Derrick McElroy was convicted of first-degree murder in Webster County District Court Tuesday afternoon.
The seven-woman, five-man jury decided that McElroy, 28, of Fort Dodge, shot Brandyn Preston, 19, also of Fort Dodge, in the neck at a bonfire party on May 8, 2011 at 1101 10th Ave. S.W.
Preston, who was paralyzed from the neck down, died eight months later after moving to Tampa, Florida, with his mother.
Brandyn Preston’s mother, Kimberly Wood, of Tampa, Florida, is comforted by his aunt, Vickey Preston, of Fort Dodge, Tuesday afternoon as the guilty verdict in the first-degree murder trial of Derrick McElroy is read in Webster County District Court.
Derrick McElroy, 28, of Fort Dodge, is led from Webster County District Court Tuesday afternoon by Sgt. Brian Nellis of the Webster County Jail shortly after the jury declared McElroy guilty of murdering Brandyn Preston.
Wayne Schwarte testifies for the defense in the first-degree murder trial of Derrick McElroy in Webster County District Court.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Doug Hammerand talks during closing arguments.
The jury deliberated for about two hours.
Jennifer Benson, first assistant Webster County attorney, said she and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Doug Hammerand were pleased with the verdict.
"This obviously was a very difficult case for the family and friends of Brandyn Preston," Benson said. "Brandyn was tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I'm glad the jury saw the truth just as we did. I appreciate their diligence and attention listening to all the facts."
Prosecutors argued that Preston was shot as a result of a feud between two rival gangs. They said McElroy was not focused on shooting anyone in particular and hit Preston, who was not affiliated with any gang.
Brandyn Preston's father, Pat Preston, of Fort Dodge, said he was also happy with the guilty verdict.
"It's been a long haul," he said. "Now we know that justice has been served."
At the same time, he added that it was bittersweet.
"Every day is going to be a little easier getting back to a normal life," Preston said. "But Brandyn's not coming back."
Preston also thanked the investigators and prosecutors in the case.
"I just want to thank the Police Department, DCI (Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation) and detectives for all their hard work," Preston said. "I also want to give big thanks to the prosecutors (for) having the confidence to bring him to trial."
Charles Kenville, McElroy's attorney, declined to comment.
The defense rested its case Tuesday morning after presenting two witnesses.
McElroy declined to testify in his own defense.
Testifying on his behalf, Wayne Schwarte contradicted a previous prosecution witness who said McElroy had admitted details of the shooting while both he and Schwarte were present at a Fort Dodge apartment.
The witness, who is serving time at a federal prison on drug conspiracy charges, said McElroy had told them about a gun with a scope that he had used to fire into the crowd at the bonfire party with the intention of killing someone, although he had no specific target.
Schwarte denied McElroy had made those statements, but corroborated other details provided by the federal prisoner, whose name and image are being withheld by The Messenger for safety reasons.
"That's something you would have remembered had that been discussed, right?" Kenville asked Schwarte.
"Yes," Schwarte said
He added the reason he was visiting McElroy's apartment with the state's witness was because he wanted to see a pit bull puppy that McElroy was selling. Schwarte said he was interested in buying it.
But under cross examination from Hammerand, Schwarte said he already had a puppy at the time he visited McElroy.
Hammerand also asked Schwarte for his opinion on people who provide information to police.
Schwarte said it "doesn't matter" to him, but also admitted that he refers to people who cooperate with police as "snitches."
Hammerand showed a photo from Schwarte's Facebook page with the caption "snitches get stitches," which Schwarte admitted to posting.
In his closing argument, Kenville said that McElroy was not the man who shot Preston. He accused the investigators of having tunnel vision when it came to his client and not looking at other suspects.
"It's very sad what happened to Brandyn Preston," Kenville said. "But Derrick McElroy didn't do it. This investigation went off the rails because police didn't follow through with their investigation."
He said investigators didn't eliminate Deangelo Foy, who Kenville said had motive for the shooting, as a suspect.
"It doesn't get any better by convicting the wrong person," he said. "That doesn't mean that justice has been done. He is not guilty."
Hammerand said the evidence, including McElroy's DNA being found on the scope of the .22 Ruger long rifle that was used to shoot Preston, proved that investigators had the right man.
"The person who did this to Brandyn Preston should be held responsible for what he did," Hammerand said. "And that person is sitting there in this courtroom, sitting right over there in the white shirt. He needs to be held accountable for his actions."
McElroy's sentencing will be Sept. 19. He faces a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.