On November 4, 1987, at about 6:15 p.m., 24-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Lafayette Trawick was performing maneuvers with four fellow soldiers on the grounds of Ft. Drum, a military training reservation in upstate New York, when he was shot and killed.
The four soldiers with Trawick told authorities that a sedan stopped on a dirt road about 80 feet from where they were standing. An occupant of the car fired a gun and then the vehicle sped off. Police found an expended shotgun cartridge on the road where the car had stopped.
Authorities suspected that Trawick had been shot by someone illegally hunting deer at night because Ft. Drum is in New York State’s Northern Deer Hunting Zone and Whitetail deer hunting season was open.
On that day, there were 97 lawfully registered hunters on the Ft. Drum grounds. All of their guns were checked and were eliminated as the weapon that fired the slug and ejected the shell that was found.
The shooting was unsolved until September 1988, when James McAvoy, a longtime police informant, told the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department that shortly after the shooting, 20-year-old Gary Woodside, Jr. told McAvoy that Woodside and a friend were jacking deer on Ft. Drum and he feared he had shot a person. Jacking deer is an illegal practice of shining a light on a deer to make it freeze in its tracks so it can easily be shot.
McAvoy said Woodside told him that after he fired his shotgun, he realized he had fired at a man, not a deer. McAvoy said he did not reveal this information for nearly a year because he “had bad deals with the police before” and was reluctant to get involved in a criminal investigation.
On October 3, 1988, detectives sent McAvoy, with a secret tape recorder, to speak with Woodside. He found Woodside and they spoke for 45 minutes, although several minutes of the conversation were not recorded. Woodside made what sounded like admissions to shooting a soldier while jacking deer.
The detectives sent McAvoy back to see Woodside the following day with another recorder. Woodside made some statements that appeared to be related to disposing of a gun, but the tape was not clear. Woodside referred to McAvoy’s brother several times. The detectives then brought Woodside to the sheriff’s office and told him they had the recordings. Woodside said he knew he was being recorded and made the statements to play a practical joke on McAvoy’s brother.
Despite his claim about making a joke, Woodside ultimately signed a written statement admitting he fired a shot while jacking deer from a Jeep pick-up truck in late October on a paved road with a bolt action shotgun with green hollow point slugs. The statement said Woodside thought he saw the eyes of a deer, fired once, thought he missed and then left the scene.
The statement was notable because, according to the witnesses, the shot was fired from a sedan not a pickup truck, the incident occurred in November not October, the road was dirt not paved, and the shell recovered from the road was yellow not green.
Woodside was arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide. While he was awaiting trial, a cellmate named Robin Graves told authorities that Woodside had confessed to shooting Trawick and that he had purchased Woodside’s gun from him after the shooting and later resold it. Police tracked down the person to whom Graves said he sold the gun and the man said he never purchased a gun from Graves.
Woodside went on trial in Jefferson County Supreme Court in April 1989. The prosecution’s case primarily consisted of McAvoy’s testimony and Woodside’s signed confession.
Woodside presented several alibi witnesses who said he was with them at a chili and pork chop supper and birthday party.
On April 6, 1989, the jury convicted Woodside and he was sentenced to 1 1/3 to four years in prison. During the sentencing hearing, Woodside’s lawyer disclosed that Woodside had taken and passed a polygraph examination.
A week after the conviction, Woodside was charged with arson for setting a fire at a farm where he had formerly worked. Woodside pled guilty to arson and was sentenced to probation and $134,000 in restitution.
Woodside was released on parole on January 29, 1992.
In 2004, more than 12 years later, the New York State Police received a telephone call from James B. Roberts, who said he had information on the shooting of Trawick. The investigation of Trawick’s death was re-opened.
Roberts told police that in 1987, he was 21 and his brother Joseph was 17. At the time, they lived on Ft. Drum with their mother, an officer who was stationed there. James Roberts said Joseph shot at what looked like deer eyes and then they heard someone yell, “Stop it!”
James Roberts said they heard no more sounds and saw no movement, so they went home.
Authorities recovered the shotgun the two men said was the weapon they used that night. Forensic analysis was unable to eliminate the weapon as the gun that fired the slug that killed Trawick. After being provided further details about the case, Joseph Roberts gave police a statement saying that the information “causes me to believe that I am the person who shot the soldier that night.” Neither of the brothers faced criminal prosecution because the statute of limitations had run for criminally negligent homicide.
Woodside’s lawyers filed a motion to set aside his conviction. The prosecution opposed the motion, arguing that a jail inmate told their investigator that the man who was hunting with Woodside on the day of the shooting had confessed he was involved in a deer jacking that resulted in the death of a soldier.
On June 27, 2007, Supreme Court Judge Kim Martusewicz granted Woodside’s motion. The judge vacated Woodside’s conviction and dismissed the indictment.
Woodside later filed a lawsuit seeking compensation in the New York Court of Claims, but the suit was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley