Janesville61.3°

One handgun connects Humphrey’s past to his future

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Ted Sullivan
May 8, 2011
— The little silver gun peeked from the dirt where it had been sloppily buried in James Humphrey’s backyard after he used it to shoot Sam Aegerter.

“I saw a piece of the handgun sticking out, so I just reached in there, grabbed it and pulled it up,” Humphrey said.


It was 8 a.m. Saturday, June 5, hours after Humphrey fatally shot Aegerter, 30, in downtown Janesville. Humphrey’s wife and stepdaughter were asleep while he retrieved the nickel-plated .380 semiautomatic from its hiding spot.


Humphrey tossed the gun onto the seat of his Ford pickup and drove to Happy Hollow Park south of Janesville. He stopped near a large tree and tossed the weapon into the Rock River.


The handgun is the link to his past—a reminder of his Southern roots—and it is the object that cost him his future, landing him in prison for what could be the rest of his life.


Humphrey, 45, said he carried the handgun for the first time on the night he killed Aegerter.


Events spinning from that decision transformed him from a beloved family man with no criminal record to a hated monster with a homicide conviction.


He could identify nothing in his life that led to the homicide—he wasn’t haunted by a traumatic experience, he didn’t suffer from an addiction, and he didn’t have any unfortunate circumstances that would explain the killing.


“I’ve thought about it every day for the last 11 months,” Humphrey said. “There is no answer for how you go from there to here.”


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In an interview with the Gazette, Humphrey revealed publicly for the first time where he hid the gun the day after the homicide.


The Gazette spent more than four hours with Humphrey in two interviews at the Rock County Jail last week before he was transferred Tuesday to Dodge Correctional Institution.


Humphrey was calm, friendly and well-spoken in the jail interview room. His head was shaved smooth, and his chin and upper lip were covered by a mustache and goatee. His orange jail uniform didn’t hide tattoos covering his left arm.


Humphrey said he’s accepted his punishment of 45 years in prison, essentially a life sentence.


He had no dark circles under his eyes from sleepless nights. No stress wrinkles creased his face.


The only changes from jail, he said, were weight gain and grayer whiskers.


Humphrey said he’d read about 200 books—from spy thrillers to psychology—while locked up. He’d drawn pictures in colored pencil and rediscovered his spiritual side, often meeting with jail chaplains.


He is a man making the most from the little left of his life.


“That’s what you have in here—nothing but unrelenting time.”


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Humphrey bought the palm-size handgun from his sister down South, where he grew up in Texas and Louisiana.


He was raised in a time and place where people carried weapons openly.


He lived in Texas until he was 12 years old and was raised as a Southern Baptist, although he never made much time for faith in his life.


After his dad had a heart attack, his family moved to Louisiana, where he graduated from high school and attended college at Louisiana Tech University.


He wanted to major in political science and go to Tulane University Law School. It’s an irony that’s not now lost on him.


But he couldn’t afford college and instead joined the Army, hoping the government would help pay for school.


Humphrey didn’t want to talk about his military service, although he said he served overseas.


“I had the highest available security clearance in the military,” he said.


He said he tested high enough on Army exams that he was offered an opportunity to attend college at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. He declined because he wanted to go to college near home.


Humphrey received some college credit while in the military, but never returned to school. After his Army service ended, he managed a restaurant in Alabama.


He later was married and had his only child, a son who now is 19. His family then moved to Janesville to be near his wife’s family.


“Believe it or not, I like snow,” Humphrey said.


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Humphrey joined a motorcycle club while living in Janesville, often bringing the little, silver gun to the clubhouse, where he would shoot at a range along the Sugar River.


He said he always locked the weapon and ammunition in his motorcycle saddlebag while traveling to the clubhouse.


The club, Humphrey said, included reputable business owners, professionals and labor workers. He described the group as biking enthusiasts. He said they were not involved in criminal activity or considered a gang, although they did wear colors—insignias sewn onto jackets or vests.


Humphrey was a family man and a 19-year veteran at Alliant Energy, working in the power plant and dispatch center, supporting his family as the sole breadwinner. He sent his mother money from every paycheck, covering her living expenses after his father died years earlier.


