pettit could have been hit by a bullet that had ricocheted off the ground.

Steffen said that while we can’t be sure which bullet struck Pettit, witnesses testified they heard five gunshots and five casings were found in the vehicle. 

Several of the evidence markers of where the bullets struck the ground were in line with where Pettit was standing and where Kraft was sitting.

Rusk County Investigator Riley Kummet took the witness stand and narrated the Pettit’s video surveillance clips. Kraft drove past the Pettit residence a total of nine times and on several occasions stopped in front of the driveway. 

The video surveillance showed Pettit pausing and then falling to the ground within a three second time frame during which the gunshots were fired.

Kummet and Diekman interviewed Kraft following his arrest. Initially Kraft claimed no knowledge of the shooting, but did admit to taking a white convertible from a Conrath home which he used in the shooting.

During the interview Kraft admitted he fired more than once at Pettit and admitted he knew he hit Pettit because he saw him fall. When told Pettit had been struck in the head, Kraft twice said, “that’s the way you take ‘em out.”

Kraft told investigators, “I just pointed and shot. Boom-boom-boom-boom.”

Kraft admitted he had a plan to kill Pettit, Rob Steele and Trudeau in a specific order because he believed they are the devil. He also admitted he’d been tormented for years by the voices he hears every day, adding “my life is threatened all the time by the voices in my head.”

“Bob is a beast and Crystal rides on the back of the beast,” said Kraft. 

During the interview Kraft is heard saying that through a vision, God gave him the power to kill Pettit, Trudeau and Steele. 

When asked about where he was going and why he was hiding from law enforcement, Kraft claimed he didn’t want to hurt anyone and had gone wherever God told him to go. During the five-day man hunt involving multiple law enforcement agencies from the region, Kraft hid in an ice shack and three separate cabins.

Kraft told investigators he was on his way to church after he killed Pettit.

On the first day of the trial Steffen presented the jury with his opening statement; Kraft, at the time, chose to delay his opening statement until the State rested it’s case.

During his opening statement, Kraft read the jury instructions. He also asked the jury to “search for the facts because lies bring up doubt, there’s no belief in lies and no faith in lies”. Kraft asked the jury to “do what a reasonable person would do and to keep life in everyday.”

Kraft called several witnesses to the stand including Brandon Pember who, at the time of the shooting, had been on the phone with Trudeau. Pember testified that he remembered telling Trudeau to walk out to Kraft with her phone so he could speak with Kraft because he believed Kraft would listen to him.

Six of Kraft’s witnesses recalled Kraft as a non-violent, truthful, kindhearted person who tried to better himself. None of the six witnesses said they had seen a video of the shooting on Facebook and all were unaware that Kraft had previously been threatened by Pettit.

Kraft questioned Rusk County Medical Examiner Jim Rassbach at length about the chain of custody of Rassbach’s role in delivering Pettit’s skull fragments to the Ramsey Medical Center where an autopsy was performed. Kraft told Bitney he believed he would need to be acquitted due to a tampering of evidence. 

Bitney told Kraft, “no basis to challenge the chain of custody exists” and Bitney was satisfied with the process that was followed with delivering evidence.

On Thursday afternoon during a court recess Kraft told the court “this is not a fair trial.” He believed evidence of Pettit brandishing a weapon had been tampered with, cell phones were missing and time in the home surveillance video was missing. 

The video surveillance was reviewed again for accuracy of time and consistency and, despite claims of Kraft, no weapon was seen in the waistband of Pettit’s shorts or in his hand at the time of the shooting. 

Kraft claimed that three hours prior to the shooting Pettit had had jeans on with a gun in his waistband. Bitney said he would not burden the jury with prejudice and would not introduce to the jury something that occurred three hours prior.

Before Kraft would take the witness stand, he requested the court to not allow Steffen to cross-examine him. After discussion outside of the presence of the jury, Kraft said “regardless, the court has fallen because you’re biased. The President of the United States is trying to kill me. I am being poisoned in the jail. I am the Alpha, I am the Omega. I am competent.”  

