Another side to the story
Mileski tells his version of what happened Jan. 1
Thursday, September 19, 2013 7:00 PM
MARINETTE - James Mileski took the stand Thursday in his own defense, to explain in his words what led to the Jan. 1 stabbing of Dennis Vanabel in the lobby of the Dunlap Square Apartment building in downtown Marinette.
James Mileski describes the area where a fight took place as his trial continues Thursday at Marinette County Circuit Court. Mileski faces four felony charges stemming from a New Year’s Day stabbing. Closing arguments will take place this morning and then the jury will begin deliberations. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Mileski is charged with four felonies and four misdemeanor counts in the incident.
There was a sense of deja vu in the Marinette Circuit Court Branch 1 courtroom, as District Attorney Allen Brey opened the day screening a videotaped version of Mileski's Jan. 1 interview with Marinette City Police detectives, while defense attorney John D'Angelo put his client on the witness stand to end both the day and his defense.
In the middle of the trial was the testimony of Sarah Merchant, Mileski's girlfriend and a key witness to the events of Jan. 1, who appeared as a prosecution witness, but served mainly to bolster Mileski's defense.
D'Angelo's witness list also included Elwood Elmer Walstrom III, the resident of an apartment just off the first floor lobby of the Dunlap Square building; Brian Newman, a Marinette man who came forward months after the stabbing to allege that he had been beaten by Vanabel in the bathroom of Mulligan's Jan. 1; and Molly Niemi, a friend of Newman's, who added her account of the events of that evening.
But the spotlight was clearly on Mileski, who shared his recollection of the night's events that led to the brawl with Vanabel. After sitting quietly, almost without emotion throughout the three days of the trial, he spoke softly in the packed courtroom.
Mileski told of going to his parents' house around 5 p.m. Dec. 31, before Merchant picked him and their 5-month-old daughter up. They stopped to pick up Holli DeLorme, Merchant's friend, before dropping their baby off in Peshtigo, at the home of a cousin who was babysitting for the night.
They went to their apartment on the second floor of the Dunlap Square building, where "the girls got ready to go out," Mileski said. All three had one or two shots before heading to Brewski's, a bar on Hall Avenue.
"Originally, we were going to have people come over," Mileski said, "but we went out." They walked to Brewski's, stayed there about an hour or more and walked to Lolli's, just across the street.
"It was cold that night, so we were in and out," he said. "We had a shot and then went to Mulligan's before midnight."
Mileski said they walked in together, but after getting drinks, they all separated at times "to be with friends." He played a game of pool, walked with Merchant to an ATM at one point, and returned to Mulligan's.
The night that began at about 9:30-10, ended after 4 a.m., when "(Sarah and Holli) came to me and wanted to go home." Mileski said he knew nothing about a plan to go to a party in Menominee.
They walked down the street and into the parking lot of the apartment building, where his truck was parked.
"I thought we were going to go home until we got to the truck and they started getting in," Mileski said. He said he didn't want them to go anywhere in his truck and told them "If they take the truck, it's on them," and walked toward the building. DeLorme, who had jumped into the driver's seat, stayed in the truck, while Merchant ran after him.
"We must have gotten into an argument - I don't remember," he said of his conversation with Merchant. "I grabbed her arm."
"Forcefully?" asked D'Angelo.
"No," he answered, saying that Merchant yelled for DeLorme, who he assumed was still in the truck or on her way to the apartment building.
"Were you concerned she would drive off?" asked D'Angelo.
"I would think she would not," Mileski answered.
He and Merchant entered the building, going through the first set of doors to the security door, which he unlocked and then "Sarah went in and tripped on something."
"Did you help her up?" asked D'Angelo.
"I could have," said Mileski, but added he didn't because he was suddenly pushed up against the wall by a man he didn't know, but later found out was Vanabel.
Mileski said Vanabel didn't say anything - he just "dove at me, tackled me and (pushed) me against the wall and it spilled into the next room."
The next room was the lobby area inside the locked door, in front of the elevators.
Mileski said they were "rolling around and I was punching him and being punched, but I don't know why." At some point, Merchant got tangled between the men, as she tried to break up the fight. But they did not separate until she said she was getting hurt, Mileski said, and then they broke apart "for a split second."
That's when his knife fell out of his pocket to the ground.
Mileski said he grabbed for it when he thought Vanabel was going to go for it as well.
"He took a step towards it and I grabbed it first. He came at me like he was going to tackle me," Mileski said.
D'Angelo asked Mileski if he was "getting Mr. Vanabel with the knife."
"I guess so, I don't know how many times I used it," Mileski answered.