Humphrey divorced his son’s mother, but he stayed close to his son and lived life to the fullest. He sky dived, bungee jumped, scuba dived, played guitar, bow hunted and mountain biked.


He spent most of his time with his son, his current wife and his stepdaughter, who is 14. He has fond memories of coaching his son’s sports teams.


“The birth of my son for me was the most incredible thing that anybody can experience,” Humphrey said. “I shared everything with him over the years, basically every aspect of his life.”


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Humphrey stuck the handgun into his motorcycle saddlebag Friday, June 4, because he feared a run-in with members of motorcycle clubs that have a reputation for violence.


Humphrey and Richard T. Hall rode their bikes to four Janesville bars that night, including O’Riley & Conway’s Irish Pub, 214 W. Milwaukee St., in downtown Janesville. He said he had six or seven drinks in about four hours.


Just before heading to O’Riley & Conway’s, Humphrey pulled the handgun from his saddlebag and tucked it into his vest. He said it was the first time he’d ever carried a concealed weapon.


He was worried about finding trouble at the Irish bar, he said, but he wouldn’t elaborate.


“I had the handgun on my person for probably less than an hour.”


It was long enough.


Humphrey and Hall were climbing onto their motorcycles outside O’Riley & Conway’s when a Jeep drove by and came within inches of hitting them. Humphrey and Hall chased after it.


“The intention was to ride up, say something to the guys and let that be that,” Humphrey said.


Humphrey said he yelled at the driver. He said the driver wouldn’t look at him, but a guy in the backseat, Aegerter, was confrontational.


"The guys in the Jeep started yelling at us, flipping us off," Hall testified at Humphrey’s preliminary hearing. "I believe me and Jim yelled something back. I'm not sure what it was."


The motorcyclists, originally planning to turn, followed the Jeep west on Court Street, with Hall leading the way, Humphrey said.


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Humphrey pulled the handgun from his vest and fired a shot into the air, trying to scare the men in the Jeep.


“What would possibly make me do that?” he asked. “Obviously, I had more to drink than I should have had for sound decision making.”


The men in the Jeep didn’t react to Humphrey’s gunfire. Humphrey said he drove closer to the Jeep and showed them the handgun to intimidate them.


He said he pointed his gun over the head of the passenger in the front seat. Then the Jeep and his motorcycle nearly collided.


“At that point, the handgun goes off,” Humphrey said. “It was an accidental discharge. I never, ever, ever intended to fire that weapon a second time.”


Hall’s testimony at the preliminary hearing indicated Humphrey knew he had shot Aegerter, although Humphrey said he didn’t know until the next day that he’d hit Aegerter.


"I said, 'Jim, What are you doing shooting a gun?'" Hall testified. "He said, 'I think I hit him.'"


"I said, 'You were f------ aiming at him?'"


"He said, 'I just snapped.'"


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The two men gave conflicting statements about who buried the handgun after they returned to Humphrey’s house.


Humphrey changed the appearance of his motorcycle, and they talked about what had happened.


Humphrey told the Gazette he knew he would get caught and go to prison. He said he wanted to cover up the crime to give himself time before his arrest. He wanted to prepare his family and help his wife move into her new office space for an airbrush tanning and hair-extension business she was about to open.


“All I told Rich that night in the shop was, ‘Don’t throw me under the bus until you have to. I need time,’” Humphrey said.


“He kept saying, ‘I can’t go to jail. I can’t go to jail,’” Humphrey said. “I kept saying, ‘Rich, I’ll go to jail. This is on me. I’ll bear the burden for this.’”


The next day, investigators questioned Humphrey and Hall because the two had been out the night before and fit the description of the motorcyclists involved in the shooting.


Hall later testified that he lied to police and helped cover up the crime. He said he dumped ammunition from the gun into the Sugar River near Albany.


Meanwhile, Humphrey said he made last-minute arrangements for his life as if he would be arrested and gone forever.


“I spent the weekend trying to get my wife off the ground to make a living for herself because I knew I was going to prison,” he said.


