The TV flickered in the living room of the little house in Citrus Heights where Jack Swaim slept on the couch, and it was in its blue backlight that a man said he saw the 52-year-old oil field worker beaten and stabbed in a fatally misplaced matter of payback.
Jason Payne told a jury Monday that he was the last of four men who broke into Swaim’s home on Stonehand Avenue two years ago in search of a man who earlier that night broke open one of their heads with brass knuckles.
It wasn’t Swaim who did the damage. But it was Swaim who suffered the consequences while asleep on the couch out front; according to relatives, he had given up his own room that night to his mother, who was in town to celebrate a grandson’s wedding the day before.
“The man was sleeping on the couch, facing the TV on the far wall,” Payne testified in Sacramento Superior Court. “That’s how I was able to see what was going on. I’m either at the door or just inside the door. By the time I’m there, the man is already on all fours, getting beaten.”
Payne said he saw two of his companions punch and beat Swaim in the light of the TV before a third suspect smashed the victim with a coffee table. On the ride away, Payne said one of the attackers told him he tossed a knife into the bushes. Authorities said Swaim had been stabbed to death.
The testimony came in the second day of the murder trial of Jeffrey Douglas Powell and Christopher Lawrence Langlois, both 32.
A third defendant, Andrew Les Johnson, 31, pleaded no contest last month to voluntary manslaughter in the Jan. 5, 2013, killing. In exchange, Johnson received a promise of a maximum term of 27 years, according to the court docket.
Johnson entered his plea Jan. 26, the day the trial was assigned to Judge Michael W. Sweet. He is scheduled to testify Tuesday.
According to testimony Monday and to the trial brief filed by Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hightower, Johnson is perhaps the most important figure in the case.
Defense attorneys Keith J. Staten, who is representing Powell, and Danny Brace, who is defending Langlois, believe Johnson was the instigator in the killing and that their clients should be exonerated of murder.
Staten said in his opening statement last week that Powell did not inflict the stab wounds that killed Swaim, that it could have been Johnson. Brace on Monday sought to cast doubt on Payne’s account that Langlois hit Swaim with the table, saying in his questioning Monday that the trial testimony is the first time he had heard of such an allegation. Brace also strongly suggested it was Johnson who did the fatal stabbing.
A friend of Johnson’s named William Beaman provided the back story in his testimony Monday about how the evening’s events began to unfold.
Beaman told the jury he and Johnson, along with Powell, had been drinking at Rocky’s 7440 Club on Auburn Boulevard late into the evening in the hours before Swaim’s predawn beating death.
Beaman told jurors he and Powell came out of the bar around closing time with two women they met inside. He said the four of them were headed to a hotel in Roseville. As for Johnson, “He was the odd man out,” Beaman testified, so they dumped him off at a 7-Eleven on Antelope Road, around the corner from Jack Swaim’s house.
Hightower’s trial brief said Johnson apparently wandered over to the 6300 block of Stonehand Avenue, where Swaim’s son, Jimmy, found him “possibly attempting to steal items from his truck.” Johnson also mentioned something about buying some marijuana, the brief said, right before “a brief physical altercation” ensued between Johnson and Jimmy Swaim.
“According to James Swaim, as Defendant Johnson left, he indicated that he’d be back and he hoped there weren’t any kids in the house,” the brief said.
The threat prompted Jimmy Swaim to go inside and slip his hand into a set of brass knuckles. The brief said Jimmy Swaim chased Johnson to the 7-Eleven where he put the knuckles to the other man’s face and head.
Beaman testified that the bloodied Johnson called Powell at the hotel, met up with him there and that those two took off into the night.
Around the same time, Jason Payne, who was hanging out with Langlois and some other friends at a house on Papaya Drive in Fair Oaks, said he overheard a phone call placed by Johnson to the co-defendant.
Langlois “said his friend was jumped by a group of Russians in Citrus Heights, and he was going to head out there to handle the problem, and he asked me to back him up, that I was his homeboy,” testified Payne, who was never charged in the case.
A while later, Johnson showed up with Powell and a woman who was driving them, Payne said. Payne testified it appeared as if Johnson’s head had been stapled shut front and back. He said he and Langlois joined with those three and that the five of them drove over to Stonehand Avenue, parked down the street from the Swaim residence, and that Johnson led a charge to the front door.
Payne said Johnson kicked the door open and that in a matter of five seconds Johnson and Powell were laying into the sleeping Jack Swaim.
Relatives described the slain man as a California native, a graduate of Casa Roble High School and a roughneck oil field worker who at the time of his death headed up a crew in the natural gas fields near Rio Vista.
“He was just a good man,” his mother-in-law, Regina Tew, said in an interview down the hall from the courtroom Monday. “He loved people. Everybody loved him. He flew to Alaska a lot to go fishing. Fishing was his life. He never hurt anybody. He was just a good man, a hard worker.”
In his testimony, Payne said he never saw anybody actually stab Swaim, but that in the car ride out of there, Powell “told me he threw the knife in a bush by the car.” Powell also sustained cuts to three fingers on his right hand as well another one to his right thigh, authorities said. Payne said he also overheard Powell on a phone call during the getaway drive “telling somebody that he screwed up real bad.”
Payne also told jurors, “Chris picked up that table and hit the man with it.”
Testifying under a grant of immunity, Payne said that after the beating, the five of them returned to their friends’ house on Papaya Drive. He said he shot up some methamphetamine while the others smoked theirs, as they changed out of their bloody clothes and wiped down the getaway car with ammonia, in an unsuccessful attempt to remove blood and DNA evidence.