Robert Vanderheiden told a jury that he looked over and saw his girlfriend, Teresa Rangel, spinning his pistol with her finger inside the trigger guard. He said he instinctively lunged for her, pulling the handgun away, when the weapon fired a shot.
The bullet struck the center of her forehead. Vanderheiden leaned over his girlfriend as she lay bleeding on the living room couch and gasping for air. He pleaded for her not to die.
“I was frantic. I was beside myself,” Vanderheiden said on the witness stand. “I didn’t know what to do. I freaked out.”
Vanderheiden is on trial, accused of murder in Rangel’s shooting. He testified Wednesday, telling the jury what he says happened March 21, 2011.
A forensic pathologist has testified that the bullet exited through the top of Rangel’s head and there were no indications the gun was fired at close range.
Vanderheiden told the jurors that seeing his 26-year-old girlfriend shot was horrifying. When his attorney, Kirk McAllister, asked him whether he intended to shoot her, the defendant answered, “Absolutely not.”
During cross-examination, Vanderheiden said he reached for the gun and “as I pulled it and got it in my hands, it went off,” he testified.
The shooting occurred at a rural home where Vanderheiden and Rangel lived with his grandparents along Warner Road, about a mile west of Highway 99 southwest of Keyes.
For a few years, Rangel had been estranged from her family, who lived in Concord. But she was trying to reconnect with them, and Vanderheiden said he encouraged that.
In January 2011, Rangel sent messages to her sister, asking to return to her family’s home. Rangel was using Vanderheiden’s phone to send these messages. She deleted the messages she sent to her sister, but her sister’s replies remained on the phone and were discovered by Vanderheiden.
Vanderheiden told the jury he became upset because she was lying to her family about wanting to return. “She was telling me she wanted to be with me forever,” he said. The defendant testified that he can’t handle being lied to because a healthy relationship can’t be based on lies. So, he asked Rangel to leave.
He also made it clear the relationship would end if she left. “I don’t do long-distance relationships,” Vanderheiden said on the witness stand. “If she wanted to move home, that’s fine. I wasn’t holding her against her will.”
Vanderheiden said that at Rangel’s request, he left a phone message for her mother. In it, Vanderheiden said, “You people are trying to pull my beautiful flower away from me,” according to the prosecutor. He also told Rangel’s mother, “She won’t be contacting you anymore.”
Vanderheiden agreed with the prosecutor that he said that in the message. Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira asked him, “Nobody was holding a gun to your head, were they?”
He answered, “Nope.”
On the witness stand, he also said Rangel was the missing piece he needed to complete his life, and without her, he would be devastated.
He said Rangel changed her mind about wanting to move out of Vanderheiden’s home, and she refused to return to Concord when her family tried to pick her up that night.
The couple argued on the night of the shooting after Rangel went to a store with her sisters without telling her boyfriend. But he said they were happy after the argument ended and were on the couch watching TV, sharing a bowl of cereal.
Vanderheiden said he carried his .40-caliber Glock 27 pistol inside his waistband all day so he could fire at animals harassing his family’s livestock. He had it with him that night and set it down on a coffee table as they watched TV. The gun was loaded.
He testified that there wasn’t a bullet in the gun chamber, which would have made it impossible for the gun to to fire. The gun also has a secondary lock near the trigger.
The prosecutor asked Vanderheiden to demonstrate in the courtroom how his girlfriend was spinning the gun. The defendant was handed a replica Glock pistol to show the jury. “It happened so quickly, I really don’t remember how she was spinning it,” Vanderheiden said before he demonstrated that his girlfriend was spinning the gun with its barrel revolving back toward her.
The defendant said he knew at the time that it was unsafe to interfere with someone else handling a gun, and he said again that to his knowledge, there was no bullet in the chamber. When asked why he lunged at his girlfriend, Vanderheiden said, “It was just my first reaction.”
The trial is expected to continue Tuesday in Stanislaus Superior Court. The defendant remains free on bail.