Vanabel and Mileski broke apart, and then someone "jumped on my back," Mileski said. He said he still had the knife in his hand at the time, but the man (Mike McDowell - who was there with Vanabel) "got my hands behind my back ... then I got kicked in the head."
D'Angelo asked him if he recalled how many times he was kicked, and he said "it could have been more than once."
"Could it have been one (time)?" asked D'Angelo.
"No, it was more than that," Mileski answered.
Mileski said he might have blacked out for a second and when he came to, he didn't see Vanabel, but he saw Merchant. He got up and ran down the hallway. At the end of the hallway was a closed door that he opened, and while doing so, saw Vanabel behind it.
But he said he did not stop and started fighting with him. "Do you remember slashing at his chest or his elbow?" D'Angelo asked. "No," Mileski said.
"Do you remember slashing at his chest or elbow when he was in the lobby area?" D'Angelo asked.
"It probably happened when we were rolling around on the ground," he said.
Mileski said he ran upstairs to the apartment he shared with Merchant, who was right behind him, but that they didn't have keys, so she ran back to get them. He stayed there until she came back, following later by police.
Mileski said he didn't remember much that day of the fight. "When did these things start coming back to you?" D'Angelo asked.
"Later - I had a lot of time," Mileski said. Mileski has been in jail since his arrest in January.
It was there that he met Newman, and the two talked about how they ended up in jail, but Mileski said he did not initiate actions Newman took to allege Vanabel had also attacked him Jan. 1.
"Did you punch Sarah in the hallway?" D'Angelo asked his client. "No, never," he answered.
During cross examination, Brey asked Mileski how much he, Merchant and DeLorme had to drink the evening of Dec. 31/Jan. 1.
"Is it fair to say you didn't keep track of how much alcohol you were drinking?" Brey asked. Mileski agreed.
"Do you think you got drunk that night?" Brey asked. "I would think," Mileski said.
"How about Sarah? Do you think she got drunk?"
"How about Holli, was she drunk, too?" Brey asked.
"I think so," Mileski said.
"Well if Holli was drunk, why would you walk away from your truck when it's running and she's behind the wheel?"
Mileski said he was tired and just wanted to go home to bed. "I was just ready to be done with that night."
Brey asked if he cared that DeLorme was drunk and about to drive his truck away. He said he did care.
"But you chose to do nothing about it?" Brey asked.
"I told them I didn't want them taking it," Mileski said.
"Sarah was in the truck with Holli. And you didn't care if Holli drove drunk with Sarah in your truck?" Brey asked.
"I cared, I told them I didn't want them doing it, but if they were going to do it, it was on them," he said.
"So, you were kind of indifferent to them," Brey said. "You were indifferent to the mother of your child riding with a drunk driver?"
"I wouldn't say that."
"But you didn't do anything about it?" Brey asked. Mileski said he did not.
Brey asked what Merchant said to Mileski after he walked away from the vehicle, and he said he couldn't remember. "Did she say bad things to you?"
"She could have, I don't really remember," Mileski said.
Mileski said he grabbed her sleeve "to make her come with me" but let go of her after she called for DeLorme. He said he grabbed her sleeve another time, and also let go before they entered the building. He told Brey he did not grab Merchant's sleeve because of something she might have said.
"I just wanted her to come inside."
Brey said that Mileski never told officers Merchant tripped and fell in either of his interviews. Brey said since that time, Mileski has been talking with Merchant frequently, and "the two of you did talk about what happened that night."
D'Angelo asked later if Merchant told him what had occurred the night of Jan. 1.
"I just figured it out," Mileski said.
By PENNY MULLINS
EagleHerald news/online editor
MARINETTE - Sarah Merchant may have taken the stand Thursday as a prosecution witness, but her testimony gave more support to the defense in the case against her boyfriend, James Mileski.
Merchant played a key role in the events of Jan. 1, when Mileski stabbed Dennis Vanabel, 37, of Marinette, in the lobby of the Dunlap Square Apartments.
It is the prosecution's contention that Merchant and Mileski had an argument in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, which led to Mileski striking her. District Attorney Allen Brey has presented several witnesses from that day, including Vanabel, who testified they saw Mileski pulling Merchant by her jacket across the floor of the apartment building and then hitting her with a closed fist.
But Merchant's testimony Thursday painted a different picture - one of a boyfriend and girlfriend "not communicating with each other," that was misinterpreted by the witnesses, who became violent.
Among those who witnessed the altercation from the beginning was Holli DeLorme, Merchant's friend since middle school. Merchant and Mileski had picked DeLorme up Dec. 31 to celebrate New Year's Eve together.
They walked from the apartment, where they had a shot or two, Merchant said, to Brewski's. They then went to Lolli's ending up at Mulligan's.
