Trial underway for Tacoma white supremacists accused of killing comrade

Shanne McKittrick stabbed Derek Wagner multiple times during a fight on a Tacoma street in 2013. Of that, there is no dispute.

Why McKittrick plunged his knife into Wagner will be for a Pierce County jury to decide.

Was he upholding a skinhead code by attacking Wagner, as deputy prosecutors allege? Or was he lawfully defending himself in a fight with an armed man, as his defense attorney says?

Jurors got a taste of both positions Wednesday during opening statements in McKittrick’s trial.

Prosecutors contend McKittrick attacked Wagner, 27, to uphold a code among white supremacist gangs that says one skinhead does not sleep with another’s wife.

Deputy prosecutor Angelica Williams told jurors McKittrick was acting on the orders of Mark Stredicke, whose wife had begun an affair with Wagner. Williams and colleague Jim Schacht also contend Eric Elliser, a friend of McKittrick and Stredicke, helped McKittrick kill Wagner during the early morning hours of Nov. 17, 2013.

McKittrick, 33, is charged with first-degree and second-degree murder in Wagner’s death. Stredicke, 38, and Elliser, 34, are charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault. The three are being tried together.

Williams and Schacht intend to introduce evidence that shows McKittrick, Stredicke, Elliser and Wagner had ties to white supremacy groups, and that Wagner violated one of the tenets of such groups when he began an affair with Stredicke’s wife.

Stredicke didn’t know Wagner but learned he was a fellow skinhead and had been sleeping with his wife, Williams said.

That ignited a burning resentment that exploded when Wagner came to Tacoma with another skinhead, Jeff “One Eye” Cooke, to hang out and party with a group that included McKittrick and Elliser, the deputy prosecutor said.

Stredicke that evening relayed his anger to McKittrick, who grew upset himself at what he believed to be a betrayal of the skinhead code, Williams said. McKittrick was all too happy to later chase down Wagner, and, with Elliser’s help, stab him three times before fleeing, the deputy prosecutor said.

“There are standards and codes among skinhead groups, and loyalty is one of them,” Williams said.

Mortally wounded, Wagner ran away and hid in the backyard of a nearby house.

“Derek Wagner was running for his life, not realizing that it was already over,” Williams said.

Wagner bled to death. The homeowner found his body and called police.

Defense attorney Les Tolzin, who is representing McKittrick, told jurors that prosecutors have it all wrong.

No one was mad at Wagner that night, Tolzin said. They weren’t please with him, but their real anger was directed at Cooke, the defense attorney told jurors.

Cooke had brought Wagner into their midst and seem determined to defend that action by picking a fight with McKittrick, with whom he was otherwise friendly, the attorney said.

“This was about the fact that Mr. Cooke had chosen sides and turned his back on his friends,” Tolzin said.

Wagner later attacked McKittrick while brandishing a fixed-blade knife that belonged to Cooke, Tolzin said, and his client pulled his own knife and used it to “successfully defend himself.”

“He did what any of us would have done,” the defense attorney said.

Attorney Michael Underwood, who is defending Elliser, then told jurors his client had served as a peacemaker earlier in the evening when Cooke and McKittrick nearly got into it.

Elliser harbored no animosity toward Wagner and had nothing to do with his death, Underwood said.

He also attacked the credibility of Cooke, who was charged as an accomplice to murder in the case but turned state’s evidence and is expected to be the prosecution’s star witness.

Cooke, Underwood said, has given multiple accounts of what happened that night and is looking to save his own skin by testifying against his former friends.

Attorney Derek Smith, who is defending Stredicke, then addressed jurors.

Smith said there is no evidence his client ordered anyone to attack Wagner. Stredicke, too, mostly was angry with Cooke, Smith said.

“And the person he’s really mad at is his wife,” the defense attorney said.

What’s more, Stredicke was miles away when Wagner was stabbed, a point conceded by prosecutors, Smith said.

Police seized on his client as a suspect because he was the jilted lover and therefore might harbor ill will toward Wagner, the defense attorney said.

“All he has is a motive,” Smith said. “There’s nothing else tying him to any of this.”

The trial is expected to last several weeks.