Vail man found guilty of felony assault, menacing in Buffehr Creek Park stabbing
Jury acquits Brian Wibergh on three other misdemeanor charges
A jury found Brian Wibergh guilty of second-degree assault and felony menacing but not guilty on three other misdemeanor charges after a fight at a Vail park last year ended with Wibergh stabbing another man.
Wibergh never denied stabbing fellow Vail resident Jeffrey Bell at Buffehr Creek Park on Aug. 22 of last year, but he and his attorney argued that he was forced to do so to defend himself.
“Mr. Wibergh found himself in a situation that hopefully none of the rest of us ever find ourselves in,” Wibergh’s defense attorney, Jesse Wiens, said Friday morning.
Wibergh faced 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.
Three things must be shown in order to prove a self-defense case under Colorado state law, Judge Paul R. Dunkelman told the jury Friday.
First, it must be shown that Wibergh reasonably believed he was about to suffer imminent and unlawful force requiring him to use immediate force to protect himself.
Second, it must be determined that Wibergh used a degree of force that he would have reasonably believed to be necessary to prevent harm.
And finally, the jury must determine that Wibergh was either not the initial aggressor or, if he was, that he withdrew from the encounter and effectively communicated his intent to withdraw, but the other person (Bell) continued to engage in an unlawful use of force anyway.
Wibergh’s perspective of what happened that day last year differed significantly from that of Bell, who now lives out of state.
The two got into a shoving match, with a few swings thrown, over Wibergh’s allegedly harmful treatment of Bell’s rambunctious puppy while trying to get the dog to calm down.
The dog was off-leash and had been jumping on Wibergh and the daughter of another man at the park that day. Dogs are required to be kept on leash at Buffehr Creek Park, meaning dogs are welcome but it is technically not a dog park.
After this initial altercation, Bell said all he wanted to do was leave the park, but Wibergh testified Thursday that it was Bell who followed him and threatened to hurt Wibergh’s dog in retaliation. Wibergh said he stepped up in defense of his dog, although Bell said he never intended to hurt Wibergh or his dog.
Before he knew it, Wibergh said he was face-down on the ground with the full weight of a much larger man on top of him and the man’s arm around his neck, restricting his ability to breathe.
It was under these conditions that Wibergh said his mind began to race, searching for anything that might save his life as he began to feel dizzy, and his vision tunneled. He reached for his pocket and unlatched a small pocketknife he keeps clipped to the outside. After trying to scratch at Bell’s arm, he decided to swing the knife backwards, stabbing Bell in his right flank.
Bell testified Tuesday that it was Wibergh who was on top of him when they went to the ground that day with his back on Bell’s stomach. Bell did say he had Wibergh in a chokehold position, but only because he was trying to restrain him and end the fight.
It was only after he was stabbed that Bell said he pushed himself on top of Wibergh to try to get the knife away from him.
The prosecution built upon this by saying that if Wibergh’s description of the position the two men were in is accurate, it seems highly unlikely that he would have been able to get his arms out from under him, grab his knife and stab backwards.
In their closing statements, prosecuting attorneys Johnny Lombardi and Daniel Steinhauser said Wibergh’s testimony did not add up and differed from his initial statements to police. Detective Sgt. Justin Liffick of the Vail Police Department, who interviewed Wibergh that day, agreed that there were “inconsistencies” in his story.
There were also several things that Wibergh could have done differently that day, meaning the situation does not meet the threshold of self-defense.
Wibergh could have reached for his phone instead of his knife and called 911, or tried to buck Bell off him. He could have yelled out for help or tried to warn Bell that he had a knife and intended to use it if he did not let him up, the prosecution argued.
“(Bell) was not in a rational state of mind at the time,” Wibergh said in his testimony. “When I’m face down and he’s on top of me … I don’t believe that an adult conversation would have proven fruitful at the time.”
Wibergh said he did call out to another man in the park that day, saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, call 911.”
Beyond that, “there was really no struggle to be done,” Wibergh said. “He is a much bigger man than I am.”
The defense sought to undermine Bell’s side of the story by calling three witnesses Thursday afternoon who spoke to Bell’s reputation around town for being quick to anger.
One witness said Bell is the kind of guy known for picking a fight, the kind of guy people cross the street to avoid. Another called Bell aggressive, but later added that he considers the man a casual friend, someone he chats to when he sees him around town.
“This isn’t a rumor, these are reputations,” Wiens said in response to the prosecution dismissing the testimony as gossip. “They say trust is earned; you earn a reputation.”
“Does a person’s reputation justify them being stabbed?” Lombardi asked in his closing statement Friday morning.
The final witness subpoenaed to testify by Wiens on Thursday said he had a conversation with Bell about the Buffehr Creek Park incident shortly after it happened in which Bell gave a different account than he did in court Tuesday.
Bell also told the man that he was so angry at what Wibergh did to his dog that he “should have killed him.” Furthermore, Bell told the man that if Wibergh did anything like that again, he just might.
Steinhauser encouraged jury members to consider the motive and credibility of witnesses in deciding how much weight to give their testimony. None of these three people were present in the park that day, and none of them spoke up or told police what they knew until they were contacted by Wiens, Steinhauser said.
The jury was released to begin deliberating just before 11 a.m. Friday. After about three-and-a-half hours of discussion, jury members found Wibergh guilty on the two felony charges — second-degree assault and menacing with a deadly weapon — and not guilty on the three misdemeanors.
After the verdict was handed down, Lombardi requested that Wibergh be immediately remanded to the Eagle County Jail to await sentencing. Wiens objected to this, but Judge Dunkelman ruled in favor of the request and Wibergh was taken into custody.
Dunkelman will determine Wibergh’s sentence at a hearing Dec. 22 after a pre-sentence investigation is completed by the probation department.
As Wibergh was handcuffed, his family gave him one last hug and promised to look after his dog, Bandit.
Email Kelli Duncan at email@example.com