BEULAH — Deliberations continue in a Benzie County murder trial as jurors weigh whether a 24-year-old man acted deliberately when he shot and killed his next-door neighbor in April 2020.
Whether Taylor Manol shot and killed Alexander Sarantos, 56, was never in question. He admitted as much after taking the stand Wednesday, and his attorney Craig Elhart reiterated it several times throughout the trial.
Benzie County Prosecutor Sara Swanson said the evidence shows the shooting was intentional and premeditated, with testimony to suggest the two men argued before Manol fired two guns at the Sarantos’ house.
But Elhart said Swanson never proved either planning or intent. Instead, he argued Manol was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, one of three charges jurors considered along with first- and second-degree murder.
Elhart told the jury that witnesses and evidence in the trial showed what Manol already admitted about the shooting.
“But at no point will you be able to find that there was the intent to kill, nor that it was premeditated, nor that it was deliberate and he considered the pros and cons,” he said.
Manol told the court he never meant to kill Sarantos, and that he hardly knew his next-door neighbor beyond waving to him a few times.
“I think I’m being overcharged, I did not mean to hurt anybody, I really didn’t, I would never mean to hurt anybody like that,” he said.
Manol said he has schizoaffective disorder — a diagnosis he received after Sarantos’ killing, he later testified — and without his medication he gets lost in his delusions.
His mental health had deteriorated after moving to Benzie County in 2018 because he stopped taking his medication and didn’t see a doctor, despite having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder prior to moving to Michigan. He also started drinking to combat the symptoms and found out later from a doctor that it made them worse.
Memories of the day Manol shot and killed Sarantos were spotty, he said. He drank a fifth of bourbon that night, and all he remembered was his girlfriend leaving after a fight and then taking his guns outside.
Evidence including eight bullet casings in Sarantos’ driveway about 70 feet from his house and a bullet trajectory from a gunshot in the front door pointing to the same spot showed that’s were Manol stood when he fired into Sarantos’ home on April 5, Swanson said.
Manol said he typically shot his guns, an AR-type semi-automatic rifle with a scope sight and a bolt-action rifle, off his porch, including at night. He did so both to shoot at raccoons that got into the trash and for “blowing off steam” if he had a bad day — a fight with his then-girlfriend or dealing with his depression, he added.
Between Manol’s state of mind and the alcohol he drank, he said he never should have picked up guns that day, he said.
Intoxication and mental illness came up often during Manol’s testimony, but Elhart said neither was a defense.
Manol later told Swanson he couldn’t be sure of his state of mind that night because of how much he had to drink, a point she reiterated to the jury.
“He can’t have it both ways, he can’t say it’s an accident and then also say he doesn’t know what happened,” she said. “He doesn’t know if it was intentional, he doesn’t know if he intended to shoot, he doesn’t know if he had a confrontation with Mr. Sarantos that night. Plain and simple, he doesn’t know.”
He also said it’s possible he argued with Sarantos on April 5, but he didn’t recall. A neighbor previously testified that he heard yelling and two voices, although Elhart noted a police officer responding to calls about Manol’s shooting only heard one voice.
That neighbor’s stepmother told a 911 dispatcher she heard shooting and screaming coming from the house across the street and kitty-corner to her.
Sarantos told a dispatcher in a brief call that his neighbor was “going nuts over here,” and had been shooting a semiautomatic gun for about 20 minutes. Swanson played the recording for the jury again when they asked to rehear both of them, and the videos the neighbor made that night in which yelling, screaming and gunshots in the distance could be heard.
Manol said he walked over to Sarantos’ house a few days after the shooting to apologize for his behavior. That was after a friend of his girlfriend at the time told him he had been shooting and yelling excessively on April 5. He brought an old sign with him to make up for it because a previous neighbor told him Sarantos liked antiques.
But no one answered, so Manol went home, nervous about getting in trouble for the bullet holes he saw in his neighbor’s house, he said. Despite Sarantos’ car being in the driveway, Manol said he figured his neighbor was gone visiting with family, and that if anyone was hurt, the police would already have come.
While Elhart argued Manol couldn’t have seen Sarantos inside the home from that spot, Swanson showed a photograph of the spot and looking toward the window with its cluster of bullet holes. The bedroom doorway where police eventually found Sarantos dead on the floor was visible from that point, she said.
Bullet fragments found inside the home hit above head level, Elhart said. He argued that Sarantos must have been hit by a deflected fragment.
But Swanson asserted Sarantos could’ve been hit directly, with the victim’s hunched posture making it look as though the shot came from above. While Elhart said the shot through the door made it look like Manol was spraying the house with gunfire, Swanson pointed to the close groupings of bullet holes in the window as evidence he was taking aim.
Each shot required another pull of the trigger, giving Manol time to consider what he was doing, Swanson said in closing arguments.
“That is not something that happens on accident or without intent, that a person walks from their home here over to your neighbor’s house bring two guns, ammunition for two guns, shoot both guns eight times into the victim’s door and windows, without intent to do so, and then pull the trigger eight times on two different guns,” she said.
The jury deliberated for five hours, at one point asking to see one of Manol’s rifles. They paused briefly a little over an hour before 19th Circuit Court Judge David Thompson sent them home for the day.
Jurors resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday, Thompson said.