Matthew M. Burke
Former U.S. Marine and Iraq war veteran John Henry Knospler, Jr. admitted to killing James Kade Baldwin outside a Casper, Wyoming, strip club in the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2013, but claims he shot the 24-year-old Casper native in self-defense.
Knospler says he was sleeping in his car rather than drive intoxicated from the bar when an angry Baldwin inexplicably bashed in his window and violently attacked him.
Despite evidence that appeared to back Knospler’s claims, the 38-year-old was convicted of second-degree murder on Dec. 23, 2014, and sentenced to up to 50 years in prison. His sole appeal was denied by the Wyoming Supreme Court in 2016.
Knospler has vehemently maintained his innocence over the years, and he recently filed a motion seeking to vacate his conviction based primarily on new forensic evidence. It is largely seen as what could be his last and best chance of getting a new trial.
“I’m hopeful, you know,” Knospler told The Daily Caller in a January phone interview from the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington. “I feel terrible that their family lost a son. I feel a whole lot for them. But I put myself in his shoes. If I punched through somebody’s window in the middle of the night and caught a bullet to my chest, that’s what I would expect someone to do to me. I did what I thought was necessary.”
Knospler’s case has been largely ignored in the greater national Second Amendment and stand-your-ground debates. Race does not appear to be a factor in the case, as both Knospler and Baldwin are white.
Wyoming law allows someone to use deadly force in self-defense if they believe they are in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
The burden is on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant did not act in self-defense.
Knospler grew up on a small farm in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania — the oldest of three siblings. There, he, along with his father, John Sr.; mother, Patricia; brother, Jacob; and sister, Leighanne, lived a rustic lifestyle. They played outdoors, raised livestock and grew their own vegetables. They also fished, and Knospler’s father hunted.
Knospler was athletic and grew up playing sports like baseball, football and soccer with his brother.
Knospler as a boy (Courtesy the Knospler family)
Knospler as a boy (Courtesy the Knospler family)
“We went on trips. My parents thought it was really important that we saw certain things in the country,” Knospler said. “They took us to Gettysburg, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They thought it was important that we see those things when we were young to have an understanding of what our country was founded on.”
His parents stressed the importance of education, but they also stressed the importance of service. Knospler’s father is a Navy veteran.
After he graduated high school, Knospler bounced around, rudderless, for about year. He was a dishwasher at a restaurant, then he worked construction. He tried a semester of college before deciding to join the Marine Corps.
“That whole year, I was in conversation with my dad and he was kind of dropping hints like, ‘Hey, I know you, and I think the service will probably be the best thing for you, just because I don’t think you’re ready for a classroom and you don’t want to stay here and get stuck doing construction for the rest of your life,’” he recounted.
Knospler joined the Marines in 2000. His first duty station was Hawaii and the 3rd Marine Regiment, where he served as an accounting clerk.
“I have an attention to detail and was able to pick out the errors and figure them out, how and why things were not in order,” Knospler said. “It was essential to that unit, but to me, I felt like I could be doing more.”
Knospler was already looking for a new job within the Corps when the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. He wanted to join the fight so he decided then to become a reconnaissance Marine, which is considered elite.
Recon Marines — as they are often times called — are responsible for getting close to the enemy and observing and reporting their movements, the majority of the time unseen.
By December 2002, Knospler had joined 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, and by the following summer, he deployed to southern Iraq.
“My first deployment, we were hiding in the bushes, just taking pictures of boats,” Knospler recalled. “We were never seen.”
By the time they returned stateside, Knospler was just months from getting out of the Corps — but then tragedy struck. A team from their parent unit was ambushed and nearly wiped out in Iraq and they needed replacements. Knospler volunteered and was sent on a seven-month deployment to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, the seven months preceding the Second Battle of Fallujah.
“That deployment was a lot more stressful; it was a lot more dangerous,” Knospler said. “But, again, we were doing reconnaissance, and we were smart about what we were doing, and for the most part, we remained out of sight.”
Knospler re-enlisted there. Upon returning home, he joined 1st Force Reconnaissance Company.
He wasn’t home long. Knospler was sent back to Iraq a third time to train Iraqi Special Forces.
When he got back from that deployment, he was assigned to the new Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command as a reconnaissance instructor in MARSOC’s special missions’ training branch. His job was to get the new Marine Special Forces operators ready to deploy.
