Barbara Sauer still gets nightmares.
It's been more than seven months since Steven Etzen shot and killed her son, Benjamin Benda, in an apartment just across the street from the Marshalltown police station.
"I wake up crying and screaming," she said. "I haven't found closure on it. I don't know if I ever will."
T-R PHOTO BY DAVID ALEXANDER
Steven Etzen explains the events leading up to his arrest through a closed caption TV circuit Tuesday at the Marshall County Jail. Etzen and the other two men involved in the shooting will be sentenced Monday. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Marshalltown man Benjamin Benda.
But, in a July interview, she said she doesn't blame Etzen. Sauer said she and her son both knew all three of the men involved in the Feb. 6 shooting. They were rather fond of Etzen and TJ Vaughn.
She called the third man, Shawn Doehler, a troublemaker.
In fact, her relationship with Etzen is what makes the shooting all the more painful for her. Sauer said Etzen was going through a divorce and quarreled with his ex-wife over their daughter. She was helping him through it.
"I try to help anybody that is in depressed mode," she said.
With two kids to support, Etzen, 28, had gotten himself in financial trouble, Sauer said. She wishes he had pleaded temporary insanity.
Instead, in July, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, a Class B felony, according to court records. In March, Vaughn, 28, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a forcible felony, a Class C felony, and Doehler pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery, a Class B felony, and going armed with intent, a Class D felony -- his second such charge. In 2008, police charged Doehler, 23, with going armed with intent, according to online court records.
Police originally charged all three men with murder, robbery and burglary -- all in the first degree. At their initial appearances, each of the three pleaded not guilty, according to court documents. By time all the men had accepted pleas admitting their involvement, the shooting was more than five months gone.
Just after 6 p.m. Feb. 6, the three men entered an apartment above the Center Street Station bar to retrieve a leather coat that belonged to Etzen's girlfriend at the time, Etzen said. She had left the coat at Benda's while she and Etzen were staying there. Up until a few days prior to the shooting, she hadn't needed it. The winter had been a mild one.
But the weather was changing. It was getting colder.
Etzen said he doesn't understand why police charged the men with burglary and robbery. They didn't go over there to steal anything, and they didn't force their way into the apartment. The woman who lived there, Molli Bisson, 44, let them in.
Benda owed Etzen some money, Etzen admits, but he said they were simply there to inquire whether the coat had turned up.
"I wasn't hostile or anything," Etzen said. "He was my friend."
Right before the men entered the apartment, Etzen said Doehler handed him the gun, a Firestorm 380. He claims he didn't know Doehler had the gun with him. He thought it was still tucked away in Sauer's closet where it always was.
He checked the clip: empty.
Bisson opened the door. The faint sound of music filtered up through floor from the bar below.
"Oh hey Steve," Etzen recalls her saying. "Benny's here."
The men went inside. Moments later, the police would be called.
The day of the shooting, Etzen awoke around 8 a.m. He had no idea that in less than 12 hours he would shoot one of his closest friends. Benda, 38, would die the next day at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City.
Etzen had been staying with Sauer, helping take care of her - cooking, cleaning, etc. The two walked to the Depot on Center Street to cash a check then came back to Sauer's home. Etzen cooked some lunch - chili and crackers. He said Sauer rarely ate enough. They watched TV together. She often called Etzen "son."
Not long after, Etzen said, Doehler paid him a visit.
The two headed over to Valuables 4 Cash on Main Street to sell some jewelry and baseball cards Doehler had. At about noon, they began drinking tequila. Etzen said he doesn't normally drink.
"My dad died of being an alcoholic," he said.
They stopped into Lost and Finned on the corner of May Street and Third Avenue. While there, they fed the piranhas. They then headed over to Vaughn's house. By time they left, it was just about dinner time. They made their way back to Sauer's to, as Etzen put it, "check in."
It was 5:30 p.m., and Etzen and Doehler had already split a half-gallon of tequila.
Back at Sauer's place, just before dinner, Doehler was toying with the gun, Sauer said. He repeatedly removed and retuned a bullet to the gun's chamber. She told Etzen it was making her uncomfortable.
"That Shawn character was sitting on the couch beside me. He was flashing it (the gun) around, and I looked at Steve-O, and I said 'Steve-O, get that gun out of here. It's making me very nervous.'" Sauer said. "About that time, Shawn said 'I know how to get you money. We need to go if we are going to do it."
Sauer said she had a bad feeling about how the situation was playing out, but she ignored her gut. She would soon regret not taking the gun from Doehler. She would regret not calling police.
The men left Sauer's house and headed toward 19 1/2 Center St.
When the men entered the apartment, Benda was sitting in the living room, playing on his laptop, Etzen said.
He had been corresponding with a romantic interest in the Philippines. He planned to go there to visit her, Etzen said. He would never get the chance.
While he spoke to Benda about the coat, Etzen said the gun was at his side. Never did he raise or point the gun at Benda. Never did Benda act threatened. He didn't even look up from his laptop.
While the two were talking, Etzen said, Bisson spotted the gun. She lost her cool and lunged at him.
"She started freaking out when she saw the gun," Etzen said. "She hit my arm and the gun went off because there was a bullet in the chamber ... it was just a loud blast followed by silence."
Etzen cried out, repeatedly insisting he didn't know the gun was loaded.
Iowa Department of Criminal Affairs ballistics reports were unavailable to corroborate Etzen's account of the shooting.
He said, at first, he didn't even know the bullet had struck Benda in the head.
"He just kind of stared off for a second then fell over. There was no blood," he said. "I asked Benny if he was OK, and he just kind of slumped over. That's when I got scared."
Etzen said he panicked. He and Doehler fled town. They ditched the gun, leaving it with a friend, and went to the house of Etzen's sister in Osceola.
Police would arrest them in less than 10 hours.
When the two arrived at his sister's house, Etzen said she talked him down and convinced him to turn himself in. He agreed, but he never got the chance.
At about 5:30 a.m. Feb. 7, police swarmed in the apartment, Etzen said.
"I heard something outside, and I woke up," he said. "I went to the door, and there were cops everywhere -- probably 30 of them ... they threw me on ground in the snow and handcuffed me."
Police took the two the Clarke County jail, where Etzen said he admitted to accidently shooting Benda. He and Doehler would later be transported to Marshalltown where police had already apprehended Vaughn.
The court appointed all three men public defenders, but, according to court records, Etzen changed counsel Feb. 14.
Overall, Etzen said he was thankful his attorney was able to get the charge reduced to second-degree murder. In retrospect, he thinks it could have been manslaughter.
"It wasn't first-degree murder. It was an accident ... that's a hard weight to balance when you are facing life without parole," he said. "There isn't a whole lot [my attorney] could have done."
The court will sentence the three men Monday starting with Doehler at 1:30 p.m.
Etzen faces 50 years in prison. Doehler could face up to 25 years for the robbery charge and up to 5 years for the going armed with intent charge while Vaughn's conspiracy to commit a forcible felony charge could land him up to 10 years in prison.
"It was a drunken mistake, and someone has to pay for it," Etzen said.
The county attorney's office estimates the damages for pain and suffering to the family at about $125,000, according to court records.
Etzen said he feels sorry for Benda's two children. Being away from his kids is the hardest thing he has ever had to do; he said he couldn't imagine what it's like for Benda's kids.
"I am sure they look at me as an evil person that killed their dad," he said. "I guess there is no other way to look at me from a kid's eyes. I am the person that took their dad's life. It's hard to be that person."