WEST CHESTER — Over and over during his nearly two-hour-long interview with homicide investigators, Clayton Carter III repeated that he had shot his neighbor, G. Brooks Jennings, after he saw the flash of a knife blade pointed at him and believed that he was about to attacked.
“Before I knew it, there’s a knife at my stomach,” Carter said a few hours after the fatal shooting in between the adjacent homes on Box Elder Drive in West Goshen in August 2017. “All I saw was the blade. I pulled my pistol out and I shot him.”
That was not all that happened, however, Carter told his interrogators. “When he went down, I shot him again. I didn’t think I hit him, and I didn’t know what he was doing. It freaked me out, so I shot him again,” he said.
“I shot him in the head,” Carter said.
Carter, 53, is charged with first-degree murder, third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and related charges in the Aug. 8, 2017 death of Jennings, a 51-year-old father of one who was described by his wife as a friend to all of his neighbors — with the extreme exception of Carter, who lived next door with his wife, their daughter, and his father-in-law, who owned the home.
The prosecution contends that Carter, armed with a small, .380 caliber handgun, attempted to goad Jennings to cross onto his property so he could shoot him, setting him up for a “cold-blooded, calculated execution,” and then fabricated a tale that he was acting to protect himself from an attack.
The defense, on the other had, asserts that Carter was acting in self-defense of Jennings’ drunken provocation that night, and shot him believing that Jennings planed to stab him with a knife that was found at the scene.
Carter gave the same account multiple times during the interview with the lead investigators in the homicide of Jennings, West Goshen Detective Sgt. David Maurer and Chester County Detective John O’Donnell, the video tape of which was played for the jury of eight women and four men hearing the trial in Common Pleas Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft’s court.
In the middle of an argument after midnight on Aug. 8, 2017, with Jennings, the next-door neighbor with whom he had a running feud, he saw the other man draw a knife on him, pulled out the pistol he had armed himself with earlier out of fear for his safety, fired two shots, and then stood over Jennings' body in shock at what had just transpired.
Carter emphasized time and again that he did not know whether the first shot he fired had struck Jennings, although he said Jennings immediately fell to the ground. Thus, thinking that Jennings might have been “faking” an injury and was preparing to attack him with the knife again, he fired the second shot at the other man while he lay prone on the ground.
He described the first shot as a “punch” in Jennings' direction, taken without aim. The second shot, however, was aimed at Jennings' head so that he could not stand up and come at him.
“He tried to stab me with that knife,” Carter told the detectives during the interview. “What was in my mind is that this guy was going to kill me. I thought he was going to get back up and do me in.”
Carter insisted that he saw Jennings move after falling to the ground. “I thought that he was faking me out,” he said more than once. “I wasn’t sure he was even shot. So when I saw the blade I shot him again.”
But the two investigators pressed Carter strongly in the amount of time between the two shots he fired, which an audio recording from a neighbor's security system places at 12 seconds.
“It’s not just ‘bang bang’,” said Maurer at one point. “It’s bang … and then you look and see if he is still alive and you shoot him a second time.” Both detectives, at different points in the interview, asked Carter to act out the shooting as he recalled it, with both laying on the floor of the West Goshen police interview room as Carter stood over them and motioned with his hand how he pointed at Jennings and fired the second shot.
The prosecution in the case, led by Deputy District Attorney Thomas Ost-Prisco and Assistant District Attorney Vince Cocco, contends that Jennings did not have a knife with him during the argument that night. They allege that Carter planted it at the scene, having concocted a self-defense case after planning to shoot his neighbor.
Jill Jennings, the victim’s widow, testified on Friday that she had never seen the knife found at the scene, and that her husband did not own one like it. But in his statement to police, Carter said that the knife — a folding blade about six inches in length — was not his, even though he admitted that he sometimes wore a “buck knife” on his belt.
Carter also told the detectives that he had never fired the Ruger .380 caliber semi-automatic pistol that he used to kill Jennings. Neither had he ever fired the two other handguns he kept in his house nor the three loaded shotguns in the downstairs area of the two-story colonial he lived in with his father-in-law, wife, and daughter.
But he said that he needed the weapons for protection, having brought them to the house from his former home in Lancaster County out of fear for what his neighbors might do to him.
He told the detectives that during an incident over the Christmas holidays years before, after having moved to the neighborhood to care for his father-in-law around 2010, Jennings had told him he was not well liked. “The neighbors are going to bring wrath down on you,” he quoted the other man as saying. “Well, if they do, I’ve got lots of guns here,” Carter said he responded.
Carter, in the police interview, said that Jennings had expressed displeasure at his presence on Box Elder Drive many times in the past, and had taken to calling him, “Sponge,” because he considered him to be taking advantage of his father-in-law, with whom the Jennings family had been friendly in the past.
“This neighborhood, they are not my kind of people,” Carter said. “We’re just different people. We’re from Lancaster County. It is like people resented us being there.”
The final dispute between the two men began in the evening of Aug. 7, 2017, when Jennings filmed Carter in his backyard playing horseshoes, a backyard that faced Jennings work shed, on which hung political signs for President Donald Trump’s election campaign. Carter was an opponent of Trump and had signs in his own lawn protesting the president.
Sometime after 11 p.m., Carter went to the Giant grocery store on East Boot Road to pick up some kitty litter, then drove back home. When he arrived, he saw a truck belonging to Jennings in his front lawn and the other man sitting outside in his driveway, adjacent to Carter’s property line. Jennings began shining a light in his face and calling him, “trailer trash.”
“It was a nasty exchange between me and him,” Carter said.
He said in his statement that he went inside to drop the kitty litter off, and then went back outside to move his car, but not before arming himself with the Ruger. The two men faced off in their front yards for about 45 minutes, Jennings' wife testified, arguing over things like a skeleton display Carter had in his yard that Jennings said scared the neighborhood children.
“Why are you here? You don’t belong here,” Carter quoted Jennings as saying before he said he drew the knife, without warning. When asked whether he had ever seen his neighbor with a knife prior to that day, he said simply, “No, no.”
Testimony will continue Wednesday. Wheatcraft has said the trial will be over by the end of the week.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.