ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Moments after a sheriff’s deputy testified that Tim McGraw had attacked his partner and tried to attack him as well, the country superstar strode confidently out of court Wednesday near Buffalo. With his wife Faith Hill beside him, the couple merrily greeted a modest gathering of fans.
A supportive Hill held McGraw’s hand during the court’s breaks, while fellow star and defendant Kenny Chesney rubbed his shoulders. The defendants joked with each other and fans who sat through the second day of testimony in Orchard Park Town Court, a Buffalo suburb as picturesque as it sounds.
In a backstage incident during the George Strait Country Music Festival on June 3 of last year, down the road at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Sgt. Mark Rokikta of the Erie County Sheriff’s Department testified that Chesney refused to get off a police horse. As Rokikta and his partner, Detective Arthur Litzinger, tried to pull Chesney off, McGraw attacked Litzinger. "All this happened in a split second," Rokikta said. "My attention was diverted from the horse to my partner."
McGraw stood behind Litzinger, with his arm extended onto Litzenger, and McGraw’s neck and arm muscles bulging, Rokikta told the jurors. Rokikta then ran at McGraw and tried to hoist him onto a squad car but ended up on the hood of the car himself. "I couldn’t move him, so I screamed ‘You attacked my partner! You attacked my partner!’" Rokikta testified. While McGraw and Litzinger still struggled, Rokikta tried and failed again to pull McGraw off his partner, and after Litzinger escaped, McGraw came after Rokikta with a clenched fist, Rokikta testified. "He was coming at me fast," said Rokikta, who described McGraw, a former collegiate athlete, as "solid muscle."
Rokikta readied his baton and struck McGraw’s left thigh with it, just as Litzinger subdued McGraw from behind. Rokikta later found out he had stricken both McGraw and Litzinger, Rokikta said.
Defense lawyers tried pointing out inconsistencies in testimonies of the prosecution’s witnesses, which so far include the two deputies and Sharlene Turner, daughter of Capt. James Coyle of the Sheriff’s Mounted Division, who owns Chico, the disputed horse. Turner was tending to the horse when she allowed Chesney to mount it.
McGraw is charged with misdemeanor assault, resisting arrest, obstruction of governmental administration and menacing, while Chesney is charged with disorderly conduct. Former manager Mark Russo is on trial for misdemeanor obstruction of government administration, resisting arrest and violation charges of harassment and disorderly conduct.
McGraw’s attorney, Thomas Eoannou, said after the court adjourned for the day that his client was innocent. If the jury convicts McGraw, he could spend up to a year in jail. "He’s maintained all along that he’s done nothing wrong, that he came to the aid of a friend. … What’s he supposed to do? Sit there and let his friend’s neck get broken?"
Eoannou and the defense lawyers say Turner gave Chesney permission not only to mount but also to ride the horse. The defense aggressively attacked the credibility of Turner, who recently pled guilty to a felony conviction of scheming to defraud and faces sentencing after this trial ends.
Turner admitted to stealing personal information of five people to obtain credit cards in their names, from June 1999 to August 2000. She also pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in September of 2000. Turner says she was mentally ill and now takes antidepressants and sees a psychiatrist weekly. She repeatedly replied "I do not recall" when asked specific questions about her crimes, saying she was not fit to stand trial and did not. However, she said she remembered the entire incident at the festival, which she described as "mad chaos," "a frenzy" and "a three-ring circus."
Turner broke the tension in the courtroom when she said she did not recognize Chesney when he said hello to her as he rode by on a golf cart. "I’m sorry, I’m not a fan of Mr. Chesney’s," she said
as the courtroom burst into laughter and the defense playfully objected.
But the point became a serious one when defense lawyers grilled Turner, insinuating that because she had seen McGraw at a similar festival in West Virginia five years ago, she was an awestruck fan trying to schmooze with the stars. She denied trying to interact with the stars and said she owned none of their albums, only an old one of Hill’s, and said she went to the West Virginia festival because friends invited her.
Before Chesney, McGraw had driven by on a golf cart and greeted her, Turner testified. Turner did not realize who McGraw was until after he drove by, she said, but the defense maintains that she initiated
conversation with both McGraw and Chesney. "I’m not a fan of country singers or anyone on TV or anyone like that," she said, saying she was at the stadium only to visit her father and the horse, which he owns.
Turner has been around horses since age 6 and was talking intently to a woman about the subject when Chesney said hello, she said. After complimenting the horse, Chesney asked to mount it, to which Turner
asked if he had experience with horses. He replied yes, she said, so she let him.
Chesney then rode away on the horse and Turner ran and
called out after him, she said. Two deputies, Litzinger and Rokikta, "forcibly removed" Chesney from the horse, which, to someone unfamiliar with how to dismount a horse, could have appeared "violent" and "aggressive," Turner said.
When arguing over her use of the word "violent," Turner told Eoannou, "I don’t know, you’ve put me through hell and back again."
"You should see what you’ve done to my client," said
Eoannou, who blames the incident on Turner. The day opened with final testimony from Litzinger, who told the jury that McGraw grabbed his neck from behind as he tried to pull Chesney off the horse. Defense lawyers assailed Litzinger’s credibility because he consulted a civil attorney about a potential lawsuit against McGraw.
Rokikta has also spoken to a civil attorney. The trial continues Thursday (May 17) and could run through Monday. McGraw and Chesney have not yet testified, and it remains unclear if they will.