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New details come out in first day of Phillips murder trial

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Events of March 1, 2023, detailed in opening day of trial

HARTINGTON –  Jurors heard two 911 calls Tuesday, and viewed photos of gunshot wounds and video footage from an officer’s dash cam during the opening day of a second-degree murder trial in Cedar County District Court. 

The jury of 12 plus two alternates - five men and nine women - heard opening arguments and testimony of five witnesses Tuesday in the case against David Phillips Jr., 22, Kenner, La. He is accused of killing Israel Matos-Colon, 31, Fowlerville, Mich. Phillips is also accused of using a firearm to commit a felony and possession of a stolen firearm. 

Witnesses said Phillips and Matos-Colon argued while at a worksite – a cellphone tower – north of Hartington the morning of March 1, 2023, prior to the shooting. Both men worked climbing towers for a company called BULT Wireless, a telecommunications infrastructure company that is no longer operational. 

According to witness testimony, Phillips and Matos-Colon got into a verbal argument shortly after starting the work day. Witnesses indicate the argument got loud but was unsure exactly what was being said. The work crew foreman, Josh Curiel, said the argument pertained to climbing the tower that day together. 

After briefly separating into different vehicles to cool down, Phillips and Matos-Colon continued their verbal argument until witnesses heard multiple gunshots fired in quick succession. 

None of the witnesses in the case Tuesday testified to seeing either Phillips or Matos-Colon with weapons that day. 

Curiel said he was in a panic when he called 911. He ran off the property, opening gates as he went so that first responders could access the worksite which was described as in a cattle yard. 

Two other crew members followed in a vehicle, picking Curiel up and then stopping where a rural road intersects Highway 57 to lead first responders into the site. 

Chad Claussen, chief deputy with the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office, was first to arrive on scene within a few minutes. Video footage from the dash cam on his vehicle depicts a man – later identified as Phillips – walking and then jogging away from the deputy’s vehicle and toward where Matos-Colon was laying face up on the ground. 

With gun drawn, Claussen asks bystanders where the gun is. Phillips states he has it and walks toward Claussen with his hands in the air. After Phillips was secured in handcuffs, Claussen locates a semiautomatic Glock 19 handgun with an extended magazine tucked into cold gear clothing near Phillips’ ankle. 

Claussen described Phillips’ demeanor as being worried and scared. 

The only words Phillips said during the arrest process was, “We were fighting and it was self defense,” Claussen said. 

Phillips was not injured and did not receive medical treatment, and did not provide any more details about acting in self-defense. 

Cedar County Sheriff Larry Koranda and Sgt. Jeff Jones, conservation officer with Nebraska Game & Parks, were next to arrive at the worksite. 

Jones testified he cleared the semiautomatic gun at the scene and found a spent shell casing stuck inside the slide. 

“With a spent casing, there was some type of malfunction were the casing did not properly eject,” Jones said. 

He was not able to determine what caused the malfunction.

Then Jones, who is an active EMT in Hartington, rendered medical aid to Matos-Colon who was already losing consciousness. Jones said his pupils were dilated and his breathing was labored. 

While unzipping Matos-Colon’s outerwear looking to dress a wound, Jones located a bullet projectile between the layers of clothing. Claussen was able to collect the projectile and Jones continued first aid. 

At this point, Matos-Colon’s pulse became weak and Jones started CPR. Several rounds of chest compressions were administered before additional EMT support arrived on scene. An automated compression machine continued CPR activities while EMTs loaded Matos-Colon onto the ambulance for transport to a Yankton, S.D., hospital. 

Once in the ambulance, Jones maintained Matos-Colon’s airway and performed “bag breathing.”Matos-Colon’s vitals “flatlined,” Jones said. 

Advanced life support continued until the rescue squad arrived at the hospital and turned over operations to the emergency room medical professionals. 

ER staff declared Matos-Colon dead at 10:19 a.m.

Jones stayed and maintained the body to follow a chain of evidence procedure. Clothing was completely removed and Jones documented three gunshot wounds, one on each side of his torso and one in his leg. 

Back at the scene, Jones located a cooler hanging on a chainlink fence in the area. Inside, he located a Michigan driver’s license which positively identified Matos-Colon as the victim. 

Along with Curiel, Jones and Claussen, Lt. Gina Jones of the Nebraska State Patrol testified about her work at the crime scene. Ashley Verhoek, vice president of BULT Wireless, also testified.

While prosecutors worked to build their case against Phillips Tuesday, his lawyer, Todd Lancaster of the Nebraska Public Advocacy Commission, worked to poke holes and cast doubt on witness statements. 

“The defense has no burden to prove anything. This is not going to be one of the classic who-dunit cases,” Lancaster told the jury. 

Instead, he urged them to look at the circumstances, statements and actions before and after the shooting to determine Phillips’ state of mind.

If the jury doesn’t find Phillips guilty of second-degree murder, they will be instructed to look at the lesser charges of manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. 

Koranda was set to take the witness stand to start Wednesday’s court proceedings. 

The trial is expected to last through Friday.