West Virginia man offers mental-health plea in Smithsburg mass shooting

Julie E. Greene
The Herald-Mail

The West Virginia man charged with shooting and killing three coworkers at a Maryland machine shop and wounding a fourth before shooting at police and wounding a state trooper is pleading not criminally responsible for either incident for mental reasons, according to court records.

Joe Louis Esquivel, 23, of Hedgesville, W.Va., was indicted by a grand jury on June 29 in two separate criminal cases for the June 9 shootings at Columbia Machine Inc. at 12921 Bikle Road northeast of Smithsburg and the ensuing shootout with police near the roundabout at Mapleville and Mount Aetna roads.

Esquivel faces 34 charges including three counts of first- and second-degree murder for the workplace shootings of Mark Alan Frey, 50, of Waynesboro, Pa.; Charles "C.J." Edward Minnick Jr., 31, of Smithsburg; and Joshua "Josh" Robert Wallace, 30, of the Hagerstown area.

He also is charged with three counts of attempted first- and second-degree murder in the shootings of co-worker Brandon Chase Michael, 42 at the time, and State Police Detective Sgt. Phil Martin, as well as for trying to kill state police Lt. Vincent Upole, according to charging documents.

Esquivel, through his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Brian Hutchison, asserts that at the time of the "alleged offenses" he lacked the capacity to either "appreciate the criminality of the alleged conduct" or "conform that conduct to the requirements of law" due to a "mental disorder or mental retardation," according to Hutchison's Aug. 23 filing in Washington County Circuit Court.

Judge Brett Wilson issued an order the next day accepting the plea of not criminally responsible and approving Hutchison's request that the trials in the cases be bifurcated so the issues of guilt and criminal responsibility are considered separately.

Separate trials are still scheduled for the workplace shooting and the shootout with police after Esquivel fled the machine shop. The first trial scheduled, as of Thursday, is in January for the charges related to the shootout with police.

More about Columbia Machine victims:Remembering community members killed, injured in Columbia Machine shooting near Smithsburg

What does 'not criminally responsible' really mean?

University of Baltimore School of Law Professor David Jaros said in a phone interview Wednesday that the defense of not criminally responsible is raised to say either that the defendant's mental health challenge means he didn't know what he was doing was wrong or that his mental challenge was such that he was incapable of controlling his actions.

"There's a remarkable low success rate for many of these kinds of pleas," said Jaros, who teaches evidence and criminal law. Jaros also is the faculty director of the law school's Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

There is often a "battle of the experts" with the defense and prosecution having different health professionals testifying to their evaluation of the defendant and his capacity to understand the quality of his actions and his ability to control himself, Jaros said.

Often prosecutors point to things like the defendant's degree of planning and efforts to avoid detection or capture as evidence of the defendant's understanding the implication of his actions and exhibiting control, Jaros said.

It's important to note, Jaros said, that a successful defense does not mean the person "walks away."

Generally, a defendant found not criminally responsible is confined to a psychiatric facility, often one adjoining a prison, and the facility doesn't seem "appreciably, significantly different in terms of conditions of confinement," Jaros said. The defendant is to get mental health services with at least the possibility that through those services they would no longer be a danger to themselves or others and could, in theory, be released, Jaros said.

Often a person who pursues that defense successfully ends up serving as long or longer time than if they had just faced a criminal conviction, Jaros said.

The scene at Columbia Machine, located just north of Smithsburg, the day after a gunman opened fire at the Washington County manufaturing plant, killing three and injuring two others.

Court records:Columbia Machine shooter tried to commit suicide-by-cop

Esquivel continues to be held without bond at the Washington County Detention Center after being treated at Meritus Medical Center following his arrest. He was wounded in a shootout with police after fleeing Columbia Machine.

While Maryland State Police medical personnel were tending to Esquivel after the shootout, Esquivel allegedly asked to be killed, according to court records.

What happened during the shooting at Columbia Machine?

The investigation has revealed Esquivel reported to work on Thursday, June 9, for his normal shift and worked through the day, according to the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

At some point before 2:30 p.m., he "exited the building, retrieved a weapon from his vehicle, and reentered the business, according to the sheriff's office.

According to court records, Columbia Machine's general manager told authorities that between 2:30 p.m. and 2:40 p.m. he heard several gunshots coming from the work floor. He ran into an adjacent office to have an employee call 911 and saw Michael fleeing from the work floor to a field by the business. The general manager followed Michael, who had been shot, to help him.

Michael advised Esquivel was "actively shooting at employees on the work floor," according to court records.

The general manager and Michael saw Esquivel flee in an orange Mitsubishi Eclipse.

The general manager went back inside to make sure 911 was called and do an employee count, court records state. He found Frey, Wallace and Minnick dead.

Another employee told authorities that during the 2:30 p.m. break Esquivel walked into the break room, court records state. The employee heard two to three gunshots and fled the building. He then heard more gunshots and "watched two employees fall to the ground."

This employee told authorities that as he was calling 911, he saw Esquivel point a handgun at him as Esquivel got into his Eclipse and fled, court records state.

Flowers sit outside Columbia Machine near Smithsburg Friday, June 10, 2022, a day after three people were killed and three injured including the suspect after a mass shooting at the manufacturing company near Smithsburg, Md.

The shootout with police

Sheriff's deputies "quickly put out a broadcast for a vehicle and a suspect and a sense of direction" state police Lt. Col. Bill Dofflemyer has said.

Troopers were northbound on Mapleville Road and tried to block the road with their patrol vehicles south of the traffic circle.

Esquivel accelerated the Mitsubishi and crashed into Upole's unmarked Ford Explorer, according to court records and a state police news release.

Esquivel allegedly fired through his own windshield, according to the news release.

At least one trooper exchanged gunfire with the suspect when both Martin and Esquivel were wounded.

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