State begins testimony in Risinger trial

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

“He left and he lied.”

That’s what Washington County Prosecutor Dustin Houchin said Tuesday the state’s case against Joshua Risinger, 29, Salem, hangs on. Risinger’s attorney, David Smith, is arguing that Risinger should be found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, which Houchin said requires the defense to determine if a mental disease or defect exists and whether Risinger appreciated the wrongfulness of his conduct. Houchin claims the fact Risinger left the scene of his burning trailer and lied about the fact a man, Jefferey Charles Givan, 62, was inside at the time, lied about setting the fire with the intent to kill Givan, indicates if he does have a mental illness, it didn’t keep him from knowing what he was doing was wrong.

Smith said this case isn’t so simple. Before breaking for lunch Tuesday, Smith entered an ongoing objection to showing recordings of the police interviews with Risinger, saying his client was suffering from mental illness at the time the interviews were conducted. Prosecuting attorney Tara Hunt argued there was no police coersion going on that would make the recordings inadmissable. Judge Larry Medlock had ruled previously that the video would be allowed to be shown to the jury during the trial, but noted Smith’s ongoing objection.

“There’s two sides to every story,” Smith told the jury during his opening statements. He encouraged the jury to look at both sides, consider them and take the time to come to the right conclusion.

The court heard from Salem Fire Department Captain Ron Wilcox and Southway Villa Manager Charles Humphrey about what they saw the night of the fire, March 14, 2017. Humphrey told about how he had seen Risinger walking down State Road 60 with a wheeled duffle bag.

“He was heading down Highway 60 toward town as I was going in,” he said. “… I thought it was strange … I just kind of waved at him, but he didn’t acknowledge it.”

Then-Salem Police Officer Alex Bilbrey, now a Floyd County Sheriff's Deputy, said he picked Risinger up just west of the bypass.

He asked Risinger if he knew his trailer was on fire.

“Yeah,” Bilbrey recalled Risinger saying. “That’s why I’m walking away.”

Bilbrey asked him how he had the time to pack a suitcase and said Risinger just smiled and refused to answer more questions.

As Bilbrey was about to bring Risinger back to the trailer, he heard the call for the coroner come over the radio and was told to take Risinger to the sheriff’s department.

He said he and Risinger waited for state police investigators for about an hour or so, watching TV in an office.

“It was really relaxed,” said Bilbrey. “We watched TV and talked about TV shows we liked.”

The afternoon was taken up by video recordings of interviews led by Indiana State Police detectives, including lead detective Matt Busick, a 21-year veteran of the force, with Risinger.

In the recording, Risinger appears fairly relaxed as he talks with police, saying “My place caught on fire, I was walking on the street and now I’m here.”

He claimed his bag had already been packed as he had been away for a few days. When he saw smoke in his trailer, he got out and kept walking.

“I got up and got out. I wasn’t going to just sit there.”

He claimed he had been in the back bedroom when the fire started and didn't know if Givans, whom he called "Gilbert," was even still in the trailer when he left. He didn't know what started the fire.

As investigators began to probe into Risinger’s story about how he met Givan and the events of March 14, Risinger began to get more aggitated, saying multiple times he was done talking.

“We just need to know the truth,” said Busick on the recording.

“I had to kill a demon,” replied Risinger. “… I don’t trust people. I’m here to do a job. Any demon that comes in my life and tries me, I’ll deal with them … I didn’t take care of it. Not me, not I. It was dealt with righteousness, with patience … It’s biblical.”

It was difficult at times to understand what was being said, but it seemed as though Risinger claimed he was sent on a mission to destroy a demon. As he began to talk about this, he became more physically aggitated, running his hands through his hair and gesticulating more wildly. He said there was evil in his trailer and the trailer itself was evil because its street number, 221, added up to five. He said he saw the same demon in Givan that he saw in his sister, that he claimed he’d seen his whole life.

“His numbers ran into my numbers … I didn’t want to … I broke the curse … I had no choice. I was warned before he would cross my path, so he had to die in flames.”

Risinger spoke at length about what he believed to be his "mission," to exorcise this demon from Givan's earthly body.

“So is it murder?” he later asked detectives.

“What would you call it?” Busick asked.

“I call it salvation.”

Multiple times during the interview, Risinger refused to give specific details, saying not everyone needed to know them.

He said Givan was crying a bit as Risinger started the fire by lighting papers and other items near him on fire.

“He was scared,” he said. “He was a tester and he’d been through many people with his baggage.”

As the interview drew to a close, Busick asked Risinger, who had been sitting with his head down on his hands in his chair, “Is it starting to sink into you?”

“No, it won’t,” Risinger replied. “Why should I let it?”

For more details, see tomorrow's issue of The Salem Democrat. Read Wednesday's report here.

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