Vail park stabbing: An act of violence or self-defense?
The trial of Vail resident Brian Wibergh begins in Eagle County
The first two days of the jury trial of a Vail man who stabbed another man at a Vail park last summer featured testimony from the victim, numerous police officers, a trauma surgeon and a key witness.
The central question jury members will be tasked with deciding at the end of the weeklong trial is whether Brian Wibergh stabbed Jeffrey Bell out of aggression and violence or in self-defense.
“(Wibergh) decided he wanted to show Jeffrey Bell how big and bad he was by using a knife he carried with him … on Jeffrey Bell, who was unarmed without any weapon of his own to defend himself from this brutal assault,” prosecuting attorney Johnny Lombardi said Tuesday.
Lombardi and fellow prosecuting attorney Daniel Steinhauser, both deputy district attorneys with the 5th Judicial District, said the incident on Aug. 22, 2020, was a clear display of dangerous and aggressive behavior by Wibergh.
Wibergh faces charges of second-degree assault with a deadly weapon causing bodily injury and menacing, both felonies, as well as third-degree assault, cruelty to an animal and harassment, all misdemeanors.
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Defense attorney Jesse Wiens said Wibergh stabbing Bell with his pocketknife was an “appropriate use of self-defense considering the circumstances.”
His client was put into a chokehold by a man much larger than himself during a fight at Buffehr Creek Park in Vail that day. Wibergh stabbed the man out of desperation as he struggled to breathe but was by no means the “confrontational party,” Wiens argued.
The first witness called Tuesday was Sye Curtis, a man who witnessed part of the incident and took two short videos after Bell was stabbed.
Curtis knew Wibergh from around town and had let his 6-year-old daughter play with Wibergh’s dog on that afternoon last summer while he sat near the creek with his son, he said in court Tuesday.
Shortly thereafter, Jeffrey Bell arrived at the park with his young puppy, who bounded over to Wibergh and Curtis’ daughter.
Bell said his dog was “puppy-bouncing” around in a nonaggressive manner, but the defense claimed the dog was biting at Wibergh’s dog and jumping on Curtis’ daughter, causing her to yell in fear.
What happened next is where the accounts of Bell, Curtis and Wibergh differ. Wibergh has yet to take the stand but the jury got a feel for his side of the story from an hourlong video of a police interview the prosecution showed Wednesday.
Curtis said he walked over when he heard his daughter yell and saw Wibergh grab the dog and throw it “a few feet,” but not in a way that felt abusive to him. He could not see much of what happened leading up to that point.
In an interview at the Eagle County jail, Wibergh told police that he was merely trying to corral the dog to return it to Bell.
The puppy was “a little high-strung,” and Wibergh was used to helping Bell catch the dog when it ran around the dog park that both men frequented, he said. The two men live a few hundred yards from each other in a neighborhood near the park.
They knew each other as casual friends, but Wibergh told police they had butted heads a few times in the past.
Bell, on the other hand, said he saw Wibergh jump on top of his dog and hit her multiple times, although he later said it could have been just one swing when Wiens pressed him on the matter.
He said he heard Wibergh say something along the lines of “I’m tired of this s—” before grabbing the dog by the “collar and the neck,” and body-slamming her to the ground.
Bell began yelling at Wibergh, and Wibergh responded by pushing Bell multiple times, Wibergh said. Bell testified that Wibergh punched him, and Curtis said he recalls punches being thrown, but wasn’t sure by whom.
Ultimately, the two men walked off to get their dogs and leave the park.
As they were walking, Bell asked Wibergh, “What would you do if somebody did something like that to your dog?”
Bell told police that he then took a step toward Wibergh’s dog, which Wibergh said felt like a clear threat to hurt his dog. Bell said he was taking a step to get his own dog and leave the park, which happened to be in the same direction as Wibergh’s dog.
“I had no intention of harming his dog at any point … or him,” Bell said.
After Bell took that step, Wibergh jumped at him and pushed him while simultaneously stepping behind his leg, tripping him, Bell said.
He said he grabbed Wibergh to try to “arrest his fall.” Wibergh ended up on top of Bell on the ground with Bell lying on his back. It was at this point that Bell put Wibergh in a headlock to try to subdue him, he said.
Wibergh told police he couldn’t remember how they got on the ground, but was sure that he was the one who ended up face-down with Bell on top of him and Bell’s arm around his neck in a chokehold.
“Get off me, get off me, I can’t breathe,” Wibergh recalled telling Bell, according to the police interview.
Bell remembered hearing him say this, but Wibergh didn’t stop fighting, so he didn’t release his hold.
Shortly thereafter, Bell said he felt a sharp, burning pain in his abdomen.
“I realized that I’d been stabbed and, if I didn’t do something, that I might die,” Bell said.
Bell said it wasn’t until then that he pushed his weight over and got on top of Wibergh. Wibergh said Bell was on top of him the whole time and he had been trying to cut Bell’s arm to loosen his grip before he swung his knife backward, desperately jabbing at whatever he could reach.
It was at this point that Curtis ran up and captured two brief videos. In the first, Bell can be heard exclaiming loudly that he had been stabbed. In the second, the two men can be seen locked in a hold on one another with Bell on top of Wibergh.
This view could indicate that Bell was actually the aggressor, meaning Wibergh would have had a reason to fear for his life, Wiens argued.
When Curtis walked up to break up the fight, he told police that Wibergh would not let go of the knife and that he had to step on Wibergh’s wrist to get the knife out of his hand.
Curtis was less certain about this part when testifying in court, saying he thought the knife was either still in Wibergh’s hand or in the dirt nearby, which is what Wibergh said happened.
Bell was taken by ambulance to Vail Hospital and later transferred to Denver Health due to the seriousness of his injury.
Dr. Eric Campion, a trauma surgeon who treated Bell, said Bell had a significantly elevated heart rate and “a penetrating injury to the right flank” with “active bleeding” when he came in that night.
The Wibergh trial is set to extend through Friday. The prosecution will call a few more witnesses and then the defense will make their case.
“You’ve heard more of the case, but you haven’t heard all of the case,” Judge Paul R. Dunkelman told the jury as they got up to leave for the day Wednesday.
Email Kelli Duncan at email@example.com