Crime & Justice

Charges: Faceoff over gun preceded fatal Eagle River shooting

A fatal shooting outside the Eagle River Carrs early Friday was the result of a violent confrontation minutes earlier between the victim and suspect over a stolen pistol, according to court documents.

Online court records show that Aaron Nathaniel Trejo, 26, faces charges of first-degree and second-degree murder in the death of Spencer Christian Ballenger, also 26. Ballenger was fatally shot in the chest shortly before 2 a.m. Friday in the parking lot of the Carrs store on Business Boulevard.

Anchorage police spokesperson Anita Shell said in a statement Thursday that Trejo, first described as a "person of interest" in the case, was taken into custody without incident at about 11 p.m. Wednesday after U.S. marshals found him as a passenger in a vehicle at the Holiday gas station near Tudor Road and Wright Street in Anchorage.

"Trejo was taken to APD headquarters, where he was questioned as to his involvement in the homicide," Shell wrote. "Following the interview, Trejo was charged with murder and (the assault warrant). Trejo was taken to the Anchorage jail, where he is being held without bail."

In a criminal complaint against Trejo, Anchorage police Detective James Estes said police received another report of gunfire shortly before the Carrs shooting from the Eagle River Motel at 11111 Old Eagle River Road, several blocks south of the Carrs.

Estes said Joseph Graffius -- a man seen on surveillance video with Trejo during the fatal shooting -- told police the motel incident began with Trejo barging armed into a roomful of people, demanding to find a missing pistol.

"Everyone in the room except Ballenger lifted up their shirt to show they did not have the pistol," Estes wrote. "Instead of lifting his shirt, Ballenger pulled out a gun and asked them what they were going to do about it. Graffius yelled at Ballenger and told him it was not worth it. According to Graffius, Trejo had his 1911 pistol out and Ballenger and Trejo did everything but point guns at each other."

According to Estes, Graffius said that Trejo then dropped his pistol's clip and cleared its chamber to de-escalate the situation. Graffius said Trejo said something similar to, "If you want to get physical we can, but it's not going to happen like this."

Trejo was turning to leave, Graffius told police, when Ballenger fired on him and missed. Officers who responded to the motel found two bullet holes in the door of Room 202, and reviewed surveillance video recorded outside the room from 1:01 a.m. to 1:25 a.m. Trejo left the room first, followed by Ballenger, with both men apparently armed.

"(Trejo) backs out of the room and produces a semiautomatic handgun from his right front pocket," Estes wrote. "Trejo opened the door to 202 and reached in with the gun, pointing to the right and abruptly backs away as if by reflex, and runs to the west. Bullet holes are then present in the door."

According to Estes, the action then moved from the motel to the Carrs store. Surveillance video from outside the store's entrance shows Ballenger arriving at the store shortly before 1:30 a.m., with Graffius and Trejo sitting on a bench outside minutes later. Trejo stepped away just before Ballenger emerged from the Carrs at 1:36 a.m., setting the stage for a confrontation with Graffius.

"Graffius said while he was sitting on the bench, Ballenger walked out of the store," Estes said. "As Ballenger passed him he told Graffius 'I should just shoot you right now, you bitch.'? Graffius told Ballenger he was an 'idiot, a waste of space' and told him if he was going to shoot him he needed to do it. Graffius then told Ballenger that he did not believe he could pull his gun before he ripped his throat out."

Although police later found a .380 Hipoint pistol on Ballenger's body, Graffius told investigators he didn't brandish or fire it -- despite video in which Estes wrote that Graffius "jumps up and leans toward Ballenger," then "puts his hands up in a fighting position and approaches Ballenger."

"(Graffius) told us Ballenger never made a motion as if he was going for a weapon nor did he see a weapon," Estes wrote. "Around this time he heard several gunshots but he did not know who shot Ballenger, he just assumed it was Trejo."

Estes also didn't have a clear view of the shooting in the video footage.

"At approximately (1:37 a.m. and 47 seconds) Ballenger can be seen flinching and turns to run," Estes wrote. "This is when I believe Ballenger was shot."

Estes said officers searching the area found a .45-caliber Springfield 1911 pistol inside a sweatshirt "similar to what Trejo is seen wearing on video," as well as several .45-caliber shell casings.

Police spoke with two witnesses who were sitting in vehicles in the Carrs parking lot, only one of whom saw the shooting. Estes said one told police she saw a dark-colored sedan near the Carrs' Oaken Keg liquor store pull up behind two men on foot in the parking lot, whom officers believe to be Trejo and Graffius.

"(The witness) said the vehicle parked in front of Oaken Keg and Trejo approached the vehicle and got into an argument with the passenger," Estes wrote. "(She) said as Trejo turned to walk back towards the store she heard someone make a comment about making a bet. This happened just prior to the shooting."

Police had asked the sedan's occupants as well as Trejo to come forward Tuesday, but Shell said Thursday that there wasn't any word that anyone from the vehicle had been contacted.

Although the first witness believed the shots that killed Ballenger were fired from the vehicle, Estes said she didn't see him "until after hearing the gunshots."

Shell declined to say what specific information led authorities to Trejo. She credited citizens with providing several other leads on the case via Anchorage Crime Stoppers.

Trejo made a brief court appearance Thursday afternoon at the Anchorage jail courtroom for both of his cases. He answered the judge's questions with "Yes, sir." A judge appointed a public defender for Trejo, then the state requested bail in the murder case be set at $250,000 cash and a third-party custodian.

First-degree murder carries a 20- to 99-year sentence. Second-degree murder could mean an additional five to 99 years in prison if Trejo is convicted.