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Court documents reveal details of shooting death involving two friends in southwest La Plata County

Man being held on $250,000 bail in connection with second-degree murder
A Durango-area man has been arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder in the death of another Durango-area man in southwest La Plata County. The shooting death occurred about 3 p.m. Monday on Dream Catcher Lane. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald)

A La Plata County man is suspected of shooting his longtime friend after a series of verbal and physical fights earlier this week southwest of Durango.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office said Nicolo “Nico” Tonelli, 24, shot and killed Jamison “J Moe” McMaster, 27, on Monday at 712 Dream Catcher Lane, in the 4800 block of Wildcat Canyon Road (County Road 141).

Tonelli

Tonelli made his first court appearance Wednesday in 6th Judicial District Court in Durango. He appeared by video conference from the La Plata County Jail, standing next to his public defense attorney, Benjamin Currier.

Tonelli is being held on suspicion of second-degree murder. Currier asked that his client be released on a personal recognizance bond, meaning he wouldn’t pay anything, saying there is a strong argument to be made that Tonelli acted in self-defense, and he has a minimal criminal history.

Deputy District Attorney David Ottman asked that bail be set at $250,000, saying Tonelli is accused of a serious crime, has no place to live if released, could be a flight risk and has a previous case of harassment.

District Judge Todd Norvell agreed Tonelli has a minimal criminal history, but he said Tonelli faces a serious charge that carries serious consequences. Tonelli has no extensive ties to the community, he said, and the arrest affidavit contains evidence of probable cause. The judge sided with the prosecution and set bail at $250,000.

According to the arrest affidavit, at least two other men were present at the time of the shooting. Both fled the scene but were later identified, located and interviewed by investigators.

Tonelli waived his Miranda rights and spoke to law enforcement during a recorded interview, according to the affidavit.

Longtime friends, like brothers

Tonelli told detectives he and McMaster were longtime friends, almost like brothers.

He said McMaster was involved in a fight years ago that left him with a fractured skull and severe injuries that altered his state of mind. On top of that, McMaster consumed heavy amounts of psilocybin mushrooms, taking them on a daily basis, and recently had been acting more erratic than normal, according to the affidavit.

Tonelli said when McMaster became angry, he often would beat up Tonelli.

On Sunday, the night before the shooting, McMaster and Tonelli had been fighting, and McMaster was verbally abusive to those around him. The next morning, another physical fight ensued between Tonelli and McMaster. Someone called the Sheriff’s Office in an effort to evict McMaster from the property, but the Sheriff’s Office said the landlord would need to file paperwork to effectuate an eviction.

Tonelli told investigators that as soon as deputies left the home, he and McMaster continued to argue with each other.

The landlord stopped by and asked McMaster for rent money, and McMaster told the landlord he sent his rent money to “Africa to help children in need,” according to Tonelli’s statement to detectives. He said the landlord left to file for an eviction notice.

Tonelli and McMaster continued to argue.

“(Tonelli) said that (McMaster) was refusing to leave the property and was acting crazy,” according to the affidavit.

Tonelli said McMaster grabbed a raw steak and was eating it at the kitchen table area.

“Nico (Tonelli) said that J Moe (McMaster) told him something to the effect of he was going to eat that steak and then beat Nico’s ass worse than he ever had,” according to the affidavit.

McMaster eventually walked out of the house. Tonelli said he retrieved a gun from a draw, put it in his pants pocket without McMaster seeing him, and then went outside to tell McMaster to leave.

In Tonelli’s telling of the story, McMaster advanced toward him. He then pulled the gun out of his pocket and yelled, “Stop!” He then fired the weapon. Tonelli told law enforcement he shot toward the ground, “but obviously did not hit the ground.”

“He said after he shot J Moe he panicked and ran towards a wooded area near the residence,” according to the affidavit. “He stated he began throwing up and crying.”

He thought about running but ultimately stayed at the residence “for quite a while before anyone arrived.”

Tonelli never called 911.

A Durango-area man has been arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder in the death of another Durango-area man in southwest La Plata County. The shooting death occurred about 3 p.m. Monday on Dream Catcher Lane. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald)

Investigators asked Tonelli what he was thinking when he armed himself with a gun, and Tonelli said he shot McMaster in “self-defense.” Investigators asked Tonelli if McMaster had any weapons during the altercation, and Tonelli said he did not.

Witnesses give similar stories

The two witnesses were identified as William “Liam” Frakas, 19, and William “Willie T” Thurlow, 27.

Both were at the house the previous night and at the time of the shooting. They were interviewed separately, but gave similar accounts of events, according to the affidavit.

Frakas said Tonelli and McMaster had been arguing and physically fighting, and that McMaster had been acting strange, leading him to believe McMaster was “high“ on something.

“Liam (Frakas) said he knew J Moe to take a lot of shrooms, so he figured he was just tripping on shrooms,” the affidavit says.

Frakas said he and Thurlow broke up at least one fight between Tonelli and McMaster. During one of those encounters, he told law enforcement it appeared as though Tonelli had “bashed” McMaster in the head with a rock, because McMaster had a major cut on his head.

Frakas said they tried to get McMaster to a hospital, but he refused.

The next morning, Tonelli and McMaster got into another verbal and physical fight, Frakas said.

Someone called law enforcement in an effort to evict McMaster, he said, but deputies were unable to do anything and left the property.

Frakas said he took a shower, and while in the bathroom, was able to see out a window to the driveway. Frakas said he then heard a gunshot, looked out the window, and saw McMaster fall to the ground.

“Liam said he saw Nico pacing back and forth,” the affidavit says.

Thurlow provided “a very similar statement,” although he had just stepped out on the porch when the gunshot went off. He said he saw McMaster fall to the ground. He estimated Tonelli and McMaster were 6 to 8 feet apart when Tonelli fired the gun.

As soon as the gun was fired, Frakas and Thurlow left the property.

After leaving, Frakas called someone to tell that person what had happened. Based on phone logs, that call was placed at 12:40 p.m. But law enforcement was not notified of the shooting until 3:01 p.m., when a “caretaker” for the property showed up and found Tonelli and McMaster, who was deceased. The caretaker then called 911, according to the affidavit.

By the time deputies arrived, McMaster lay face-down in a Dodge Durango, with his feet hanging out of the vehicle.

“A gunshot wound was visible on McMaster’s left mid-back,” according to the affidavit.

An autopsy was completed Tuesday.

While processing the scene, investigators found a digital video recorder that was missing from under a television, according to the affidavit. The DVR had been connected to a wired security system, the affidavit said. The cords to the DVR were still dangling from the television.

Shoe prints were noticed on a chair that sat in front of the area where the DVR had been located. The shoe prints were almost identical to the print design on Tonelli’s shoes, according to the affidavit.

Investigators said it was also apparent that McMaster’s body had been moved from the location where he was shot to be put into the Dodge Durango.

Prosecutors are expected to review the evidence and decide by Dec. 3 whether to file formal charges.

shane@durangoherald.com

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