Bitney told Kraft, “I will not allow you to put perimeters not allowed by law.” Bitney added, “there is no Wisconsin statute or law that can bar any attorney from object to testimony they believe is admissible.”

Kraft took the witness stand to provide a statement of his belief of the events that unfolded on May 18, 2018. He admitted to being deathly afraid of Pettit due to past experiences where he recalled being threatened by Pettit.

Kraft admitted to coming onto the Pettit property to retrieve a phone charger. He saw Trudeau coming out of the house and their conversation was not on the best of notes, according to Kraft. 

Kraft recalled hearing Trudeau telling Pettit to shoot him as Pettit walked to Kraft at the end of the driveway. “I was scared. I wasn’t rationally thinking,” said Kraft.

Sitting in the driver seat, Kraft admitted to shooting through the passenger side of the vehicle. “I pointed at the ground and pulled the trigger,” said Kraft. 

He said he took off and returned because he was scared and wished he could have done something but was scared for his life. Kraft told the court he believed Trudeau and Pettit were conspiring against him to kill him.

“My motive wasn’t to kill anyone or the evidence would have shown it,” said Kraft.

In his cross-examination, Steffen asked if Kraft was afraid for his life, why would he risk his life for a phone charger? Kraft told the court he was having second thoughts. His plan had been to get the phone charger and then go to his brother’s Ladysmith home. 

“You could have kept going, you were free,” said Steffen. 

Steffen asked how Kraft didn’t shoot the passenger side door if he was pointing at the ground from the driver’s seat. Kraft replied, “it was common sense, looking at the angle.”

Steffen asked Kraft if he knew he led law enforcement on a chase with speeds up to 128 mph for 14 miles. Kraft told the court that if they were chasing him, “it wasn’t a procedural stop.”

Many of the questions Steffen asked Kraft was unable to directly answer and would often engage in rambling outbursts. Frustrated, Kraft said, “I’m done. I’m ready to go downstairs. I didn’t think I could prove my innocence.” 

Harrington told the court, “despite his best efforts, Kraft no longer wishes to answer questions.” Deputies transported Kraft to the rooms at the jail for video conferencing to the courtroom.

Friday, June 12 closing arguments were heard and jurors were allowed to consider lesser charges of second-degree intentional homicide or first-degree reckless homicide instead of the first degree intentional homicide Kraft had been charged with. If they jury believed Kraft was acting in self-defense and that his life was in eminent danger and if the force Kraft used was reasonable, a not guilty verdict could be declared.

Steffen told the jury, “I want you to focus on the first degree intentional homicide charge.”

He recounted the different pieces of the puzzle of witnesses hearing five gunshots, five bullet casings being found in the vehicle, the home surveillance cameras and Kraft’s own admission of being in the vehicle when the shots were fired. 

“I don’t believe there are any missing pieces,” said Steffen, and recounted Kraft saying, “I just pointed and shot.” Steffen recalled Kraft’s behavior as chilling.

Pettit, said Steffen, was 141 feet away from the road and the vehicle where Kraft was sitting when he fired the weapon. “Kraft caused the death of Bob, there’s no contradictory evidence,” said Steffen.

Kraft had intent, he had a plan, said Steffen.  

In his closing statement, Kraft urged the jurors to take their time, to consider the inconsistencies to carefully decide and not rule out his statements.

“A real puzzle is 3D,” said Kraft who told jurors that pieces of the puzzle were missing. There were time gaps in the home surveillance video and possible tampering of the evidence, according to Kraft. 

Kraft thanked the jurors for their time and said, “I pray to the Lord you make the right decision.”

The jurors went into deliberations at 10:31 a.m., Friday, June 12 and returned with two guilty verdicts at 12:42 p.m.

At the conclusion of the trial, Bitney said a pre-sentence investigation would be ordered and a time for a sentencing hearing would be scheduled. Under the circumstances of this being a murder trial, Bitney said it would likely be scheduled about 60 days from June 12.

 

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