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Witness says fiance fought masked man on porch, died

By John Lynch

This article was published August 6, 2014 at 4:41 a.m.

Faced with the sudden appearance of a masked gunman on her front porch, Nikelle Girndt said she froze.

But Charles Gaskins, her fiance, didn't.

The 50-year-old former truck driver instantly began to grapple with the gunman and a second assailant in a struggle that gave Girndt time to get to safety but left Gaskins shot dead just steps away from his young grandchildren, a Pulaski County jury heard Tuesday, the first day of the trial of one of the two men accused in the slaying.

James Johnson III is charged with capital murder, accused, with a co-defendant, of killing Gaskins during a July 2012 armed robbery attempt in the Southern Pines Mobile Home Park on South Heights Road in Little Rock.

Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence. Proceedings before Circuit Judge Chris Palmer resume at 9 a.m. today.

Johnson's lawyer, Tom Devine, hasn't said whether his client will testify. If Johnson does take the stand, he would open himself up to questioning about his 2011 first-degree battery conviction for a shooting that partially blinded a Little Rock man. He was on parole when Gaskins was killed.

On Tuesday, the six women and six men on the jury heard tearful testimony from Girndt, 42, and Gaskins' 9-year-old granddaughter Victoria Gillerson, who was just feet away from her grandfather when he was killed at the home they shared with the girl's parents and siblings.

Victoria, age 7 when her grandfather was killed, said she was watching TV when she heard "screaming" outside the family home. She said her "grandma," Girndt, ran inside through the front door and locked it, but the door was kicked in by a masked gunman wearing dark clothing.

Girndt ran into another room, said Victoria, testifying in a voice barely above a whisper. She said the masked gunman ran out when she screamed for her mother, who was in another bedroom.

The fourth-grader ended her 10 minutes on the witness stand crying, her tears beginning when she was asked whether she could see her grandfather after the masked man left. She told jurors she could see Gaskins lying on the porch.

Prosecutors Kelly Ward and Leigh Patterson told jurors the 21-year-old Little Rock man was arrested later on the day of the slaying, with the gun used during the killing found under his seat in the car he was riding in.

His co-defendant, 22-year-old Donte Terrall Davis of Little Rock, is scheduled for trial in October.

Girndt told jurors that she and Gaskins were attacked as they sat together smoking on their front porch, just after midnight on her 40th birthday. She said the couple had just seen the same car drive by twice without headlights, and Gaskins believed the vehicle was going to a neighbor whom they believed sold marijuana.

Girndt said she saw a "flash" of movement just before the gunman appeared on the porch.

"Someone was jumping up on the porch with a mask, saying 'what's up, motherf*?" she told jurors.

Girndt said she asked the man if he was serious, telling jurors she had only $2 on her.

"I thought it was a joke. It didn't seem real," she said. "He said this was a robbery."

She said a second man was coming up the steps behind the masked gunman, but Gaskins was able to block that man from getting up the stairs as he grabbed the gunman's arm.

The masked man had pointed his pistol at her chest, but Gaskins was able to pull the gunman's arm away, Girndt testified.

Girndt said she fled into the home, hoping to get to the grandchildren. The only money the couple had was inside, she said.

"My first thought was running toward the grandkids' room to protect them," she said.

But she also pushed the door closed and struggled to lock it even as someone pushed back from the other side, Girndt told jurors. One of the men kicked the door in when she got it locked, she said. Girndt said she heard two, maybe three gunshots before she could call 911.

The ruckus awakened Gaskins' son-in-law, the grandchildren's father, Stephon Gillerson, who barricaded the front door, fearing the assailants were still outside, Girndt said.

She sobbed as she described how she could see Gaskins lying on the front porch but was unable to get to him.

"I wanted to be with Charles," she said.

Girndt told jurors she regularly has nightmares about what happened and remorse about running into the home.

"I feel guilty that I locked him out," she told jurors.

Metro on 08/06/2014

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