Suspect Charged:Convicted of Murdering Ludington, MI Cop

“He’s got a gun!”– Trooper describes shooting, arresting trooper-murder suspect Eric Knysz

Eric John Knysz’s driver’s license suspension – his alleged murder motive – had less than six hours left to run when he fatally shot Michigan State Police Trooper Paul K. Butterfield II at a traffic stop.

It’s never been established why Butterfield pulled the truck over, but Sarah Knysz mentioned one possibility in her testimony Monday, Feb. 24: The truck had a muffler “loud enough to upset people.”

Murder Defendant John Knysz, 20, on trial for killing Michigan cop during traffic stop.

John S. Hausman

by John S. Hausman

Ludington, MI — “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!”

Michigan State Police Trooper Jeffrey Crofoot testified on Thursday, Feb. 20 that he yelled that to a fellow officer after seeing Eric John Knysz, a suspect in the shooting of Trooper Paul K. Butterfield II, running around the outside of a gas station, looking back and holding a gun out behind him. The gun was pointed at Crofoot, he testified.

Knysz came around the station into the view of Trooper Steven Arendt, Knysz holding a gun in his right hand and running toward his car, Arendt testified. Arendt yelled at him to stop. Knysz didn’t.

Arendt fired twice, striking Knysz in the knee.

Knysz dropped his gun and went down, Arendt helping with a foot on his back and Crofoot quickly jumping on top of the struggling Knysz, the troopers testified.

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Michigan State Police Trooper Paul K. Butterfield II

Around two hours after Butterfield was shot in the head at a Mason County traffic stop, his suspected shooter was taken into custody outside a Marathon gas station in Wellston in Manistee County.

So, moments later, was his pregnant wife, Sarah Renee Knysz. She appeared behind the troopers and, unresisting, let them handcuff her after her husband was subdued and cuffed.

The troopers who caught the couple told their story at Mason County’s 51st Circuit Court on Thursday, Feb. 20.

They and throngs of other northwestern Michigan police officers had been hunting for a white 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix that Eric Knysz had reportedly stolen a short time before. They had a description of the couple – an early-20s white male and pregnant young white woman.

Crofoot thought he spotted the car at the gas station and pulled in.

He saw a white male matching Eric’s description pumping gas and pulled up behind him. He said the man looked at him, turned away and walked toward the gas station. Crofoot tapped his horn, and the man kept walking. He laid on his horn, and still no reaction.
That told the trooper something wasn’t right. “A normal person would have turned around to see who was blowing the horn,” Crofoot said.

Meanwhile, Arendt ran the white car’s plate and confirmed: It was the suspect vehicle.

Knysz went into the gas station, at some point apparently tried to make a run for it out the back door, and the dash and shooting ensued, Crofoot and Arendt testified.

Knysz, 20, of the Irons area is accused of shooting Butterfield after the trooper pulled over the couple in a traffic stop around 6:20 p.m. Sept. 9 on Custer Road north of Townline Road in rural Mason County’s Freesoil Township. They were in a red pickup truck owned by Knysz’s father, John “Jack” Knysz of Irons, at that time.

Eric Knysz is on trial in Mason County Circuit Court facing charges of murder of a peace officer, felony firearm, carrying a concealed weapon and motor vehicle theft. He is charged as a second-time habitual offender based on a 2008 Lake County conviction of first-degree home invasion.

RELATED: Read detailed, as-it-happened live coverage of Thursday’s trial events

Also Thursday, other law-enforcement officers and technicians testified about other aspects of the manhunt for Knysz and its aftermath.

Slightly earlier in the evening, Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy John Bennett testified, Bennett saw the red pickup truck coming toward him on a two-track – the pickup he was looking for, the one he’d been told was involved in Butterfield’s shooting.

Bennett, with another officer, took cover, then did a “felony traffic stop” of the truck.

At the wheel wasn’t the shooting suspect but his 50-year-old mother, Tammi Lynne Spofford. She got out as ordered and answered questions, saying she had just driven her son and his wife to buy a white car in Walhalla and that she didn’t know where they went from there.

“She said she didn’t know anything that was going on, that she wouldn’t cover for him,” Bennett said.

Bennett then inspected the outside of the truck. “I observed blood splatter on the driver’s-side door and running board,” the deputy testified, his voice catching for a moment. He also saw a smear where grime had been wiped off, he said.

The stop was made on the wooded, roughly 100-acre property of Eric’s father and grandmother. Spofford lived in a different home on the same property, with a two-track trail linking the residences, officers testified.

The officers were inspecting the property, looking for the truck. Just before he was shot, Butterfield had radioed in his location and the license plate number of the vehicle he was stopping — the red pickup truck.

Spofford faces charges of accessory after the fact to a felony – Butterfield’s murder – and motor vehicle theft. She’s accused of knowingly helping the Knyszes escape after the trooper was shot by driving them to where they allegedly stole a car that Eric Knysz had test-driven earlier in the day with plans to buy it.

Sarah Knysz, 21, has been sentenced to prison for two to five years after pleading guilty as charged to the same counts Spofford faces. Sarah Knysz has agreed to testify against her husband. Spofford has stated she will assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify at the trial, and she will not be required to do so.

Other witnesses Thursday included a state police crime-scene investigator and fingerprint expert, Thomas Holcomb, who testified that he found a latent print of Eric Knysz on the barrel of the .357 Colt Python handgun Knysz allegedly dropped outside the gas station.

At one point Holcomb held up the gun – the one allegedly used to end Butterfield’s life – to show jurors.

Sarah Renee Knysz cries as she testifies against her husband, murder suspect Eric Knysz

According to his own statements, Eric John Knysz didn’t spare Michigan State Police Trooper Paul K. Butterfield II last Sept. 9 – but he spared his own family Monday.

After both his wife and his father testified against him at his murder trial Feb. 24, Knysz refused to let his lawyer cross-examine them.

Words of love

And for his wife, Sarah Renee Knysz, Eric had some public words: “I just want to say I love you,” he said across the courtroom from where he stood at the defense table. “I’m sorry I put you through this.”

Sarah Knysz, sitting on the witness stand, wept in response.

That exchange happened out of the presence of the jury early Monday afternoon, after Eric Knysz’s public defender, David Glancy, asked him questions establishing that Eric didn’t want his wife cross-examined.

RELATED: Live coverage of Monday’s trial action

Later in the afternoon, the same procedure – minus the words of love – happened after Eric’s father, John Peter Knysz of Irons, testified for the prosecution.

Eric Knysz is on trial on charges of murder of a peace officer, felony firearm, carrying a concealed weapon and car theft. He’s charged with fatally shooting Michigan State Police Trooper Paul K. Butterfield II in the head around 6:20 p.m. Sept. 9, 2013.

Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola expects to finish with his witnesses Tuesday morning, Feb. 25. If Glancy calls no one – and he’s only listed Eric Knysz as a potential defense witness – the case will go to jurors Tuesday afternoon after closing arguments and Mason County Circuit Judge Richard I. Cooper’s instructions to the jury.

Sarah speaks

Also publicly revealed Monday: Sarah, six months pregnant at the time of the shooting and a week away from delivery when she was sentenced to prison, said her baby boy was born Christmas Day. His name is Jayden, she said.

Just before Eric Knysz rejected a cross-examination of his wife, Spaniola had read aloud to the jury the contents of a letter that appeared to be from Eric Knysz, mailed from the Mason County Jail to Sarah Knysz’s attorney, John Spillan, after she pleaded guilty but before her sentencing for accessory after the fact to a felony and car theft.

In the letter, Eric claims that everything Sarah did to help him after the shooting, he forced her to do at gunpoint, including a claim that she tried to get out of the truck to help the trooper after Eric shot him.

That claim contradicts Sarah’s own testimony, as well as Eric’s earlier recorded statements to police confessing to the shooting.

Before that, under questioning by Spaniola, Sarah Knysz retold essentially the same story she told at her guilty plea.

She was composed for much of the tale, but cried when describing the trooper’s shooting.

After Butterfield turned his car around and pulled over behind the Chevy pickup truck Eric was driving, she testified, Eric told her he was sorry but he “had to shoot him” because he “didn’t want to go to prison.”

Eric Knysz, 20, of Irons was driving with a suspended license, she testified. In a recording of Eric’s confession to a police detective Sept. 12, he said the same thing. He also had allegedly stolen guns in the truck.