MARSOC was his last stop in the Marine Corps before being discharged in 2008.
Knospler’s friends recall him as cool under pressure, brave, hard-working, intelligent, driven, funny and always positive.
“People don’t understand, it’s real easy to make a poor choice under duress with a rifle in your hand in combat,” said Stephen Mull, who served with Knospler for several years in elite Marine units and later worked with him as a contractor. “He never did that. It’s rare to find guys like him.”
Scott Lehman — who also served with Knospler in Iraq — recounted a story when a child came out in the road while their unit was traveling in a convoy and waved a gun at them. The rules of engagement allowed them to engage because U.S. forces had been taking fire from women and children.
According to a transcript of the proceedings, Lehman recalled at trial:
I remember bearing down and locking in. And I remember John saying, ‘Easy, easy, easy,’ beside me. And this is a matter of, like, five or six seconds. And then we noticed the kids put the gun down and they ran back behind the house, and it was over. He showed an enormous amount of professionalism, of judgment, of control and of tact while operating as a Recon Marine.
After the Corps, Knospler had no intention of sitting still. The day he was discharged from the Marines, he was on a plane to Uganda to work for an American security contractor involved in peacekeeping operations there, he said.
He declined to provide the name of the company, saying he didn’t want to drag them into his legal battles.
Knospler spent time in Somalia, Sudan and Congo in his five years there supporting African troops.
“They were providing security for the U.N. and just, overall, trying to stabilize the place and trying to get some food in there and create some industry and economy and just generally trying to help the people out,” he said.
Though these places are dangerous, Knospler said he was generally above the fray. He was jumped and beaten, however, by a gang of five-to-10 men during an attempted robbery in the Congo, shortly before he returned home in 2012. They broke his arm, which required surgery and the implantation of a plate.
Back in the United States, Knospler enrolled in college courses online while he tried to heal. He continued to work on U.S. military contracts and traveled frequently, visiting family and friends — especially his brother, Jacob, who had also joined the Marines and had been seriously wounded fighting in Fallujah in 2004. He also spent a lot of time with his girlfriend, Nhiza Fre, in Virginia.
In October 2013, his father asked Knospler to take his brother’s place on a hunting trip to Wyoming, Knospler recalled. He gathered his belongings and drove out from Pennsylvania in his mother’s dark blue 2008 Chevy Cobalt.
‘This guy is huge’
Knospler and his father hunted for a few, days but it was tedious, he said.
“All growing up, my brother and my dad were really into [hunting],” he said. “I wasn’t in much to hunting or killing animals.”
Fre was scheduled to come out to Wyoming in a few days to do some traveling in the area. While he waited, Knospler decided to see some other parts of the state.
“That’s what brought me to Casper,” he said. “I had a ton of money, and I was just traveling all around the country at that time. I had no idea that a snowstorm was coming.”
When he arrived in Casper, Knospler went to a thrift store and had some lunch. As someone who gambled on football, he asked where he might catch a game that night. Someone told him about Racks Gentleman’s Club, located off the highway west of town.
Knospler entered the club at approximately 5:20 p.m. on Oct. 3, 2013, according to the motion filed by his attorneys, citing Racks’ video surveillance tapes.
Knospler downed a few shots and drank some beers. He was described as awkward or weird by the staff members who conversed with him, but he mostly kept to himself, texting Fre constantly.
Knospler exited the club four times, which employees said they thought was strange. He said he was smoking cannabis, checking the snowfall and moving his car to the front of Racks so he could see it better.
“The owner said he saw me outside dancing around with my shirt off, which was completely ridiculous,” Knospler said.
“They tried to make it like this big thing that I was in and out of the place all night — like it was some type of suspicious activity that I was up to no good — which was complete nonsense. I went outside; I smoked a couple times, checked on the roads and I made a couple phone calls.”
Knospler said he may have discussed his service but denies talking about killing people that night, something that was alleged by a couple of employees in discussions with police. He said the dancers were trying to hustle him for lap dances. He wasn’t interested and believes this was the reason the club employees had animosity toward him.
Baldwin — a big man at 6 ft., 2 in. and 230 pounds — arrived at the bar with two friends, Chris Syverson and Kara Sterner, just after 8:30 p.m., according to the motion. It was Baldwin’s birthday, and he drank heavily.