She was asked by Brey if she got drunk. "Yes, we all did," she answered. Brey asked her again to just answer for herself, but she continued to answer, "Yes, we all did," two more times, until receiving instructions from Circuit Judge David Miron to answer the question.
Merchant said she got into an argument with a friend at Mulligan's, and that she walked away from it, and was not intoxicated at that point, but mad.
She, Mileski and DeLorme kept in contact during the night, but they were not all together the whole night. Brey asked her if Mileski was drunk.
"It's hard to say. I couldn't tell from where I was most of the night. When I did see him, he did not appear highly, highly intoxicated," Merchant said.
But she said she was not aware of DeLorme's plans to go to a party in Menominee until the three started to walk home sometime after 4 a.m. According to Merchant, they walked toward the truck with Mileski walking behind them. She does not remember giving DeLorme her set of keys.
When they got to the truck, "We really weren't communicating well," she said.
Mileski walked over to the driver's side, where DeLorme had started the truck, and said "You're not taking the truck anywhere. She said she would drive there and I would drive back."
Merchant said Mileski started to walk away. "He said he didn't want us to leave and he didn't want to go - he was mad."
Brey asked her to define how mad Mileski was, and she said he was just upset with them wanting to leave.
She ran after him and asked him "What's wrong? Why are you leaving me?" When he grabbed her sleeve, she pulled away and called for DeLorme.
Brey asked if they argued. She called it a miscommunication. "We did not know what was going on."
"When he grabbed your sleeve, were you angry?" Brey asked. "Yes," she answered.
He asked her to use the words she had written in her statement to police. "Pissed off, yes, I was," she said.
"Drunk?" he asked.
She called for DeLorme because she wanted her to come inside, she said. "But I didn't see her."
Mileski let go of her, Merchant said, but then grabbed her again.
"Were you angry?" Brey asked. "Yes."
"Pissed?" he asked. "Yes."
He asked if she yelled for DeLorme the second time, and she said she did. "I wasn't going to leave her out there," Merchant said.
Brey asked if she called for DeLorme because she knew Mileski would let go if she came.
"Yes, that, too," Merchant said.
"Did Jim hit you?" Brey asked. "No," she answered. She later said she had been hit, but it was during the fight between the men.
"Did Jim punch you in the head?" he asked her. "No," was her answer.
Brey asked her why she didn't share all of what she saw with police during the interviews or on her written statement, and she said she didn't have time to write everything down and there wasn't enough paper.
"I wrote extremely fast," she said. "I was no longer drunk, not clearheaded - I had alcohol in my system, but not drunk."
She stopped her written statement in mid-sentence, and said "I was done with it - I didn't want to deal with it anymore."
Merchant said she was yelling at the police department, because she could hear what Mike McDowell, Vanabel's friend, was saying in the other room. "I know he was lying," she said. Brey asked her if she yelled at DeLorme, too. Merchant said she couldn't hear what DeLorme was saying, but that she didn't trust her. "She did me wrong multiple times in the past," she said.
"Is there a difference between a friend you can trust and a friend you can give your car keys to?" Brey asked her.
"I can't remember, so I guess, yes," she said.
During cross examination with Defense Attorney John D'Angelo, Merchant teared up while answering his questions.
She went through the events leading up to the fight and said she was on the floor when she and Mileski entered the building because she ran into a garbage can inside the doorway.
"I tripped and fell over it. I turned to look up and saw two people fly through the door," she said. Mileski "never got a chance to help me up - they were that fast."
She said both men, Vanabel and McDowell, attacked Mileski, and said she was hit when she tried to intervene. "Dennis got a really good punch to my head," she said.
She said the fighting stopped for a moment when she said she was hurt, and she saw the knife on the ground. "Dennis went after it, and Jim just grabbed it," she said. "I thought he (Mileski) was going to die in front of me."
She said she saw Mileski stab Vanabel, but she testified that both McDowell and Vanabel kicked Mileski in the head.
She started to cry in the courtroom.
"Jim was unconscious on the ground," she said.
She went over to Mileski to shield him and said she told Vanabel that if he touched Mileski again - "I would kill him."
She said Vanabel must have left, but she didn't see where because she was helping Mileski. The two of them headed off down the hall running, and opened the door at the end. Behind the door was Vanabel, "he was smooshed in there - he must have fell behind the door," she said.
Brey asked her to demonstrate how she Vanabel looked and she got up from the witness stand and showed the court.
Brey asked her why she didn't write any of the information about tripping and falling, about the knife, or about multiple kicks to Mileski's head that rendered him unconscious, in her statement.
She said she chose to write down what was important, but that it didn't matter, because "nobody was listening to me."
"He was protecting us, that's all he was doing," she said.