A Piedmont city councilman was found guilty Thursday morning of pointing a gun at a man in July and threatening to kill him.
Calhoun County District Judge Randy Moeller sentenced Councilman Ben Keller to serve a suspended sentence of 180 days, pay a $250 fine and spend two years under supervised probation after a bench trial that lasted nearly an hour.
Calhoun County sheriff’s deputies initially charged Keller with menacing July 3, two weeks after the incident. Keller has repeatedly denied committing the offense, and claimed he and the victim, Bruce Smith, had gotten into an argument because Keller believed Smith stole his weed trimmer and pressure washer. Smith at the trial denied stealing Keller’s items.
Smith testified that he and his cousin, Mike Young, had gotten breakfast July 1 and pulled up in front of the cabinet shop Young owns close to the same time Keller’s car pulled up.
Smith said Young told him to stay inside the truck, and Young went to speak to Keller. Smith said he overheard Keller accusing him of stealing a weed trimmer and a pressure washer, and also got out of the truck to speak to Keller.
“I said I didn’t steal anything and offered to help him find it,” Smith said.
Smith said Keller physically threatened him repeatedly and told him that he would give someone an eight ball — a measurement of cocaine — to have him killed. Keller, who acted as his own attorney during the trial, denied knowing what an eight ball was.
After Young asked Keller to leave, Smith said, Keller walked toward his car and he and Young went inside the shop.
Smith said he and Young looked out the front door and saw Keller pull out a pistol and pointed it at them. Keller asked Smith what kind of gun he had, and Smith said it was a black pistol.
Smith said he and Young went into the main part of the building. The next thing Smith knew, he said, Keller was standing at the door with his hands behind his back. Because they had just seen Keller with a gun, Smith said, they thought he was concealing it behind his back.
“Both of us were afraid for our lives,” Smith said.
Smith said Young asked Keller again to leave, and he backed out of the building while mouthing something to the two. After Keller left, Smith said, he and Young called police.
Young, who took the stand after Smith, said Keller had visited his house several days before asking about the weed trimmer and pressure washer.
When Keller took the stand, he claimed he confronted Young about the stolen items and Smith came out of the truck, yelling at him. When he was asked to leave, Keller said, he turned around and walked back to his car, but walked into the store after Smith yelled from inside the shop that he didn’t have the items.
Keller admitted to physically threatening Smith, but denied pointing a gun at Smith and threatening to kill him.
Keller suggested that Smith signed the menacing warrant against him to distract authorities from Keller’s accusations of theft against Smith.
Kenneth Lang, who testified on Keller’s behalf, said he was a passenger in Keller’s car during the incident. Lang said he wasn’t paying attention to the conversation between Keller, Smith and Young outside the shop, and was unable to hear what happened inside.
However, Lang said, he saw no gun on Keller during the incident and hadn’t seen Keller with a gun since around 2002, when Keller left the military.
A prosecutor, who later declined to give her name to a reporter, questioned whether Lang was actually present during the incident and asked him what color Young’s truck was. Lang said he did not know.
Keller’s wife, Margaret, who also testified, played a voicemail from June 28 to Moeller, claiming the message was from Smith. Moeller told those sitting in the gallery that the message said the caller thought he had found Keller’s weed trimmer, but not his pressure washer. Margaret Keller also said her husband did not carry a gun.
Keller said after the trial that Smith’s accusations were lies and he planned to file an appeal. Smith declined to comment.