A Fallon man charged with the July 22, 2018, murder of a fellow parishioner was bound over to Tenth District Court after a preliminary hearing was held Dec. 20 for cause.
John O’Connor faces four counts in the death of Charles E. “Bert” Miller at the Churchill of Latter-day Saints on West Richards Street. Defense attorney Richard P. Davies of Reno said the Tenth District Court could schedule a hearing sometime in mid-January.
Afterward, Davies said he was a little surprised the judge sent the case to district court because of his client’s well-being.
“Competency has been an issue since the beginning of the case,” Davies said.
Davies also said he’s looking forward to appearing in district court with O’Connor, and he’s optimistic they will appear this month. One of the issues, though, facing O’Connor’s legal team will be a request for a change of venue. Because of Miller’s popularity in the community, which was brought out during the hearing, Davies said the request for another court outside Churchill County is “down the road.”
“I can’t say when it will be offered,” Davies said. “It’s certainly coming.”
Davies said he and O’Connor have a good relationship, and the Fallon man was able to assist Davies during the late December hearing. Davies has said at previous hearings and also on Dec. 20 that he will prove O’Connor is innocent of the charges.
“He is concerned and positive. We’re ready to go to trial,” Davies added.
Visiting Judge Jack Schroeder of Reno heard more than three hours of testimony in New River Township Justice Court from both defense and prosecution attorneys as well as from several witnesses, a forensics doctor and law enforcement personnel. He was presiding over the hearing because current Judge Ben Trotter was Churchill County sheriff at the time of Miller’s death.
Initially, authorities filed charges against O’Connor on three counts. The fourth was filed recently. The 49-year-old O’Connor is charged with the first-degree murder of Miller, who was fatally shot multiple times with a 9-millimeter Beretta Px4 Storm handgun after a sacrament meeting in the church’s chapel. The second count, battery with a deadly weapon, occurred when O’Connor allegedly shot Duane Miller with a handgun causing prolonged physical pain. O’Connor faces a third count, assault with a deadly weapon when he allegedly aimed the handgun at Mike Whitaker, who is also a member of the same church.
Davies challenged the fourth count of O’Connor having a concealed weapon without a permit. Davies said former Sheriff Ben Trotter approved a permit although O’Connor never received a permit.
“He did have a lawful permit,” Davies insisted.
Davies disputed the third count, saying Whitaker testified he wasn’t nervous but assured in his own mind that he would be not be harmed. On count two, Davies questioned if Duane Miller, the brother of Bert Miller, would suffer prolonged pain.
Schroeder addressed Davies’ three counts but allowed the case to continue to District Court, saying there was enough evidence provided for all four counts.
On July 26, 2018, former New River Township Justice of the Peace Mike Richards originally ordered a mental examination for O’Connor to determine if he was competent to stand trial for murder. District Court Judge Thomas Stockard ruled in February O’Connor was not competent to stand trial on the charges based on information provided to the court. In September, though, the court learned O’Connor was competent and could assist with his defense.
Davies said O’Connor was returned to the Lyon County Jail. Before he was sent to Lake’s Crossing, a maximum security psychiatric facility providing comprehensive forensic mental health services in Sparks, O’Connor had been transferred to Lyon County because Miller’s son is a deputy with the Churchill County Sheriff’s Office.
The morning began with Davies asking the judge if O’Connor could not be restrained so he could take notes to help the defense team. Davies also asked for witnesses to stay out of the courtroom until summoned to testify. The judge agree on both requests. Davies, though, said he still had issues with O’Connor’s competency.
“I was concerned he was in Lyon County without any of his medications,” Davies said.
According to Davies, O’Connor told him he felt his dosages were being decreased. On Oct. 8, Davies learned from his client that all dosages had ceased. After O’Connor met with a psychologist, she was able to have his medication restored. That still didn’t please Davies.
“I am concerned about him aiding in his defense,” Davies said. “I am concerned about this competency to move forward.”
Churchill County Chief Deputy District Attorney Lane Mills said he’s been in contact with Davies, and they discussed two medications that are essential for O’Connor’ competency. Davies asked for O’Connor to be returned to Lakes Crossing, but Schroeder denied the request.
“I am hesitant to do anything but proceed forward,” Schroeder said.
