Fernbach sentenced to 60 years

Wanda English Burnett

James Fernbach Jr., 33, of Batesville, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for two counts of Attempted Murder.

It only took seconds for Judge Carl Taul to say those words, but the decision was not made on a whim. “I’ve thought about this case a lot,” Judge Taul began after both the defense and prosecution presented their sides at the sentencing for Fernbach held Tuesday, February 15 in Ripley County Circuit Court.

The judge said he had read the pre-sentence report, pages of mental health records and heard testimony in the five-day jury trial. “What a tremendous tragedy this case is,” he continued. He said he couldn’t restore the defendant’s mental well being, nor the damage done to the victims in the case, Phillip Cruser, who was shot in the head and Benjamin Dick, who was shot in the hand by Fernbach.

The judge said mental illness is a problem society doesn’t deal with very well, saying the mental health system needs to be looked at.

In this case, the judge looked at all sides and said, “I feel Mr. Fernbach is remorseful.” However, he said he felt confident that the circumstances (shootings) were likely to reoccur. He said taking into account the defendant’s mental illness, he considered him a threat to the community.

With that he sentenced Fernbach to 30 years on each count to be served consecutively with no time suspended.

The sentence was more than double what defense attorney Mark Jones had asked for. He asked the court to give his client 30 years with 15 suspended.

The prosecutor asked for 75 years with none suspended.

“The State is satisfied with the court’s sentence,” Prosecutor Ric Hertel said after the sentencing on Tuesday. But, he went on to say he wasn’t necessarily pleased. “This sentence is significant, but there is still a fear that he (Fernbach) will get out and commit something similar or even worse should he stop taking his prescribed medications,” Hertel stated.

Philip Cruser said he was “tickled to death” with the sentence. “Now I do feel like it’s over,” he commented. But, as Cruser testified just moments before the rendering of the sentence, his life will never be the same.

Cruser was employed with Delta Faucet for 26 years and was winding down to retirement when Fernbach randomly put a bullet in his head, which is still there. Doctors are fearful to remove it because of the location.

Cruser testified how he had worked hard to put money away for retirement and now it’s all gone. He used the money to pay medical bills. While Cruser had medical insurance from his company for the first year after the incident, he then lost his job and has to now pay 100 percent for it. He testified that it takes more to pay his medical insurance every month than he draws on disability and he’s 100 percent disabled.

He has a list of medical conditions caused from the shooting and has had to give up favorite pastimes such as riding his motorcycle. At the sentencing, Cruser told the court, “I’d like to think in 10 years he’s (Fernbach) not walking the streets.” When the defense asked about monetary compensation Cruser might be wanting, Cruser said it wasn’t about that, even though he’s been out thousands of dollars, it was about Fernbach not being able to hurt someone else. “There’s nothing he can do to fix me,” Cruser said, “But, there’s other people.”

Benjamin Dick was not at the sentencing hearing, but was shot in the hand by Fernbach. He testified during the trial that he didn’t know Fernbach and pleaded for his life as he struggled with the man who eventually shot him.

“You didn’t deserve what happened that day,” Fernbach addressed Cruser and the court for the first time at the sentencing. The defendant had not testified throughout the trial.

The defendant rambled about his own family and his feelings about them and said, “I’m sorry I put you through that.” He recalled how he had feelings of paranoia and felt like someone was out to get his family. He still had no explanation of why he shot either man. He said he remembered going to the store, exactly what he went to buy a 12-pack of coca-cola, and a pack of cigarettes, but didn’t know why he left the store, and walked into the parking lot and fired the shots directly at two people.

Fernbach said he still feels at times there are people out to get him.

He went on to say he knew he was going to do time for what he had done and he knew it was wrong. But, he said at the time he did it “it was like a cloud.” He could remember before the shootings, and directly thereafter as he drove straight to his home and told family members, then called 911.

The defendant said he now takes his medications. Throughout the trial it was told he was not on the proper medications the day of the shootings. When questioned by Prosecutor Hertel about taking his medications, Fernbach said he was taking them at the time and as prescribed. He admitted to trying marijuana. “You followed the doctor’s care to a T?” asked the prosecutor. “I know I took the meds,” Fernbach replied.

Fernbach said the day of the shooting he was sleep deprived. He said he didn’t get good care from the many doctors and hospitals he sought help from. “I got better care at the Ripley County Jail than at UC the first time,” he stated.

Again, Fernbach told how he believed people were trying to “get” him and his family. He said he even called the FBI or DEA. “But, you shot people who weren’t at your house,” the prosecutor noted.

When Fernbach said he didn’t know the answers to some of prosecution’s questions, the prosecutor said, “Your memory seems pretty good on some things...but very selective on others.”

“Getting the gun was the worst thing I could have done,” Fernbach said when questioned how he came to get it. He bought it illegally, from the same person in Cincinnati where he obtained marijuana and other pills.

Defense Attorney Mark Jones said the whole trial was about mental illness and that the jury wasn’t fully informed about the ramifications of finding his client guilty, but mentally ill. He said he didn’t present the case as well as he could have done. “This wasn’t my finest hour,” he told the court.

“Today was about accountability and responsibility for him (Fernbach) and his actions. I don’t believe that the status of the mental health system was on trial today though at times it felt like it,” Prosecutor Hertel said. He continued, “The defense attorney spoke about his own inadequacies, but today wasn’t about that either. It was still about Fernbach’s actions.”

When attorney Jones talked about the cards being stacked against his client, prosecution said that wasn’t the case either. “Nothing was stacked against him. In fact, I believe that it was to the contrary. But in the end the jury spoke and this was their verdict,” Prosecutor Hertel concluded.

Sheriff Tom Grills escorted Fernbach back to the Ripley County Jail where he will stay until he is processed into the state system and taken to another facility to serve his sentence.