Knospler said that the only interaction he had with Baldwin prior to the shooting was a run-in in the Racks bathroom. Knospler overheard Baldwin and a friend talking about it being his birthday. Knospler offered to “smoke him up” for his birthday.
They exited the bar together at about 9:40 p.m., according to the motion, which again cites Racks surveillance footage.
As Knospler recalled, “[Baldwin] sat in the car, and we smoked together, and, you know, he was telling me about how he had just got a DUI and was in prison or whatever.”
“And I told him, ‘Look, man, none of that stuff matters anymore. The only thing that matters in life is what we do today and what we do tomorrow and that’s it.’ And he was like, ‘You know, you’re a pretty cool dude.’ And I’m like, ‘Yea, you know, whatever, happy birthday,’ and we just bullshitted for a couple of minutes.”
They re-entered five minutes later, according to the security camera.
At trial, Natrona County district attorney Michael Blonigen said that marijuana was not detected in Baldwin’s system during his autopsy.
The men had no further contact for the remainder of the evening, the motion said.
Racks bouncer Ervin Andujar told police that he asked Knospler to leave the bar after Knospler dropped a marijuana cigarette. Knospler disputes this; he said he left of his own volition at approximately 10:10 p.m.
Fre said she was the one who pushed him to sleep in his car instead of drive drunk. He agreed.
“I just went out to my car, smoked a little bit and went to sleep,” Knospler said.
Baldwin stayed behind and continued to drink. At around midnight, Syverson departed in Baldwin’s brother’s dark blue 2006 Ford Fusion to drop off Sterner. He said he would return to pick Baldwin up. Not long after, Baldwin passed out on his table. Andujar told police that he asked him to leave and escorted him out at approximately 12:15 a.m.
Andujar offered to call Baldwin a cab, but Baldwin said his friend was waiting outside.
Witnesses testified that Baldwin went directly to Knospler’s car. He first tried the passenger side door, apparently thinking the snow-covered car was his brother’s. Then he went to the front and then to the driver’s side.
Witnesses said they then saw him fall. Knospler’s car took off. It all happened in a three-minute window, according to the surveillance footage.
No gunshots were heard by any of the people at the scene.
Natrona County Sheriff’s Office investigator Sean Ellis believes that Baldwin thought Knospler’s vehicle was his own.
“I truly believe that the victim misidentified the car,” Ellis said.
Knospler doesn’t know what was going through Baldwin’s mind at the time. As he recalled, “I go to sleep, and then I hear somebody trying to get in my car.”
“All of a sudden, I got somebody pounding on my driver’s side window and people yelling at me, telling me, ‘I’m taking it. Get out of the [expletive] car,’ and I’m way back in the chair.”
Knospler said that Baldwin shouted he was going to kill him.
“I don’t know whether he thought I was in his car or he was just trying to intimidate me, but he was definitely there to do some combat,” Knospler said. “He was looking right at me, and he’s trying to be scary.”
Knospler said he sat up and tried to drive away. He had decided he wasn’t going to get out and fight.
“I got a metal plate in my arm, and this guy is huge,” he said. “I’m trying to start the car and the window explodes on me, and I’m seeing stars now because I think he catches me in the side of the head, and so I’m disoriented.”
Knospler said that Baldwin punched in the window. He either peeled out or stalled, but the vehicle wouldn’t budge. Baldwin reached into the car to get him.
“His torso is in the window, and he’s impeding me from operating the vehicle,” Knospler recalled.
“My first instinct was to drive away. But now, my car is not moving, this dude is on top of me, and I don’t feel like I [can] get back into controlling the vehicle with him through my window occupying my driver’s side space.”
Knospler said he leaned into the passenger seat to get away from Baldwin. He took his .45 semi-automatic Nighthawk pistol out of a bag on the seat. At that moment, he claims Baldwin reached for it.
“I don’t have any choice at this point because he keeps grabbing for things, grabbing for me; he had to have seen the gun come out of the bag, and once I pointed it at him, he starts grabbing for it and he’s not backing away,” he said. “I was in fear for my life. I would never hurt him if I wasn’t convinced that he was going to do what he was saying he’s going to do.”
Knospler fired one round into Baldwin. It entered just below the neck, exited in the lower back and went into a truck behind him. Baldwin stepped back and fell down.
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