Craig jury finds woman guilty of 2nd-degree murder
May 14, 2018
CRAIG — Following a six-day trial and nearly seven hours of deliberation Monday, a jury of 10 women and two men found Rachel Niemeyer, 40, guilty of murder in the second degree in the Oct. 4 shooting death of her husband, Michael Adam Freese, 48.
The jury also found Niemeyer guilty of assault in the second degree, prohibited use of a firearm under the influence and prohibited use of a firearm aiming.
Following the reading of the verdict, Chief Judge Michael A. O'Hara ordered a pre-sentencing investigative report and set a pre-sentencing hearing for 1 p.m. July 16, remanding Niemeyer to the custody of the Moffat County Sheriff's Office, without bond, pending that hearing.
The charges against Niemeyer arose from an Oct. 4 incident at Craig's Bear Valley Inn, where Niemeyer and Freese had been staying since relocating to Craig several weeks before.
According to court records, they were both offered jobs that day at the Clarion Inn & Suites and had been "drinking heavily" in celebration when they began "messing around" with Freese's .22 caliber rifle. Freese was shot in the right ear and died the following day at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction.
The prosecution contended that Niemeyer, fueled by longstanding frustration and resentment over Freese's frequent bouts of drinking and failure to provide, shot her husband in a moment of drunken rage.
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The defense countered Freese had shot himself.
During Monday's proceedings, defense attorney Larry Combs called a single witness — Niemeyer herself. O'Hara advised Niemeyer she had both the right to testify and the right to remain silent, adding that, if she opted to remain silent, her silence could not be considered by the jury in determining guilt or innocence.
Niemeyer chose to testify.
Under direct examination by Combs, Niemeyer said she met Freese in 2015 through an online dating site after relocating to Steamboat Springs from Michigan three years before.
"He was really sweet," Niemeyer said. "He had a dorky sense of humor that matched my dorky sense of humor. We hit it off right away."
She said she and Freese dated throughout the summer of 2015, and the couple eventually moved in together, an arrangement Niemeyer said worked out "fabulously."
They were married April 8, 2016, in Steamboat.
In October of that year, the couple moved to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, and while living there, Niemeyer said, Freese began to "have issues."
She said he began drinking heavily and fell victim to "really bad mood swings."
After "six or seven months" in Florida, Niemeyer said, the couple returned to Colorado to "regroup."
"We were going to Colorado to take a break and catch our breath," she said. "We had friends there."
Upon their return, Niemeyer and Freese resided briefly in Oak Creek, then moved to Craig in fall 2017.
"It was a difficult time," Niemeyer testified, saying neither she nor Freese had secured employment before moving to Craig.
They rented a room at the Bear Valley Inn, and both began job hunting.
But, Niemeyer testified, Freese's symptoms were steadily growing worse.
She said Freese claimed to have been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease while in Florida. Though she said Freese had been exhibiting symptoms — including shaking, night sweats and memory loss — she said she was skeptical of his Parkinson's claim.
Even so, she testified, she never resented her husband, was never fearful of him and never suspected him of infidelity.
On Oct. 4 — the day of Freese's shooting — Niemeyer said, they learned they had both been offered jobs at Clarion Inn & Suites.
"Things were starting to get better," she said. "Things were starting to look up."
She said securing the jobs made her feel "hopeful." As for her husband, she said, "he seemed happy."
They returned to their room at Bear Valley Inn — Room 104 — where both consumed large quantities of alcohol. When Freese picked up the .22 caliber rifle he kept at his bedside, Niemeyer said, she became nervous and asked him to put the weapon down.
She maintained throughout her testimony she had believed the rifle was unloaded.
Though she said — both during her testimony and during her initial interviews with Craig Police officers — that she doesn't remember exactly what happened after that, she was certain she didn't shoot Freese.
"Mrs. Niemeyer, did you pull the trigger?" Combs asked.
"No, I did not," Niemeyer replied.
"How can you be sure?" Combs pressed.
"Because I wouldn't hurt Michael," she stated.
Upon cross-examination, Matthew Karzen, assistant district attorney for the 14th Judicial District, took issue with much of Niemeyer’s testimony, pointing out inconsistencies between her version of the events and testimony offered by other witnesses.
For example, under direct examination, Niemeyer testified Freese was "right-handed" but used his left hand for writing. Freese's father, however, testified last week that his son was left-handed. Karzen noted it is unlikely a left-handed man would have shot himself in the right ear with a rifle.
He also pointed to a videotaped interview between Niemeyer and Craig Police Department Detective Norm Rimmer, during which Niemeyer asked Rimmer multiple times if she had shot Freese.
"Did I shoot him?" she asked on the videotaped interview. "Am I the one who shot him?"
Keying off the video, Karzen questioned Niemeyer’s apparent shift in her recollection of the events.
"Was there a possibility in your mind that you may have shot him?" Karzen asked.
"I knew I didn't," Niemeyer replied. She said she initially didn't remember — hence, her questions to Rimmer — but had since recalled the incident.
"I know I didn't shoot him," she said.
Karzen also pressed Niemeyer on the couple's finances, pointing to bank records showing frequent "deficit spending" and liquor store tabs that climbed to $700 some months.
"Would you agree you were approaching full-blown alcoholism in Florida?" Karzen asked.
"Yeah, we were both headed that way," Niemeyer replied.
Karzen also attempted to impeach Niemeyer’s repeated testimony that she was happy with Freese and bore him no ill will.
He pointed to transcripts from text conversations with a close friend and testimony from other witnesses, both of which indicated Niemeyer had said she "hated" Freese and resented the fact he was "spending all my money." In one text message, she wrote, "If it doesn't get any better, I'm going to snap like a twig."
Niemeyer denied having made such statements, and of the texts, she said she had been joking.
Noting that the DNA of a female had been found on the cartridges in the rifle's magazine, Karzen outlined his theory of the night's timeline with a series of questions, prefacing them by speculating that Freese had been taunting Niemeyer, daring her to shoot him.
"You chambered a round into the rifle," he said.
"I don't know how," Niemeyer replied.
"You made sure the safety was off."
"I don't know where the safety is."
"You put the gun in his ear."
"I did not."
"And you pulled the trigger."
"I did not."
"You snapped that night, just like you said you were going to," Karzen concluded.
"No," Niemeyer replied. "I did not.”
During closing arguments, Combs outlined 16 "elements of defense," each of which, he contended, demonstrated reasonable doubt. Saying that Freese had shot himself, Combs described Niemeyer’s demeanor immediately after the shooting — captured on police body cameras — as the reaction of a grieving widow, not a murderer.
"She's suffering, and she's inconsolable," Combs said. "Her tears, her sobbing — that's real. She loved this man and was devastated by what she witnessed.
“… She had no reason to kill him, and the evidence supports that. Nothing in this case proves motive beyond reasonable doubt. This jury is required by law and by duty to find Rachel Niemeyer not guilty."
In his closing arguments, Karzen agreed the grief Niemayer displayed in the bodycam footage may have been genuine, but he characterized it as coming from a person who — in a fit of alcohol-stoked rage — had done something horrible and immediately regretted it.
"This is the culmination … of all that rage, all those resentments," Karzen said. "They were hammer drunk; they were raging alcoholics; they were not functional, whether they realized that or not."
He said the fact Niemeyer was appalled by what she'd done in no way meant she didn't do it.
"Rachel Niemeyer found homicide in herself, and there's no taking that back," Karzen said. "Michael Freese is not here today, and justice absolutely must be served. She's guilty."