Editor’s note: The Frontier learned about allegations last week that a gun identical to the gun used by Robert Bates and listed as an exhibit in Bates’ criminal case may have been modified. During our reporting process, The Frontier contacted Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, who assigned an investigator to interview a former gunsmith who made the allegation.
A former gunsmith for a Tulsa gun shop linked to attorney Clark Brewster claims he was told to lighten the trigger pull on a weapon identical to Robert Bates’ revolver for use in Bates’ upcoming manslaughter trial, court records show.
The former gunsmith employed by 2A Shooting Center, Michael Hardison, states in an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court Wednesday that the center ordered a revolver matching the one Bates carried when he shot Eric Harris last year. Hardison states he was asked to modify the model gun’s trigger by his manager, Eric Fuson, in March.
Hardison said Fuson asked him to modify the trigger by “significantly” reducing the amount of force required to pull the trigger on the Smith & Wesson .357 revolver.
“My impression from this was that the trigger was to be modified in order to fool or manipulate the jury in the Bates trial. I told Eric, ‘I can’t do that,’” Hardison states in the notarized affidavit, signed and dated April 8.
Hardison said that Fuson told him the jury would be “too stupid to figure it out,” the affidavit states.
In addition to being identified in the affidavit as co-owner of the gun shop, Brewster is also Bates’ attorney in his manslaughter case. When asked about Hardison’s affidavit during a court hearing Tuesday, Brewster said he never intended for the “examplar” gun to be introduced to jurors.
He said he asked that the gun be modified for his expert to review so that it matched Bates’ actual gun, which he described as having a trigger that is “unbelievably light.” However, that statement raises the question of whether Bates was carrying a weapon with a modified trigger, meaning it would be easier to discharge.
Bates is scheduled to be tried next week on a second-degree manslaughter charge in Harris’ death on April 2, 2015.
Bates was serving as a volunteer reserve deputy with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office drug task force when he shot Harris during an undercover operation. He claims he the shooting was an accident and that he meant to use his Taser on Harris, who had been subdued by other deputies at the time.
District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler assigned an investigator to interview Hardison after The Frontier asked about allegations regarding the gun prosecutors indicated had been listed as an exhibit.
Court records show Brewster’s list of proposed exhibits for Bates’ trial includes an “exemplar of the handgun” that Bates used to shoot Harris.
Records indicate the DA was also under the impression Brewster planned to use the second gun during the trial.
“The state objects, as the original gun will be in evidence, and is the best evidence for the jury to evaluate,” states a motion filed Aril 5 by Kunzweiler.
State law makes it a felony to “falsely prepare any book, paper, record, instrument in writing, or other matter or thing, with intent to produce it, or allow it to be produced as genuine upon any trial.”
Kunzweiler said late Wednesday that his investigation is concluded because the judge did not allow the gun to be introduced as an exhibit.
Brewster told The Frontier after Tuesday’s hearing that the issue is merely a misunderstanding.
“The prosecutor thought that that’s what we were going to try to do. He had never talked to me about it. We had no intention of using the exemplar. The exemplar was just something that we would look at and try to get an understanding, rather than for the first time, pick that gun up in front of a jury.”
Hardison’s affidavit was discussed during a motions hearing Tuesday in Bates’ manslaughter case and District Judge Bill Musseman reviewed the document. However, it was not filed in Tulsa County District Court records.
Attorneys representing Harris’ family filed an emergency motion in federal court Wednesday with the affidavit attached. The motion asks U.S. District Judge John Dowdell to order that Bates’ actual gun used to shoot Harris be preserved as evidence beyond his criminal trial, and tested for use in the civil trial.
“The fact that Sheriff Glanz and the TCSO knowingly allowed Bates to use a modified service weapon that had not been certified by the TCSO — in direct violation of unequivocal TCSO policy — supports that defendants were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Harris’ constitutional rights,” states the motion, filed by attorney Dan Smolen.
Hardison states in the affidavit he quit his job the day after being asked to modify the gun. Before Hardison left, he said Fuson asked him where the springs were to complete the “trigger job.”
The gun Bates used to shoot Harris with was an Airlite Smith & Wesson five shot .357 revolver. The gun, which has a laser sight, is not listed among the weapons that reserve deputies are allowed to carry.
TCSO policy also requires an annual inspection of weapons carried by deputies. It’s unclear if the sheriff’s office inspected the weapon that Bates was carrying when he shot Harris.
Hardison is a federally licensed firearms dealer and has a degree in gunsmithing, according to his affidavit. He states that he has worked at 2A Shooting Center since 2011. Before that, he worked for Oklahoma Police Supply, owned by retired Tulsa Police Officer Rick Phillips.
Phillips and Brewster are majority co-owners of 2A Shooting Center, 4616 E. Admiral Place, according to the affidavit.
Hardison was 2A’s only gunsmith and was responsible for cleaning and maintaining guns, including weapons available for rental. His affidavit states that he was hired by Bates in 2008 or 2009 to modify several shotguns. Those modifications allowed Bates to use the shotguns as a reserve deputy with “less lethal” ammunition, such as pepper balls.
On March 8, Fuson asked Hardison “to modify a gun for use in the criminal trial of Bates,” the affidavit states.
“Eric specifically told me that 2A had a gun coming in for use in the Bates trial and that it needed a ‘trigger job.’ Eric asked me to modify the gun by reducing the amount of force required to discharge the weapon. Eric indicated that I was to take the gun’s trigger from stock configuration (11 to 12 1/2 pound of force required) and significantly reduce that number.”
Hardison said the next day, he came to work and found a box on his desk containing the Smith & Wesson revolver matching Bates’ weapon.
“After seeing the gun, I asked Eric whether it was the gun for the Bates trial we discussed earlier. Eric said ‘yes.’”
Hardison’s affidavit states he told Fuson: “I have a problem with that.”
“I noted that it was improper to modify a ‘duty weapon.’ It was part of my training … one should never modify a duty weapon.”
Hardison’s affidavit states that he asked Fuson why Bates’ attorneys could not use the “actual gun” used to shoot Harris as an exhibit during the trial.
“Eric told me that the ‘jury [in the Bates trial] too stupid to figure it out.’ My impression from this was that the trigger was to be modified in order to fool or manipulate the jury in the Bates trial.”
The affidavit states that Phillips heard the last part of this conversation with Fuson. Phillips stated, “Bob [Bates] shooting that guy was an accident.”
“I came back to 2A the next day, March 10, and resigned. … I spent that day moving tools out. Eric asked, ‘Where are replacement springs to do the trigger job’ for the .357?’ I gave Eric the springs and left.”
Fuson could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Brewster said the second gun was ordered because Bates’ actual gun is in custody as evidence. He said the district attorney’s office allowed him to inspect the gun and dry fire it.
“For us to really get an understanding how there can be some confusion with the Taser and a gun, we need one just like it. So when we looked at the gun over at the Faulkner Building, it had a really light trigger pull.
“We bought an identical gun, with identical grips, and asked the gunsmith to lighten the trigger pull so we could have the same kind of feel.”
Brewster said Hardison “thought that somehow we were going to do something tricky in the courtroom. … He just misapprehended our intention.”
In 2006, a Comanche County District Court judge asked that Brewster be investigated for conduct during the trial of former Creek County judge Donald Thompson. Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s office determined that Brewster’s contact with a former juror who testified in that case did not warrant a criminal investigation.
Musseman ruled Tuesday that Fuson would not be allowed to testify in Bates’ criminal trial. Brewster said Fuson, a “ballistics expert,” would have testified why the bullet Bates shot at Harris didn’t deform after entering Harris’ body.