×

Witness: Noise complaints preceded DPI shooting

Benjamin Atwater

ALPENA–Witnesses in court on Tuesday described the scene about 4:30 p.m. May 12 when a shooter opened fire in the area of the Decorative Panels International plant in Alpena, bullets pinging around the employees working on its roof.

Alpena’s Benjaman Atwater, 58, appeared at his preliminary examination Tuesday in the 26th District Court in Alpena before Judge Thomas LaCross. Atwater was arrested at his home on the evening of May 12 and arraigned the following Wednesday on charges of assault with intent to do great bodily harm, firing a gun in or at a building, assault with a dangerous weapon, and felony use of a firearm. Nobody was injured in the incident.

A preliminary exam is used to determine if there’s enough evidence for a case to proceed to trial.

The first witness brought by the prosecution, who was on the roof at the time of the shootings, described the moment he realized he was in danger.

“You could actually hear a round whizzing by,” said Chad Feury, an independent contractor who was working with a crew of about a dozen workers to clean bio-ducts on the roof of one of the plant’s auxiliary buildings.

Feury, who retired recently from the military with combat experience and who used to teach special operations forces at Fort Bragg, a U. S. military installation, identified by sound that the shots had come from a 9-millimeter handgun from a distance of about 100 to 150 meters from where he was working. The shots, he said, came from a height above or equal to that of the rooftop, not from ground level.

It wasn’t the first time gunshots had been heard near the plant that weekend. Workers heard shots both May 10 and May 11, all coming from the same direction, which Feury testified he’d been able to narrow down to two nearby houses that he could see from the roof.

Concerned about the gunfire at first, Feury was told by DPI employees that sometimes people used a nearby quarry area for target practice.

More gunshots were fired the morning of May 12, again not raising the concern of the employees as they worked, Feury said.

That afternoon’s shots came during a break as the workers waited for a crane. More gunfire, a rapid series of several shots followed by a short pause and another series, was accompanied by the sounds of bullets striking metal near the rooftop workers. Feury also described the “splat” sound of at least one bullet striking concrete.

Workers ducked and scrambled for cover, Feury telling them to pull off their high-visibility vests to make them less of a target. They clambered down an exterior ladder and into a building while police took over the scene.

Scott Ickes, senior manager of compliance at DPI, was onstage when the shooting occurred, performing in Alpena Civic Theatre’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Around noon the previous Friday, Ickes testified, he had received a voicemail from a man who identified himself as Ben, of the 600 block of Ford Avenue, the block where Atwater lives. The caller indicated that the volume at the plant was problematic for him, and he requested that DPI provide a hotel room for him for the night.

The work on the roof, an every-two-years cleaning of vents integral to keeping contaminants out of the air, was a 10-day project requiring the use of at least two vehicles described by Ickes as vacuum trucks, which ran at 45-minute to one-hour intervals at a very high volume. The trucks, parked next to the building on which the employees worked, were agreed by all to be exceptionally loud, requiring ear protection for those working nearby on ground level.

After he heard the voicemail, Ickes said, he called back and left a message apologizing for the inconvenience of the noise and explaining the necessity of it.

DPI advertised in The News ahead of time, Ickes said, letting residents know about the potential for loud noise from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the days of the project.

DPI employee Jay Gries was walking toward the auxiliary building to check on the progress of the workers that Sunday afternoon when he heard gunshots, followed by the “ting, ting, ting” of bullets striking the building. The incident happened in seconds, the shots coming quickly, as though the shooter were not taking precise aim. Gries dropped to his knees as soon as he saw the men ducking for cover on the roof.

“The thing was happening fast and I was just crawling to get away from it,” Gries said. He scrambled behind a nearby dumpster and called 911.

Tuesday’s witnesses were called by Assistant Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski, who drew out the details of the day and established a timeline. Defense attorney David Funk questioned each witness, verifying the number, pacing, and trajectory of shots fired and getting detailed descriptions of the building involved in the incident.

Two more witnesses will be called when the exam continues Thursday afternoon.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com