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High found not guilty of attempted murder

Jury convicts her of aggravated assault, burglary

Express Staff Writer

A Blaine County jury last week exonerated Gail J. High of the attempted murder of a Ketchum police officer’s wife, but convicted her of aggravated assault in connection with a gunshot she fired while struggling with the Kassners’ renter, John Straka.

The prosecution had contended that High, 39, a former Sun Valley Police Department employee, went to the Kassners’ home in Hulen Meadows on Dec. 16, 2000, to seek revenge for a DUI citation Sgt. Dave Kassner had issued her earlier that evening. In a court trial in Hailey that began Dec. 11, Idaho Deputy Attorney General J. Scott James told the jury that High was distraught over the probable effect a conviction on the DUI charge would have on her plan to become a police officer.

However, High’s attorney, Keith Roark, countered that his client went to the Kassners’ home to kill herself as a statement to Sgt. Kassner.

The 5th District Court jury returned its verdict Thursday afternoon following about two hours of deliberation.

"I think we accomplished what we set out to do, which was to dispute and disprove the contention that she was there to commit murder," Roark said.

However, High still faces a possible 45 years in prison for the aggravated assault conviction and for a related burglary conviction handed down by the same jury. High is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 28.

During the two-and-one-half-day trial, High, wearing conservative dresses and with her hair pulled back in a pony tail, listened impassively to witnesses’ testimony.

On the stand Thursday, she told the jury that after Straka had admitted her into the house and momentarily turned his back, she pulled her .40-caliber Glock pistol out of a holster and began to lift it to her head.

"At that point I just didn’t want to live anymore and I wanted to shoot myself in the head at his home," High said in a choked-up voice. "I just felt like everything was gone."

She said the apparent ruin of her career plans came on top of a recent divorce. She said she had made five earlier suicide attempts in the past 10 years.

Wayne Lybrand, the cab driver who took High to the Kassners’ house, testified that she was sobbing during the ride and when he dropped her off.

"This was a sad woman," High’s former roommate, Mike Sheehan, told the jury about a brief encounter he had with her when she arrived home to pick up her gun following the DUI incident. "This wasn’t a lashing out or vengeful woman."

Despite such testimony, prosecutor James urged the jury during his closing remarks to give more credence to High’s actions than to her words. He pointed to three things he said indicated murder to be a more probable motive than suicide: one, that High stood back from the door she expected Colleen Kassner to emerge from to allow the door to swing toward her and Kassner to walk out; two, that the gun was pointed into the air, not toward High’s head; and three, that she continued to struggle after Straka grabbed her hand and attempted to wrest the gun from her.

"The question is not what the defendant was going to do to herself," James said. "The question is what was she going to do first."

In his closing statement, Roark pointed out that High had not asked to see Mrs. Kassner or the couple’s two children, and that it was Straka who invited her inside.

Roark emphasized it was the jury’s duty to return a guilty verdict only if it could do so beyond a reasonable doubt. High’s alleged suicide attempt, he acknowledged, was "about as selfish an act as a human being can engage in, and it was an ugly act, no question."

"We don’t ask anyone to justify or excuse what Gail did. We only ask you to do what juries do, to consider the government’s evidence."

And from that evidence, he contended, "you can see both possibilities, and when you can see both possibilities, you have a reasonable doubt."

In interviews following the verdict, both James and Roark praised the jury for its apparent intelligence and attention to a difficult case.

However, Roark called the combination of a not-guilty verdict on the attempted murder charge and a guilty verdict on the burglary charge "a bit baffling." In Idaho, a person is guilty of burglary when he or she enters a building with the intention of committing a felony or theft inside.

"How she could have intended to do (the assault against Straka) before he grabbed her is a mystery to me," he said. "(The jury) may have rejected the precise instructions of the court to make some statement about the propriety of Gail’s behavior."

One of the instructions to the jury was that an attempted suicide does not constitute a crime in Idaho.

Roark said he will likely ask for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the assault conviction at High’s Jan. 28 sentencing hearing, and will probably do something similar with the burglary conviction. During the trial, Roark moved to have the assault charge dismissed, on the grounds that given the evidence presented, no reasonable person could find High had intended to harm Straka. Judge James May denied the motion and sent the question to the jury.

From the prosecution side, James said he thought the jury "did a great job of sorting through the evidence and making difficult decisions."

However, he said he would have liked to have been able to present evidence of previous incidents of allegedly violent behavior by High. Judge May ruled evidence about two such alleged incidents in California inadmissible during a hearing Oct. 15. During the hearing, James contended that the incidents show that "whenever the defendant feels that somebody has wronged her, then she lashes out at them—she does not harm herself."

James said he expects to be able to introduce such evidence at High’s sentencing hearing.

At an arraignment on Monday of this week, High began to move through a second criminal proceeding—that of her Dec. 16, 2000, DUI charge. Through her attorney, Doug Nelson, she pleaded not guilty to the charge, despite an admission at last week’s trial that a breath test had indicated her blood alcohol level that evening was substantially over the legal limit. A trial is scheduled for Jan. 31.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.