Humphrey’s wife, Valerie Humphrey, said she had no idea what her husband had done, although she could tell something was bothering him that weekend.


“He never told me, and I know he didn’t want me to know to protect me,” she said.


Humphrey was arrested at work three days after the homicide, the same day Hall hired an attorney, turned himself in and told police what happened. Hall was never charged for his role in the crime.


After his arrest, Humphrey asked to speak with Rock County Sheriff’s Detective Darrell Knutson, who is the husband of Humphrey's ex-wife and the stepfather to Humphrey's son. The two have known each other for about 15 years.


"He said he didn't mean to shoot anybody," Knutson testified during a motion hearing. "He said he was drunk and that he shot at the car just to scare them."


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Humphrey never told anyone he’d thrown the handgun into the river until he wrote a statement about his crime before his sentencing.


He pleaded guilty to first-degree reckless homicide as part of a plea agreement. Two felony charges of first-degree recklessly endangering safety were dismissed.


Attorneys on both sides recommended that Humphrey be sentenced to 20 years in prison and 20 years extended supervision. Judge Kenneth Forbeck instead sentenced him to 45 years in prison and 10 years extended supervision.


At the April 29 sentencing, six people spoke for Aegerter, including his ex-wife and mother of his children, his mother, his father, his brother and two sisters-in-law.


Aegerter's friends and family filled half the courtroom. Many cried and wore T-shirts with Aegerter's picture and the words, "You will be greatly missed." Framed pictures of Aegerter with his kids were displayed in the courtroom.


Aegerter’s family members described Aegerter as a friendly, fun-loving guy with a positive attitude. They said he always helped friends or family. They said he coached his children’s sports teams, enjoyed being an electrician and worked hard.


Amanda Aegerter, the mother of Sam’s children, ages 7 and 10, called Humphrey a monster.


"My children no longer have their dad, their best friend," she said. "James Humphrey has taken away the most important part of our family."


Charles Aegerter Sr., Sam’s father, robbed the Bank of Edgerton after his son’s death. He said the 20-year prison sentence called for in Humphrey’s plea agreement was not long enough.


"That's kind of a sweet sentence," he said.


Deborah Givens, Sam’s mother, shared a story about how well Sam treated her on Mother’s Day.


"Sam didn’t have an enemy in the world," she said.


Amy Aegerter, Sam’s sister-in-law, said her family has a difficult time driving through Five Points, where the shooting happened.


"We think of Sam and can't help but visualize what happened to him," she said.


Amy said Sam was an energetic father.


“He would do anything for his kids," she said. "He was so proud of them."


Melissa Aegerter, also Sam’s sister-in-law, said the experience remains a nightmare for her and for Sam’s children.


"They will forever long for their dad that was so wrongfully taken from them," she said.


Assistant District Attorney Mary Bricco said Humphrey wasn’t remorseful. She said he never stopped to help Aegerter and never turned himself in.


"Take Jim Humphrey's life. Take him away from his family. Take his life away from him," Bricco said.


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Humphrey wishes he’d never bought the handgun.


His son, 19, is struggling with the loss of his father and recently got into trouble with the law.


His stepdaughter, 14, lost her father figure. She’s gone to counseling, has lost weight and has withdrawn from friends and music, a passion she shared with Humphrey.


His wife lost her husband and her opportunity to open a business. She lost her home to foreclosure. She and her daughter have moved in with family in another city.


Humphrey lost his 19-year career at Alliant Energy.


He lost his freedom.


“I don’t feel like I have any right to complain about that because I took that away from Sam and his family,” Humphrey said. “The Aegerters have a hole in their lives that can never be filled.”


Humphrey said he is remorseful and makes no excuses for his actions. He regrets the horrible circumstances he imposed on Hall, the Aegerters, the Jeep occupants and others.


“I left behind two devastated families,” he said. “I’ve cried myself to sleep. The level of loss in this situation on both sides is just incalculable.”


He knows he deserves prison.


“I hope over time, the years that pass, all the families involved and the community itself will be able to find some measure of healing,” Humphrey said.


On Friday, Janesville police searched the Rock River for the handgun.


It has not been found.



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