Trooper Miguel Orabona felt intense fear wash over him as Douglas Stewart III leveled a .30-caliber, lever-action Winchester rifle in his direction as he approached the distraught man on the afternoon of Aug. 3, 2013.
Even though the nine-year veteran trooper had served military deployments in Afghanistan and Kosovo, he had never fired a weapon at another person before encountering the highly intoxicated Stewart standing along the side of his Clifton Park home. On that day, Orabono said Stewart gave him no choice — he leveled his rifle in a manner suggesting a shot was imminent.
“What the hell were you going to do with a loaded rifle on the side of your yard while you were drunk in a suburban neighborhood?” the trooper questioned at Stewart's sentencing Friday. “Why was your wife scared and hysterical, yelling at your children to go down the block? Did you think for once about your own family?”
Orabona squeezed off a single .223-caliber round from his AR-15, striking Stewart in the mid-section. Stewart recoiled from the shot, squeezing the trigger of his rifle and sent a single shot toward a neighbor's home on Cardinal Court — the bullet was never recovered by investigators.
Though Stewart was badly maimed by Orabona's shot — he lost a kidney and spent months undergoing treatment — his reckless behavior was enough to garner a conviction on a charge of menacing a police officer in October. On Friday, Saratoga County Court Judge Jerry Scarano ordered the estranged father of two to serve up to 61⁄2 years in prison, followed by three years of post-release supervision.
“The aggravating factor here is that on the day this happened and in the weeks preceding this, there were red flags and warning signs going up all over the place and you didn't see any of them,” Scarano told Stewart prior to handing down his sentence.
Defense attorney George Lamanche III had asked for the court to impose the two-year minimum sentence on the 45-year-old Stewart, who was battling alcoholism, had lost his job and was watching his marriage disintegrate at the time of the shooting. He argued Stewart, who had a blood-alcohol content of nearly 0.24 percent and had taken Xanax that afternoon, was only a danger to himself.
"Was there an excuse for his behavior? No,” he said. “Was there a reason for his behavior that day? Yes."
Prosecutors asked for Stewart to get a maximum sentence of eight years, characterizing him as a reckless alcoholic who continued to drink even after the shooting, including on three occasions that drew attention from authorities. Assistant District Attorney Alan Poremba also contested the notion that Stewart was only intent on committing suicide that afternoon.
“He had no idea [Stewart] had one round in the chamber,” Poremba said of Orabona. “He had no idea that [Stewart] had four more rounds loaded in the rifle's magazine. The defendant claims he was going to commit suicide. ... You don't need five rounds of ammunition to commit suicide.”
On the day of the shooting, Tonya Stewart told an emergency dispatcher that her husband was despondent over losing his job and had exited their Cardinal Court with a loaded rifle. On a recording played at trial, she told the dispatcher she feared he was going to commit suicide.
"He's outside," the audibly distraught woman said through sobs. "Please tell them to hurry."
Troopers arrived within nine minutes of the call and found Stewart by his side deck, bleeding from superficial self-inflicted wounds, with the rifle in hand and a large hunting knife jammed into a staircase step. Orabona testified he ordered Stewart to drop the weapon, but Stewart instead began to “level” the rifle in his direction.
"He grabs the rifle with his support hand," he testified at trial. "As soon as I felt it was pointed at my knees, I fired at him."
Jurors deliberated for about four hours before returning a guilty verdict on all three counts Stewart faced following a seven-day trial that began in late September. Stewart was initially released on bail after the verdict, but was returned to jail two days later after Scarano decided to have him detained until sentencing.
LaManche argued the encounter could have been diffused by state police and Orabona, who he claimed fired on Stewart without identifying himself as a trooper. He also claimed Orabona's round struck Stewart in the back — an assertion backed by Dr. Jeffrey Hubbard, a pathologist who testified for the defense at trial.
“If [Orabona] came in and admitted he shot [Stewart] in the back, he would lose his job,” LaManche said following the sentencing. “He would be the one investigated by a grand jury. He'd be the one on trial. He sang what he sang because of self-preservation.”
LaManche said he'll appeal the conviction on a number of grounds. Though he didn't fault Orabona for shooting Stewart, he said sending his client to prison for so long seems unjust given the circumstances of the case.
“He's lived a productive life for 45 years,” he said. “This case was three seconds of an otherwise productive, law-abiding life.”