By Alan J. Keays/VTDigger
A teenager told police a handgun accidentally went off as he handed it to a friend (another teenager), killing the latter early Saturday morning, April 3, in a Rutland motel room.
Kahliq Richardson, 18, of Rutland pleaded not guilty Monday, April 5, in Rutland Superior Court to a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Jonah Pandiani, 19, of Rutland.
The felony charge carries a minimum sentence of one year in jail and a maximum penalty of up to 15 years.
The shooting took place at the Quality Inn on South Main Street in Rutland. Rutland city police said they were called to a room at the motel Saturday at about 6:40 a.m. for a report that one man had been shot.
Officers discovered Pandiani’s dead body inside the room. They recovered a tan and black 9mm Taurus handgun from the floor of the motel room.
Richardson told police he was in a hotel room with Pandiani and several other people, “drinking a lot and doing drugs.” The shooting was not intentional, he said.
“He was holding the gun and his friend Jonah asked to see it,” police said Richardson told them. “He went to hand it to him and it went off.”
Police said Richardson told them he dropped the handgun and ran.
Another person in the motel room called police to report the shooting. Richardson and his parents went to the police station later Saturday afternoon, where he provided his statement.
“He was a wonderful friend, son, brother, nephew, and grandson who will be dearly missed,” a GoFundMe page to help pay their unexpected costs from the teenager’s death reads. “At the young age of 19 years old.”
The Pandiani family member who put up the GoFundMe page could not be reached Monday for comment.
At Richardson’s arraignment Monday, the debate during the virtual proceeding centered on whether he should be held while awaiting trial or released with conditions governing his behavior.
Deputy State’s Attorney Ian Sullivan argued that Richardson should be held without bail, citing the seriousness of the offense and the strong evidence in the case.
At the time of the shooting, Sullivan told the judge, Richardson was already subject to an earlier restraining order involving a separate person from an earlier incident. That restraining order included rules on possession of a firearm, the prosecutor said.
“The defendant here is in possession of a firearm, and not only a firearm but the firearm where the serial number is scratched off,” he said, showing an intent to hinder authorities from tracing where the handgun came from.
Sullivan also said Monday afternoon in court that authorities are awaiting autopsy results from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington.
Judge David Fenster asked the prosecutor if Richardson’s tragic and reckless behavior would justify holding Richardson without bail pending trial.
“What’s the violent behavior?” the judge asked.
“Pointing the firearm at another person and causing it to be fired,” Sullivan replied. “From my perspective, that’s violence.”
The prosecutor said the gun had to have been pointed in Pandiani’s direction when it went off.
The judge said several people were in the motel room at the time of the alleged accident, but no one saw the gun go off. The witnesses reported they were asleep at the time or didn’t watch the shooting in the living area of the room.
One witness reported that Richardson frequently carried the gun in his waistband or backpack. On the night of the shooting, according to a filing by the prosecution, that witness reported Richardson had been “showboating” with the gun.
To hold Richardson without bail, Judge Fenster said, the prosecution had to show it was an act of violence or the defendant presented a risk of violence to others. Clearly, the judge said, the alleged act was a “horrible, horrible tragedy,” but Fenster said Richardson went voluntarily to the police station to explain his role in the shooting.
Robert Kaplan, an attorney representing Richardson, told the judge that his client, who has no criminal record, could be released to the custody of his parents, who live in Rutland.
Fenster, noting that Richardson had turned 18 about two weeks earlier, agreed to the defense request to release him to his parents’ custody under a 24-hour curfew.
“The question here is not whether the defendant committed the offense,” the judge said as he made his ruling. “The question here is whether or not the defendant presents a substantial risk of physical violence to any person.”
In addition to abiding by a 24-hour curfew, Richardson was ordered not to possess any firearms and to stay away from any witnesses related to the case.
However, following the hearing, Richardson was arrested by an FBI Task Force Officer for his possession of a firearm while an unlawful user of controlled substances and after having been served with a relief from abuse order, both in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 922(g), according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Tuesday, April 6. Richardson is scheduled to appear remotely Tuesday afternoon for an initial appearance before Judge Kevin J. Doyle.