Davies said O’Connor not having his medication on a scheduled basis was a concern for him.
“His health and safety is always my first,” Davies pointed out.
Duane Miller, the victim’s older brother, testified first. He and his family had traveled to Fallon in July 2018 to visit and to attend a reunion. When his family traveled to Fallon, he said they stayed with his brother Bert and wife. Mills asked Miller where he was sitting in church on the day he brother was killed. He also remembers a group of children standing up to sing a song. A speaker followed the children.
“A person stepped in from the side, yelled out and shot my brother,” he said.
Mills asked Miller what O’Connor allegedly said.
“This will show them,” Miller replied.
Miller said O’Connor had a handgun inches from his brother, and he said the assailant fired seven or eight shots. Miller described O’Connor’s demeanor because he was pushing the weapon each time after firing it.
“He (Bert Miller) collapsed and he (O’Connor) kept shooting,” Miller described.
Miller said he tried to defend his brother as best he could. Once O’Connor finished shooting, Miller said the assailant left the building. As he was trying to render aid, Miller discovered he was also shot. He was transported to Banner Churchill Community Hospital for treatment, but on the following day, Miller went to Reno for further examination, which showed a chipped bone.
Mills proceeded to show Miller photographs of his wounds and inside the church. Davies cross-examined Miller and asked him about the initial time he saw O’Connor. Miller said he didn’t see O’Connor until he came in and yelled. Davies asked Miller if he saw the handgun.
“I saw a weapon in his hand, hands extended,” Miller said.
After several more questions, Davies asked Miller if he would’ve thrown his body in front of his sibling to protect him. Miller answered yes.
CCSO deputy Sgt. Chris Thorne was off-duty on that Sunday afternoon when then-Capt. Richard Hickox contacted him. Thorne said on the stand he has extensive experience as a coroner. When he examined Bert Miller’s body, he noted 13 gunshot wounds. Thorne also discussed a concealed weapons (CCW) application that was approved to allow O’Connor to carry a gun. He noted O’Connor turned in the paperwork on June 15, 2018, and it was approved by Trotter on June 20. Thorne said he saw the application was denied on July 22, 2018.
Deputy District Attorney Chelsea Sanford asked Thorne if O’Connor was issued a CCW permit. Thorne said no.
Washoe County Medical Examiner Dr. Laura Knight said she was able to identify the points of each bullet’s entry and exit as well as the tracking for each shot. Her report stated Bert Miller “died of multiple gunshot wounds.”
Another witness to the July 2018 shooting took the stand. Whitaker said he knew Miller since 1983 and only knew O’Connor for a short of amount of time but later expanded to 15 to 20 years. Whitaker described where he was sitting and how the event unfolded when O’Connor began shooting
“I was shocked of who it was,” Whitaker said.
During his testimony, Whitaker said he stood up, but then O’Connor turned and pointed the weapon at him.
“He said, ‘this doesn’t pertain to you,’” Whitaker testified, adding O’Connor then walked out the building’s west door.
Mortensen asked Whitaker to describe O’Connor’s look.
“His eyes looked angry,” Whitaker recalled.
Although O’Connor had pointed the weapon, Whitaker said he remained calm although he was nervous. He attributed that to having faith in the Holy Spirit.
“I had a feeling nothing was going to happen,” he added.
Another member of the church said he shook O’Connor’s hand before sacrament began. David Watkins also said he initially didn’t see a handgun. Like Whitaker, though, he saw O’Connor shooting.
“He was focused, determined,” Watkins said.
Adrian Noriega said he saw O’Connor in church on previous occasions. The first thing Noriega noticed about O’Connor was his untucked blue dress shirt. After the children sung, and the speaker wrapped up her comments, Noriega said he heard shots ring out.
“He had a thrusting movement while shooting,” Noriega said of O’Connor.
Fallon Police Sgt. Daniel Babiarz said CCSO and the Fallon Police Department had a combined tactical SWAT team. Babiarz described how officers arrived at O’Connor’s house on McKay Court and executed a search warrant. He said after some negotiation, O’Connor peacefully walked out, but he had changed from a dress shirt and Levi’s to a black T-shirt, brown shorts and sandals. Inside, Babiarz said officers found an empty 9mm handgun on the counter next to the sink. Also on the counter was an empty 15-round magazine.