Wal-Mart gunman gets nine-year sentence in shooting over loose dog

Casey Grove
Daniel Pirtle was sentenced to serve 9 years in prison by Judge Michael Spaan on Friday, March 28, 2014 for the shooting of Jason Mahi in the midtown Wal-Mart store in 2013.
Bob Hallinen
Shooting victim Jason Mahi watches the video of him being shot by Daniel Pirtle in Judge Michael Spaan's courtroom in the Nesbett Courthouse on Friday, March 28, 2014. This was the first time Mahi had seen the video of the shooting in the midtown Anchorage Wal-Mart store. Pirtle was sentenced to serve 9 years in prison by judge Spaan.
Bob Hallinen

Watching footage of himself getting shot last year at work and speaking in court about his worries for his family brought tears to Jason Mahi's eyes.

An assistant manager of Anchorage's A Street Wal-Mart, Mahi, 34, had not viewed the in-store surveillance video until Friday. That was when a prosecutor played it in court at the sentencing hearing of Daniel Pirtle, 46, a double-amputee who, from a motorized shopping cart, fired a .45-caliber pistol into Mahi's stomach in March 2013.

"It's been a rough road," said Mahi, who spent three months in a hospital and racked up more than $1 million in medical bills.

A Superior Court judge sentenced Pirtle to serve nine years after Pirtle pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in November. Prosecutors had dropped an attempted murder charge.

Pirtle had been furious that day because Mahi asked him to either put his 5-month-old dog, Wookie, on a leash or leave the store, full of shoppers on a busy Saturday. Pirtle's nephew told the Daily News in 2013 that Pirtle said Mahi had kicked his dog, an accusation that was not true, Mahi said, and something the video showed did not happen.

The dispute over Wookie started when a woman approached Wal-Mart managers saying the dog ran up to her children and scared them.

Testifying at the sentencing hearing, Michael Harrison was working behind the gun counter in the store's sporting goods section when Pirtle told him he was probably getting kicked out because of the dog.

"I said we sold leashes in the store," Harrison said. "He said all the kids in the store needed to be on ... leashes."

Pamela Nunooruk, another Wal-Mart employee who spoke at the sentencing, said she was with Mahi when he talked to Pirtle. It was a polite conversation, she said.

"He had said he was going to leave, that it was his own choice," Nunooruk said.

Pirtle, clean shaven at the time with a shaved head, did a U-turn in the motorized cart, the video showed. Mahi was walking in a parallel aisle a few feet away. Pirtle stopped, and when Mahi caught up to him in a couple steps, fired a single shot that sent Mahi to the floor.

The video showed customers and other employees diving for cover. Mahi bled and talked about his wife and two sons, a witness said. Pirtle just motored away "like nothing ever happened," Harrison said.

"I was not sure if he was going to continue shooting," Nunooruk said. "I heard the electric cart going, but then I was running away, so I wasn't sure."

People in other parts of the store continued shopping, unaware of what happened or that an armed shooter was on the loose. Harrison said he removed the trigger guard from a 12-gauge shotgun in the display case.

An off-duty police sergeant asked Harrison to give him a gun, which he did not do, Harrison said. The sergeant caught up with Pirtle at the store's front entrance just as other officers arrived. Pirtle surrendered without a struggle.

Prosecutor Adam Alexander said Pirtle might have been delusional -- he thought he'd fought with Mahi in Oregon many years earlier, though Mahi had never been there, and wanted to mush in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- but he shot Mahi intentionally. Pirtle also claimed to have been in a military special operations unit, which was untrue, Alexander said.

"He was armed legally that day but abused that right in the most egregious way possible," Alexander said. "(Mahi) was shot that day only because he showed up to work and acted at work in a professional and courteous manner."

Alexander said he understood if Mahi and others were frustrated about the attempted murder charge getting dropped. The facts of the case simply did not support that indicted charge, which another prosecutor had pursued, Alexander said.

Arguing for a seven-year sentence, the lowest in the range included the plea agreement, Pirtle's court-appointed lawyer, Dan Lowery, called his client's actions "baffling."

Pirtle had undergone emotional trauma with the loss of both legs, one in 2010 and the other in 2011, to diabetes, Lowery said. He had been on medication for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression up until two weeks before the shooting, Lowery said.

"That doesn't mean that's an excuse to go shoot somebody, but it certainly does give us some insight into why a man might be troubled," Lowery said. "His conduct during this incident is kind of inexplicable."

"This is a man who wasn't thinking straight. He was delusional," Lowery said.

When it was his turn to speak, Pirtle simply shook his head. He now had long gray and dark brown hair and a long beard.

"Not even an apology?" Harrison whispered.

Before handing down a sentence of 11 years with two suspended and two years of probation, Judge Michael Spaan told Pirtle he was lucky someone else carrying a gun did not shoot him.

"You had people reaching for shotguns. You had police officers asking for guns," Spaan said. "This was horrible, but it could have been a lot worse. It was a very crowded store, a very public place."

"It was Dodge City," the judge said. "For a rage like this to break out for somebody asking you to put your dog on a leash in a store is unacceptable."

Spaan told Mahi his injuries were far worse than most victims of first-degree assault. Prosecutors will seek restitution for Mahi's expenses.

Mahi now walks with a cane and suffered damage to his hip, intestines, kidney and bladder, he said. But he said the trouble and worry caused to his family has been the worst part.

"What I was thinking when I woke up was about the safety of my family," Mahi said. "It's good now, I can just put this behind me."

"I didn't kick no dog."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@ adn.com or 257-4343. Twitter updates: twitter.com/kcgrove.