Open murder trial underway in Benzie County; Beulah man accused of killing neighbor

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Jul. 22—*Editor's note: This article was updated at 3:30 p.m. July 22 to correct a previously misidentified witness who testified. Bethany Hay is the defendant's ex-girlfriend.

BEULAH — Samantha Brown stood under the afternoon sun in front of a government building in Beulah, turned to her mother and aunt and asked a sensitive question: how did they handle hearing their brother's voice on a recorded 911 call played at his accused killer's trial?

Her mom Kate Sarantos said at first her brother's voice brought a moment of relief, but then she couldn't stop her tears from flowing. Her sister, Cricket Brookfield who traveled to northern Michigan from England to observe the trial, said much the same — and tears were the end result, she confirmed.

The open murder trial of Taylor Thomas Manol, 24, began this week in a Benzie County courtroom. He is accused of intentionally firing two guns into the home of neighbor Alexander Sarantos on April 5, 2020. Authorities discovered Sarantos dead six days later with a bullet in his heart. The music lover, with the nickname "Uncle," was 56 years old.

Authorities contend Manol was angry at Sarantos and that's why he fired guns into the victim's home.

The defense said the incident was an accident — admittedly criminal — but not rising to first- or second-degree murder.

Manol faces up to life in prison, if convicted.

The trial before 19th Circuit Court Judge David Thompson began with jury selection Wednesday morning, when nine men and five women were seated to decide the case. The judge said two of them would randomly be dismissed as alternates before deliberations, after an expected 81 exhibits and 35 witnesses in as many as six days.

Prosecutor Sara Swanson argued Manol drank one-fifth of bourbon in less than two hours before going outdoors to shoot his guns and "blow off some steam." She theorized Alex Sarantos shouted out his door to try and shush Manol's shouting and gunshots, and the latter retaliated by firing eight shots into the victim's house.

"The bullets don't stop at the window, of course," Swanson said.

She said the victim was found dead six days later with a pool of blood beneath him, and a single bullet wound in the middle of his chest.

"This shot to the heart kills Alex Sarantos," Swanson said.

That night Benzie County Sheriff's deputies and Michigan State Police troopers responded after midnight on April 6 to Manol's home, where they found him passed out with two guns nearby — a bolt-action rifle and an assault-style rifle, the prosecutor said.

Manol was not arrested that night, officials said, despite six phone calls to 911 about rapid-fire gunshots between 11:20 p.m. and several minutes after midnight, including a call from the victim himself. All the calls were played in the courtroom.

The defense offered some explanations.

"First of all this was a horrific tragedy and it shouldn't have happened," said Traverse City defense attorney Craig Elhart.

He said they do not dispute Manol drunkenly fired multiple guns and that one of his bullets killed Alex Sarantos that night. But he contended his client did not intend to kill Sarantos and there is no proof of premeditation, requirements for second- and first-degree homicide conviction, respectively.

"You can have all the theories you want but you've got to prove them," Elhart said.

The defense lawyer argued it cannot be proven the victim yelled out his door that night at Manol, nor that a lamp inside Sarantos's house provided enough light to see him from outdoors and 75 feet away. The attorney showed the jury nighttime photographs of the scene and used a 1/24-scale model of Sarantos's home to demonstrate bullet trajectories.

Elhart said Manol was instead guilty of causing a death by shooting a firearm at what he thought was wildlife while intoxicated, a felony that carries up to a 15-year prison sentence, but which in this case isn't an option for jurors. He was "drunk out of his mind and off his medication and thinking he was shooting at raccoons," the attorney said.

The night's events prompted widespread concern that night among those who live near the intersection of Cinder and Zimmerman roads in Homestead Township. Jurors on Wednesday heard again and again how Manol's neighbors called authorities out of concern when they heard continued bursts of semi-automatic gunfire.

The trial's first day brought a parade of ear-witnesses to the barrage of gunshots. Each testified about calling 911 that night; one woman called twice.

All of the ear-witnesses said they did not know Manol. However, Wednesday's last two testifying witnesses did.

Manol's ex-girlfriend Bethany Hay said she was involved with him for four years and lived with him in Benzie County for the last two. The pair have a son together.

Hay said she bought Manol a fifth of bourbon from a gas station in Honor that day and he drank it alone in the bathroom to cure a toothache. She testified Manol became belligerent and violent.

"It must have hit him all at once because he starting yelling at me like I was his mother," Hay said, adding then he thought she was his father.

"It was like he could not see me as me."

Manol punched walls, threw things around and even assaulted her, she said.

That's when she said she grabbed some belongings, the child and left with a friend, who also testified Wednesday in the Beulah courtroom. They both testified they were across the street fetching the child's car seat when they heard the gunshots begin.

Hay said the defendant did not remember what happened in the days following the shooting, but went over to Sarantos' home a couple of days afterward to apologize for the disturbance and to give him an antique sign as a gift.

"He came back with the sign and he was acting strangely but didn't say anything about it," Hay said.

Under cross-examination, she said Manol's behavior had been growing more problematic and he was buying supplies for the "end of the world."

On April 11, a friend of the victim called for a welfare check after finding bullet holes in the home's front door and window. Authorities soon after found Sarantos dead on his bedroom floor.

Swanson told jurors Manol showed up at the ongoing crime scene investigation and told law enforcement officers he was the one shooting six nights prior and that if anyone shot at the house, it likely was him. He was arrested at that time, she said.

Court records show that day was Manol's 23rd birthday.

Elhart argued autopsy results show a bullet fragment killed Sarantos, and that it came from a downward angle instead of from the trajectory of the place in his driveway where eight shell casings were found by crime scene investigators.

Testimony will continue Thursday and Friday, with proceedings picking up on Wednesday, July 28.

The trial became the first to return to in-person proceedings in Benzie County since Judge Thompson in January halted his court's jury trials because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Clear, plastic separators were installed around the witness box, judge's bench, court clerk and between the defense and prosecution tables. Only a handful of people wore masks, including one juror, two witnesses, the court recorder, the court clerk and a couple of people in the gallery.

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