Sarah testified about the trooper, “he turned around and hit his lights… He came up to the window. He asked us how it’s going,” and Eric shot him, she said.

She also testified about a possible reason for Butterfield pulling over the truck, which has never been explained: It had a muffler “loud enough to upset people,” she said.

Before he got out, Butterfield had radioed to Central Dispatch his location and the license plate of the vehicle he was pulling over. That information ultimately led to the couple’s apprehension.

‘I shot him’

Earlier Feb. 24, Spaniola played a detailed, recorded confession in which Eric Knysz admitted shooting Butterfield for fear of being arrested.

Audio of a second hospital-room interview Sept. 12 between Knysz and state police Detective Gary Green was clearer and more audible in court than the first interview recorded Sept. 10, though parts were still difficult to understand.

“I seen the officer pull off to the side of the road … He turned around, and he walked up to the truck … and I shot him,” Knysz said on the recording.

After the trooper was shot, Knysz said, “He just fell.”

The second interview was played in court Monday morning, Feb 24, while jurors followed on written transcripts supplied by Spaniola.

Knysz said he was driving on a suspended license when a state trooper pulled over the pickup truck. Knysz said he was carrying a handgun in his pants and pulled it out and put it in his lap when the trooper pulled up.

Knysz also said he had been illegally buying and using morphine for pain since injuring his back at work in 2009.

“I just didn’t feel right,” he said, about Sept. 9. “I don’t know if it was pain or if it was depression or what it was.” He said he took extra pain pills that day.

Asked by Green if there was anything he wanted to say to the family of the trooper, it sounded as if Knysz began crying.

“Please hand them my sincere apologies,” he said. “I could do anything to change that, I would. If I could have him shoot me instead, I would.”

In court while this was played, Knysz looked down, but he didn’t appear visibly emotional.

In the recorded interview, Knysz also described other details of the events of that day. He admitted stealing guns from his father and selling some of them to a man in Ludington, and stealing a car in the Walhalla area after shooting the trooper.

He said his wife and his mother, Tammi Lynne Spofford, didn’t help him steal the car. Both knew he had shot a trooper, he said.

After the shooting, he said, his wife was “bawling her eyes out. Couldn’t help me much.” Asked if she or his mother were scared of him, he said, “No.”

Knysz also told the detective he removed a spent bullet casing from the gun he used to shoot the trooper and threw it out the window of the truck he was driving near the former Camp Sauble prison on Freesoil Road. Based on that, detectives the next day found the casing, which was later matched with Knysz’s gun.

He also told of throwing his cell phone out the window at a different point. That was not found.

In a brief cross-examination of Green after the audio was played, defense attorney David Glancy focused on Knysz’s use of pain pills and on his cooperation with the detective, including revealing where the cartridge casing could be found.

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John Knysz looks at his gun (photo by Ken Stevens)

Father and son

Late in the afternoon, Eric’s father testified against his son.

John Knysz testified that Eric did not have permission to take some eight guns from the father’s collection of approximately 30 guns in John Knysz’s large rural home in Irons. He said some of the guns he hadn’t seen in more than 30 years, since shortly after moving to Michigan.

Most of the guns John Knysz has owned since he was a police officer in Illinois, he testified, including a handgun and a long gun he used on the job. The handgun allegedly used to kill Butterfield, he said he bought for about $600 in the 1970s.

The elder Knysz said his son did have standing permission to use the father’s Chevy pickup truck that Eric Knysz was driving when Butterfield pulled him over. Eric also had permission to come and go as he pleased to his father’s house, John Knysz testified.

John Knysz works the night shift at Little River Casino in Manistee, and he acknowledged that Eric could have come into his house and stolen his guns while he was working.

According to testimony and recordings of Eric’s statements to police, Eric was returning from Ludington, where he had sold five of the stolen guns — with three still in the truck — when Butterfield pulled Eric and Sarah Knysz over on Custer Road north of Townline Road in Freesoil Township.

Eric Knysz hoped to use the money from the gun sale to help buy a white Pontiac Grand Prix from a man in Walhalla, according to testimony.

Also testifying Feb. 24 were Travis Gajewski, who said he bought five guns from Eric Knysz on Sept. 9, and several police witnesses.

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