Thomas Wessels, 65, said he had left his property when the confrontation happened. He was driving and his wife Kathleen, 66, was riding in their dirt-colored Chevy Blazer the afternoon of July 10, 2015. Their oak-covered acres sit at the line between northern San Diego County and southern Riverside County. The area is sometimes described as De Luz and sometimes Fallbrook.
While they drove down a slope in the road, the couple came upon a woman they recognized, Alyce Copeland, 63. “She was sitting in a beach chair, folding beach chair, facing uphill in the middle of the easement.”
The Wessels always refer to the disputed road as “the easement,” and the owners of that road and their supporters refer to it as “the gravel road.”
42200 Teneja Truck Trail
The woman they found in the middle of the road is the sister of Catherine Harker, who is one of the owners of the land burdened by the easement. The Wessels were driving on that land, in the 42200 area of Tenaja Truck Trail, when they came upon Alyce Copeland.
Thom Wessels said that as soon as he saw her, his thought was, “not again.” The Wessels and their neighbors have had troubles that have escalated for about three years. “We have an injunction against them not to block the easement, and this was a blatant violation of that.”
On that afternoon last July, Thom stopped his car about 30 feet away from the female obstacle, and he reached for his GoPro camera while he told his wife to get the still camera. The neighbors had gotten into the habit of recording each other. Thom had his GoPro camera mounted on the end of a long pole for maximum photo opportunity. “And so we started both cameras before we exited the vehicle,” Thom explained later, in a courtroom. The images captured by Thom and his wife were later used as evidence.
The couple got out of their car and walked toward the woman in the road.
Five months later, in December 2015, a prosecutor asked Thom if he recognized a certain image.
“That was a picture taken from my camera of Alyce Copeland sitting in the folding lawn chair just before she shot me.”
The next photo was captured by his wife Kathleen.
“This is the picture of me and Alyce, and I have the GoPro in my left hand, it turns out, it looks like she is reaching around to pull a gun out right then.”
Thom said the woman in the chair had a weapon hidden behind her.
“Well, she was kind of fumbling, and she made several attempts.... And then the next thing that happened was she pulled it out and shot me.”
One of the images presented in court showed Thom standing about two feet away from the seated woman, the gun was perhaps 18 inches from his body, and flame blazed from the end of the pistol.
Thom was asked if there was any conversation before he was shot. He remembered asking Copeland what she was doing.
“She said, ‘I’m waiting for you.’” Tom said he could not remember all the back-and-forth, but he did recall telling Copeland that she was in violation of an injunction.
“She asked if this has all been worth it, and then she shot me.... I said, ‘I’m shot!’”
Tom said the bullet entered his abdomen, “To the right of my navel area, about three inches, and it exited my side at about the same level.”
And then he saw the woman point the gun at his wife.
“She didn’t have to do anything more than just move her hand a slight bit to the left.”
Kathleen was standing maybe six feet away.
“I knew I had to stop her, so I grabbed her gun hand,” Thom said. “And I noticed she was still trying to pull the trigger. Nothing was happening.
An expert later described the pistol Copeland wielded as a 9mm Hi-Point semi-automatic. He said the casing from the first shot was jammed in the slide action, the empty shell failed to eject completely, and this prevented the next round from being chambered.
“I was able to wrest it free from her,” Thom said, “and I had the gun in my hand when I picked up the camera ten feet down the easement.”
Thom hurried to get his GoPro camera, which had dislodged from the handle “because I knew I had to have that — I just filmed my own murder, essentially, or attempted.”
He hurried back up the slope, toward the shooter.
“She was standing up at that point, and I remember looking over to my wife to make sure she wasn’t hit. And she was still standing there, so I thought I better stop Alyce, so... she could have [had] a second gun. So I took the gun and I hit her right here in the forehead to stun her. I think it did.” Tom said he struck Copeland just above her hairline, in the front and center of her forehead, with the same gun she had used to shoot him.
Thom and his wife hurried toward their vehicle, and as they went, “I looked over and I saw David Bender filming the whole thing. I don’t know how long he had been there.”
Bender is the other owner of the land on which the shooting occurred.
“David Bender was filming it all from about just behind my car, somewhere to the right of the rear. And so I got into the passenger’s side, and my wife got into the driver’s side, and I said, ‘Go, just go!’”
Thom still had the gun he took from Copeland.
“At some point during our drive towards the hospital, I put it up on the dash.” And Thom had his own shotgun in the back.
Kathleen tried to drive her husband to the hospital. They were speeding and passing cars and blasting through stop signs, and they were soon stopped by at least four patrol cars. Thom explained to the deputies that he had been shot, and he showed them.
“My abdominal area was swelling up, it was big, this is apparently because of the internal bleeding.”
He said he did not feel any pain until much later, until after surgery.
“I have never been shot before, but I was a little amazed there wasn’t more blood.”
Thom said he informed the officers about the weapons in his car.
“I said I had her gun, I believe, and I also told him I had my own shotgun, which was unloaded in the back. We had been doing target practice, I believe, that day.”
Thom Wessels denied in court that he has ever fired his shotgun toward his neighbors’ property.
On the day of the shooting, he did drive up and down the disputed road at least twice, he said. And he did shout something at David Bender: “I could have told him, ‘Move your truck,’ or something.” But Thom said he would not characterize that as a confrontation.
