After four years in state prison, Luke Anton Wirkkala is back in the Deschutes County jail awaiting a retrial on charges he unlawfully killed an acquaintance with a shotgun blast to the neck at close range.
This time around, it’s at the order of the Oregon Court of Appeals, which overturned a jury’s guilty verdict in February. The appeals court ruled that some evidence was inadmissible because police obtained it after Wirkkala had requested a lawyer.
Wirkkala, 37, now faces a new district attorney, one who may be more willing to settle the case out of court — which is a worry of the family of the victim.
And this time around, the public will have a better understanding of the facts underlying the case, thanks to a trove of documents now available from the first trial, including transcripts of trial proceedings and police interviews and a psychological profile of Wirkkala submitted at sentencing.
Wirkkala’s case centers on an alcohol-soaked nightcap in the early-morning hours after Super Bowl Sunday 2013 that ended in the death of David Andrew Ryder, 31.
That Wirkkala shot Ryder was never in dispute — he claimed self-defense.
Police arrived at the home Wirkkala and his girlfriend rented in southeast Bend and found him sitting on his kitchen floor with his head in his hands, and, next to him, Ryder dead of a single gunshot fired from a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.
Wirkkala was arrested 14 hours later. He entered a not guilty plea June 26, 2013, and almost exactly a year later, a jury found him guilty of one count of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with parole possible after 25 years.
Wirkkala and Ryder met at a campground outside Bend in 2012, according to Wirkkala’s appellate brief. Both were hoping to find permanent housing in the area.
Ryder was a native of Kentucky who served in the Navy from 2000 to 2004. At the time of his death, he worked as a software engineer at G5 in Bend.
Wirkkala grew up in Astoria. His father was a logger and his mother provided home care to ailing adults, according to his psychological profile. He was passionate about writing and photography in high school and later in college, at Washington State University, where he majored in history and wrote and edited for the school paper. He’d been laid off from a bartending job in Astoria and decided to move to Bend, where he felt he could find work as a freelance photographer and writer.
Once Ryder and Wirkkala had settled in Bend, Wirkkala and his girlfriend, Rachel Rasmussen, hosted Ryder and his wife and son for dinner one night in May 2012. The two men socialized on a few other occasions.
Both were known to drink heavily several nights a week, according to court documents.
What may have happened
Wirkkala and Rasmussen invited Ryder to watch the 2013 Super Bowl at the Hideaway Tavern. After the game, they invited Ryder back to their house to continue to talking and drinking. Rasmussen’s 11-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew lived with her and Wirkkala, and both were in the house at the time.
At some point, Ryder told them he was considering moving to take a new job. One of the children in the house reported hearing Wirkkala tell Ryder, “I effing hate you. I hate that you’re moving.” This was because the two had just met and become best friends, according to his appellate attorney, David Ferry.
At around 2:30 a.m. Feb. 4, Wirkkala shot Ryder in the neck from a few inches away, killing him instantly, according to court testimony. Officers found two shotgun shells on the floor, one of which was unspent, and “many” empty beer cans. Wirkkala was crying and appeared “extremely intoxicated,” according to police, with poor balance, glassy eyes and slurred speech. He had “fingernail scratch marks” on his neck and abrasions on his hand.
At trial, a state expert estimated Wirkkala’s blood alcohol level was between 0.18 and 0.38 percent at the time of the shooting. Ryder’s was estimated at 0.23 percent.
DNA evidence indicated that Wirkkala and Ryder had sexual contact with each other that night. Theories about why and how that happened diverge widely.
Wirkkala’s attorney, Walter Todd, said his client had used self-defense after Ryder sexually assaulted him while he was asleep. He said Wirkkala confronted his houseguest and loudly racked a shell while shouting at him to leave, but Ryder instead advanced toward him, provoking Wirkkala to fire.
The defense argued Wirkkala is heterosexual and Ryder was bisexual, and presented witnesses — co-workers of Ryder’s — who testified at the trial Ryder could be sexually aggressive, especially when drinking.
Meanwhile, prosecutors argued Wirkkala had been drunk and grew belligerent with his houseguest, perhaps because Ryder had rejected his sexual advances, or because Ryder was considering moving out of the area. Prosecutor Mary Anderson pointed to Wirkkala’s journalism background and told jurors numerous times at trial he was adept at “storytelling.” She argued he’d invented the sexual assault to justify drunkenly shooting Ryder.
In the 14 hours between police arriving at his house and his arrest, Wirkkala had numerous conversations with officers, the content and tone of which would factor heavily into his trial and, later, his successful appeal.
Wirkkala chatted easily with Bend Police officer Scot Elliot from the back of a squad car, and later, with officer Mike Hatoor, who joined them at the station.
They talked like friends, transcripts show. Wirkkala told the officers his last name is Finnish and he comes from a long line of loggers. Wirkkala worked in the woods himself for a decade, but it was hard work, he told them. He talked about snowboarding and how he and his girlfriend are ready to “take the plunge.” He and Elliot discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Led Zeppelin, and the three men discussed the best concerts they ever attended. Wirkkala peppered Hatoor with questions about the officer’s travels around the world.
But when Bend detective Tim Knea arrived, the suspect dispensed with conversation and declined to cooperate. He accused Knea of knowing more about the incident than he let on.
“There’s another male that was at the house. What’s his name?” Knea asked, according to a transcript of the interview.
“What’s his name?” Wirkkala responded.
“Yeah,” Knea said.
“What was his name?” Hatoor said.
Wirkkala’s successful appeal hinged on his response to that question.
“I appreciate the hospitality here, fellas, but I think I’m going to get a lawyer,” he said.
The interview continued for several minutes with Wirkkala opting not to discuss the substance of the shooting incident or tell them anything about the alleged sexual assault.
At trial, Anderson, the prosecutor, played an eight-minute clip of the interrogation, in which Wirkkala swore at Knea and refused to answer questions about the shooting.
Ferry, Wirkkala’s appellate attorney, argued that Deschutes County Circuit Judge Stephen Forte erred in not suppressing testimony by Wirkkala that the prosecution submitted as evidence. Ferry wrote his client “unequivocally” requested a lawyer during his initial police interrogation and was denied.
The Court of Appeals ruled Knea should have stopped questioning Wirkkala after he invoked his right to counsel. And because the recording of Wirkkala’s interview was the state’s only evidence that he acted defensive and hostile to police, the court ruled it was possible the evidence affected the trial’s outcome.
A new trial is set for October, but the date is merely a “placeholder,” according to District Attorney John Hummel.
“We’re waiting to get into court, when we can get a real court date,” he said.
Handling the case for Hummel is Anderson, one of his two chief deputies, who worked the case the first time.
Wirkkala is being represented locally by defense attorney Joel Wirtz, who said there may be witness availability issues that delay the trial.
Ryder’s cousin Rhonda Eckart, who lives in Kentucky, said the decision for a new trial caught the entire family by surprise.
“It’s like peeling open a wound,” Eckart said in a Facebook message. “That guilty verdict was the only thing that gave my aunt (David Ryder’s mom) peace after his murder. We are praying that justice gets served and the verdict will stand.”
Neda Calhoun, Ryder’s mother, worries that prosecutors will settle the case before they retry Wirkkala.
“He deserves to rot in prison,” she wrote via Facebook message. “My son gets no more chances at anything because his life was stolen from him and his family.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org