RIVERTON — Debate over just how drunk BenniLee Strock was during her police interview the night of Christmas Eve filled hours of court Tuesday morning.
Strock, 39, is accused of killing her husband, Jeffrey Strock. She called for Tuesday’s hearing to ask the court to eliminate from its pool of evidence the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office interview in which she confessed to stabbing her husband with a kitchen knife.
Strock argued via her attorney, public defender Valerie Schoneberger, that she had been too intoxicated to give a voluntary interview that night, and that she should have been given an attorney.
If the court decides that the state coerced confession from a too-drunk Strock, the confession will be stricken from trial. Moreover, a finding of involuntariness would prevent prosecutors from using the confession to cross-examine – thus eliminating one of the main forms of evidence in the case.
There’s no set blood-alcohol content at which a person is deemed “too drunk” to be interviewed by police. According to case law presented by Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun on Thursday, the legal standard is rather, whether the suspect is drunk to the point of “mania.” LeBrun argued that Strock, by the time she was interviewed, was not maniacal, but rather was coherent and aware.
Strock had a .144 BAC at 2 a.m. on Christmas day – hours after her husband was found dead in their home.
LeBrun presented evidence with the goal of showing that Strock had enough alcohol tolerance to perform well amid that level of saturation.
He called Fremont Counseling licensed professional counselor Rebecca Parker to testify.
“Essentially what happens with any substance – and alcohol is no different — the more often you use, the more your tolerance increases. Your body assimilates the substance so quickly it takes more time to get the same effect,” Parker testified.
Schoneberger called an alcohol abuse specialist with an opposite line of reasoning.
Licensed clinical social worker Damon Laird, of Casper, argued that BAC is the only true method for ascribing one’s drunkenness. Laird resisted questions from LeBrun regarding tolerance, and he rebuked Parker openly from his virtual witness stand.
“That’s what’s been disconcerting in this hearing today, because I feel like not only some of the science has been massaged, but it’s been completely disregarded as we look at some of these issues,” said Laird, who theorized that having an alcohol tolerance places a person’s cognitive functioning under alcohol under a greater risk of compromise, because the tolerant drinker can drink beyond a normal person’s pass-out point.
Despite the presence of two expert alcohol counselors, the witness called to speak to the question of Strock’s alcohol tolerance was her bartender.
As the owner of Possum Pete’s in Pavillion, Lester Emerson had been serving and selling drinks to the Strocks for at least seven years, according to his testimony Emerson said the pair, individually or together, would purchase drinks from him every other day, visiting to drink in the bar just as often.
He said they drank Bud Lite and Canadian Lord Calvert Whiskey, amassing nightly bar tabs — about four nights a week — of between $80 and $125.
“They would sit and do shots together, you know, Benni and Jeff, they’d sit and do shots and drink beers, and they were doing both all the time, pretty much,” Emerson noted.
After this, he said “they’d usually go out and load Jeff into the truck, and Benni would drive home.”
When asked by Schoneberger why BenniLee Strock was the one aware enough to drive after all that drinking, Emerson said the wife worked and so started drinking later in the day than her husband.
Taking the stand after Emerson, Strock said they only drank two nights a week, and that she’d often give her drinks to her husband.
She said that on the night of Christmas Eve, when her husband died, she’d been drinking far more than normal.
Strock also told the court that she was very drunk during her police interview, and that, reflecting on the recording, she was surprised and ashamed at her profane language and behavior.
“That’s not me. I don’t act like that, I don’t talk like that. It’s just a shocking video to watch, that alcohol can actually have an effect on people like this,” Strock said.
The defendant said she found Fremont County Sheriff’s Office detective Anthony Armstrong intimidating because of his size, his masculinity, his general behavior and what she described as “pushy” tactics.
Strock stands between 4-foot-11 and 5 feet tall. Armstrong is 5-5 or 5-6 with shoes on.
“I felt really intimidated by him, because I don’t know him and because I don’t talk to a lot of guys,” Strock continued.
LeBrun later countered in his closing argument that Armstrong was “kind” and spoke softly throughout the interview, and he encouraged Fremont and Sublette County District Court Judge Marvin Tyler to review the video of the interview himself to affirm that.