But Gruytch was pulling out a summons he’d been assigned to deliver. Erin Rostow’s name was on the papers, which were an attempt to collect unpaid homeowners’ fees of approximately $1000.
Gruytch held the papers out for Burleson to take. “I reached out instinctively to get them,” Burleson says, “and he pulled them back, as though we’re playing tug-of-war. So I had to grab at them and jerk them out of his hand. Then he said, ‘Ah-ha. See, you pointed it at me. Now I’m calling the cops.’
“The way this thing played out, I swear he’d done it before. It was as though he’d taken a class in how to deal with a homeowner who comes to the door with a gun. This is how you get them in trouble, instead of you. If my gun had been pointed at him, as he said, it was inadvertent, and it happened at the moment that I was pulling the paperwork out of his hand. Because that threw me off balance a little.
“I was thinking that this guy was off his rocker. I still can’t believe he was willing to risk getting killed for a $39 service fee.
“Today I’m embarrassed. Nobody wants to admit going outside like that with a gun. But I was in a panic. This was right after my son was born, and my wife had gone to the emergency room.”
Burleson says he went back inside the house and watched from a window as Gruytch returned to his car. Gruytch seemed to dawdle for several minutes before driving away.
“I loaded the shotgun then, because I didn’t know if the guy was going to come around the side or the back. I thought, Sure, he’s just a process server, but the way he was acting, he might come back. And this time, it’s going to be loaded, and I’m going to be ready to go.
“But I put the safety on the shotgun and zipped it up in its case and put it back above the closet.
“I knew the sheriffs would be coming. And I honestly thought I’d be able to explain what happened. Then I saw them on both sides of the house, and I could tell they were deployed to make an arrest.”
A sheriff’s deputy came to the front door and asked Burleson if he’d pointed a shotgun at “this guy.” The deputy pointed down the street. Burleson told the officer, “‘I didn’t point it at him, but I came to the door with it.’ At that point, he put me in handcuffs.”
Burleson later learned that the sheriffs went into the house to make sure everyone was all right and to talk with his wife. They searched the back rooms, found the loaded shotgun, and took it with them when they left. “They also told my wife I had done a very bad thing. She did not give them permission to search the house. From my perspective, that was illegal.”
“I’m a salesman,” Burleson tells me, “and a good one.” At the time of his arrest, he was selling residential real estate in North County. But the market was slow and he was making little money; he had to borrow $4000 to be bailed out of jail. He also qualified for legal representation by a public defender.
In April 2011, John Patterson of the San Diego County Public Defenders Office began work on Burleson’s case. An investigator in Patterson’s office interviewed three people who, on the same night, had experiences with Gruytch similar to Burleson’s. They stated in their interviews that when Gruytch came to their doors, he’d been loud, demanding, and disrespectful.
“I found those supporting witnesses,” Burleson tells me. He also dug up information that indicated Gruytch had once owned a company called U.S. Bail Enforcement (Gruytch denied this at trial), conjuring up visions of the reality-TV show Dog the Bounty Hunter.
The discoveries were promising, but tension soon developed between Burleson and his attorney. The strain came to a head at the preliminary hearing. Burleson wanted to present an “affirmative defense,” in which he would maintain that he’d acted in self-defense. If the judge agreed, the charges might be dropped. To qualify for such a defense, Burleson would have to admit he’d threatened Gruytch with the shotgun.
On July 6, 2011, the day before the preliminary hearing, Patterson emailed his client: “Although we can present an affirmative defense tomorrow, I think the facts of your case may be better for a jury, and I do not want to tie you to any testimony now which could be used against you at a trial.”
Burleson didn’t buy it. During the hearing, when the judge asked if an affirmative defense was going to be made, Burleson spoke out. “I have a right to co-counsel,” he blurted. “And I’m going to be my own co-counsel.” He then indicated he wanted to pursue the affirmative defense.
“What are you doing?” Burleson says his attorney exclaimed. The judge told the pair to meet privately and get their act together. She’d already admonished Burleson not to butt in, as he’d tried to do by correcting the record earlier in the hearing; the judge said that he should allow his attorney to do it.
The Burleson team dropped the affirmative defense, and the judge decided a trial was warranted, scheduling it for early December. California law states: “It is the purpose of a preliminary examination to establish whether there exists probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed a felony.”
After several more months, Burleson decided to release Patterson and hire private defense attorney Gerald Smith. “What I liked about Gerald was that he’s a former cop,” says Burleson, who then borrowed more money to pay the bill.
The trial began on December 11, 2011, in Superior Court at Vista’s North County Regional Center. The charges against Burleson were “assault with a deadly weapon” and “brandishing a firearm in a threatening manner.”