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Plea hearings set in Hurst killing

by KEITH KINNAIRD
News editor | April 7, 2021 1:00 AM

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SANDPOINT — Plea hearings are pending for a Spokane man and a Sandpoint woman implicated in the killing of Brandon Vern Hurst.

Neal Aaron Mouser is scheduled to be arraigned on a charge of first-degree murder on Thursday. Cantrip Velite Gatens is scheduled to enter a plea to a charge of accessory to murder on April 19.

Mouser is being held at the Bonner County Jail with bail set at $1 million. Gatens is being held in lieu of $750,000 bail.

Mouser, 59, and Gatens, 28, were ordered to stand trial for the shooting of Hurst in the Upper Pack River Valley on Nov. 21, 2020.

Bonner County Magistrate Court Judge Justin Julian found there was sufficient evidence presented in a March 17 preliminary hearing to warrant jury trials of Mouser and Gatens.

Gatens is accused of luring Hurst, 38, to a remote location off Caribou Creek Road, where Mouser was laying in wait to ambush him. Gatens allegedly led Hurst to the site by claiming she was having car trouble.

Gatens' former boyfriend, Jacob Van Etten, testified that he played a part in the deadly ruse by raising the hood of his Subaru to feign car trouble. Van Etten told the court that a man emerged from the woods and opened fire on Hurst as he sat in a Chrysler PT Cruiser.

"I see the shots come out and then I slammed my hood down," said Van Etten, adding that he got in his vehicle and pulled Gatens into the Subaru by her coattails.

Van Etten, who testified in exchange for immunity from prosecution, said he was unable to make out the shooter's face, but admitted under oath that he drove Gatens to Spokane to pick up Mouser and the trio went together to the Caribou Creek location where Hurst was slain.

Van Etten told the court he believed Hurst, also a former paramour of Gatens, had attacked her with a tire iron and beaten her up on previous occasions. Van Etten initially believed they were picking up Mouser in order to perpetrate a retaliatory beating of Hurst, but suspected an elevated form of vengeance was in the works when he overheard Gatens and Mouser talking about a firearm.

Van Etten, 31, testified that he tried unsuccessfully to talk Mouser out of killing Hurst.

"I was trying to change the direction of what was happening … what I felt was going to happen," Van Etten testified.

Mouser and Gatens invoked their right to remain silent during the daylong hearing and did not testify.

Authorities contend Hurst was killed with a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol Mouser stole from a former housemate in Spokane.

Mouser's defense counsel, Coeur d'Alene attorney Sean Walsh, argued that the state failed to provide substantial evidence on each element of the murder charge.

"I don't think that the state has met its burden of proving that Mr. Mouser was involved in the events alleged to have occurred," Walsh said.

Gatens' counsel, public defender Janet Whitney, maintained there was insufficient evidence to show her client conspired to kill Hurst.

Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall disagreed, arguing that Gatens was a principal in Hurst's killing and conspired to kill him due to communications she made that were entered into evidence.

Marshall said it was clear that Gatens coerced Hurst into the wooded area after dark, where he was shot to death.

"Without her part in this entire process her colleague, Mr. Mouser would not have been there," said Marshall.

Julian said the case turned on the testimony of Van Etten, whom he described as an "imperfect witness" due to his current incarceration on unrelated criminal charges. However, it did not mean Van Etten's testimony was untruthful.

Moreover, it appeared Gatens had taken advantage of Van Etten's affections for her, Julian said.

Julian further held that much of the evidence — specifically the likely murder weapon — connecting Mouser to the killing was circumstantial since there was no first-person eyewitness testimony that Mouser stole the weapon from his housemate.

However, the circumstantial evidence stacked up to weigh against Mouser, Julian said.

"That appears to be the same gun utilized to kill Mr. Hurst from all the available forensic evidence before the court at this time," he added.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and followed on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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