Thom said it may have happened that as soon as he passed through the gate onto his own property, he might have taken his shotgun out of his vehicle.
“I don’t recall, but I may have taken it from the back to the front or the front to the back. I mean, it is our property, and sometimes I will get it ready to take out of the car at the cabin.”
Thom told Copeland’s defense attorney in December 2015 that he had fired his own shotgun that same day, but that was on his own property.
“I may have been target-practicing that day, but it would have been earlier, I believe.”
Thom was shot at about 4:00 in the afternoon.
“And it was strictly from our cabin deck, which is where I shoot my shotgun when I do target practice.”
Thom estimated that his cabin is about a third of a mile from his neighbors’ property. He said that sometimes he does target-practice using a certain tree.
“I have shot it at the lower level of what we call ‘the meadow,’” he explained, “which is down from the cabin toward our entrance gate on Parcel 9.”
The Wessels own the property known as Parcel 9. The 40-acre property owned by David Bender and Catherine Harker is Parcel 13. Thom denies that he ever fired his shotgun at the property line: “No. Never have, never will.”
Thom admitted that on a previous occasion he may have screamed at his neighbors, telling them to “Move!” He admitted one prior exchange with Bender in which, “I yelled at him to ‘move back to Victorville.’”
The Wessels do not live on their property. Kathleen inherited Parcel 9 from her parents in 2009; they had put what she described as a “rustic cabin” on the land in the 1970s. She married Thom on those acres in 2011; Kathleen was 62 and Thom was 61 then. The couple resides in Wildomar, in Riverside County, which is a half-hour drive to their property. Since inheriting the first 13-acre parcel, the Wessels acquired another parcel in the area; they currently own 48 acres.
Before the confrontation last July, Alyce Copeland claimed she had become afraid of Thom Wessels. Eight months before Thom was shot in the gut, Copeland filed papers in small-claims court, alleging that Thom had struck her several times with his car in November of 2014.
Copeland is often on the property belonging to her sister, Catherine Harker. She alleged that she was standing on the disputed road and had asked Thom to unwedge a gate that he had just opened. Copeland claims she has video documentation of that incident, and her attorney showed a video to Thom and asked him to confirm that was him driving the car.
“Yes, as I was attempting to leave and she was standing in front, yes,” Thom testified.
But, he explained: “I didn’t hit her with the car. When I put the car in ‘park’ several times, and she was standing in front of my bumper with the engine running; it is an automatic, so it moves about an inch and a half, and that’s what she is claiming that I hit her four times with the car.”
The attorney was persistent, and after repeated questioning and reviewing of the video, Thom did admit, “I contacted her with my car.” But he declared it was not intentional: “Not at any time. I was putting it in ‘park’ several times when she was standing in front of my running car, and it moved this far forward.”
He said each time he put his car into “park” on the slope, it made a little lurch forward, perhaps two inches.
In her small-claims case, Copeland asked for $10,000 for “pain and suffering, including continuing nightmares and agitation.” She wrote, “Because Mr. Wessels invaded my privacy, stalked me, harassed me, terrorized me, and assaulted me with his vehicle on 11-4-2014.”
Thom made a counterclaim: he alleged negligence, emotional distress, and false imprisonment. The commissioner who heard the case denied both claims, citing conflicting evidence and failure to prove each case. That small-claims court decision was announced on May 12, 2015, two months before Copeland allegedly shot Thom.
In September of 2014, Harker and Bender filed suit, trying to get other property owners to go back to using the road easement described in old deeds — this, because the currently used path loops closely around their home, and they find this an invasion of their privacy. They claimed that others were using “binoculars” to spy on them, and that the opening and closing of gates threatens to loose their cattle. And Harker and Bender also want their neighbors “to begin paying their fair share of the surveying, construction, maintenance, and other costs” for use of the easement road.
The Wessels have acknowledged that the current path of the easement road has deviated from the original description because “it follows the natural topography of the land and avoids the most steeply sloped areas…to provide (the most) easily driven route….” Kathleen Wessels responded, “I also do not want, and do not believe it is fair or appropriate to require us to bear any portion of the cost to repair and maintain Harker and Bender’s private driveway.”
Five months before the shooting, a judge ordered Harker and Bender to refrain from obstructing traffic over the easement road and to dismantle fences and gates. But before Harker and Bender were required to take action, the Wessels were ordered to produce $10,000 to “indemnify Harker and Bender for the damages they may sustain by reason of the order.” That ruling was published February 23, 2015.
Doctors made a foot-long vertical incision in Thomas John Wessels’s belly in search of internal injuries and closed it with 25 staples. Thom said he was in the hospital for seven days and that the scar is painful and he now walks with a cane. He said he had gained 20 pounds since he was shot.
San Diego Superior Court judge K. Michael Kirkman remarked, “I find beyond a reasonable doubt that these folks don’t get along,” and ordered Copeland, 63, to face two counts of attempted murder, plus one count of assault with a firearm causing great bodily injury. Trial is set for March of 2016, and Copeland is held in lieu of $750,000 bail.
After the shooting, Copeland was arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder.
Her attorney, Jeremy Burland, asserts that Copeland acted in fear.
“Mr. Wessels has acted in a way that would cause Ms. Copeland to believe she is in danger of this man,” said Burland.