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‘It was David and Goliath.’ Eyewitness describes shooting in murder trial of Auburn police officer

On the fourth day of the murder trial of Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, a witness described the moments that led to Nelson fatally shooting Jesse Sarey, 26.

Steven Woodard watched as Nelson shot Sarey twice, and the struggle beforehand, after he and his family pulled into the parking lot of the Sunshine Grocery convenience store in Auburn in 2019. Nelson was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in 2020.

On Wednesday, Prosecutor Angelo Calfo had Woodard describe what happened that day nearly five years ago.

Kristen Murray, Nelson’s attorney, shared several video clips showing interviews Woodard gave police the day of the shooting, seemingly in an attempt to point out inconsistencies.

During his testimony to the jury, Woodard compared the two to “David and Goliath,” because Nelson’s stature was three times larger than that of Sarey’s.

The altercation “all happened so quickly,” Woodard said, his neck tattoos peeking out from the neckline of his black T-shirt. It was his favorite shirt, and reduced his anxiety, the prosecution explained to the judge. It was also the shirt he wore the day Sarey was killed.

Sarey asked Woodard for change, “in a soft, polite voice,” Woodard said, but he didn’t have any change to give him.

Sarey sat on the concrete outside the convenience store, and was digging through a cardboard box of trash looking for something to drink, when Nelson approached him, Woodard said.

Nelson commanded Sarey to put his hands behind his back and a fight ensued. Woodard said Nelson and Sarey grappled.

“They were going around in circles like the Tasmanian Devil in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons,” he said.

Then, as Nelson held Sarey in a headlock, Nelson punched him in the face repeatedly, Woodard said.

At one point, a pocket knife fell next to Woodard’s foot, which Woodard picked up and placed on his Black Suzuki. He told the jury he didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

During the struggle, one of Sarey’s hands, which were around Nelson’s waist, brushed against the butt of Nelson’s gun, Woodard said.

Nelson pushed Sarey away, he said, stepped back, pulled his gun and shot him in the chest.

Woodard said Sarey fell to the ground.

“Blood was coming out of his mouth like old tomato paste in a can,” Woodard told the jury.

Nelson turned his gun toward Woodard for a moment, he said, before pointing it back on Sarey and shooting him in the head.

During her cross-examination, Kristen Murray, one of Nelson’s attorneys, focused on the interviews Woodard provided police immediately after the shooting.

“You described (Sarey) as having some super-guy strength,” Murray said.

“It seemed that way in the moment,” Woodard said.

“Mr. Sarey kept fighting Officer Nelson,” Murray replied.

“He kept trying to get away, yeah,” Woodard said.

“He kept fighting Officer Nelson,” Murray said.

“No, I wouldn't call that fighting,” Woodard said.

Murray then read a line from a transcript of an interview Woodard gave the day of the shooting.

“This dude had some super-guy strength or something, because he kept fighting and fighting and fighting.”

“He wasn't giving up,” Woodard said to Murray, in response.

“Yeah, it was fighting,” Murray responded.

“Surviving,” Woodard said.

In one interview clip played for the jury, Woodard said Sarey “reached” for Officer Nelson’s gun, and said Sarey appeared “high” or in mental distress. He said Sarey flailed, and Nelson told him to “calm down” as he tried to restrain him.

“I thought it was bullshit the way the cop was fucking with him,” Woodard said in the clip.

Nelson had said in a written statement that he believed Sarey was reaching for the officer’s handgun.

Nelson is scheduled to testify later in the trial.

“He’s been waiting for five years to explain what happened and tell you what actually occurred,” Nelson’s lawyer Emma Scanlan said during opening statements last week.

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