MONTICELLO — The defendant in a Piatt County murder trial said he fired his gun at the victim because he was in fear for his life.

Jerome Schmidt, 19, of Springfield testified in his own defense Thursday, the fourth day of his bench trial in Monticello, telling Judge Dana Rhoades that he, his brother and co-defendant, Blayton Cota, and a juvenile were out “hitting cars” in the early hours of Jan. 26, 2021.

He said the three stole two vehicles, including a pickup in Lovington because it had a full tank of gas, then drove to Hammond, and Cota entered the unlocked garage of Michael and Linda Brown. After entering, Schmidt testified that Cota said the garage had “lots of stuff.”

Schmidt told the court that Cota was carrying a 9 mm gun, but he asked Schmidt to hold it as Cota rummaged through some cabinets. At that point, the deadbolt unlocked.

“I thought it was the cops, so I ran to a corner and put the gun under my left armpit,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t want to get shot.”

Cota then jumped over something and ran to the corner of the garage near Schmidt, he said. The door then slammed shut, Schmidt heard Mr. Brown cock his gun and the lights came on.

“He said ‘What the (expletive) are you doing in my garage?’” Schmidt said.

“‘Sir, we are just kids, don’t shoot,’” Schmidt said he replied.

“He said ‘I don’t give a (expletive), you came in the wrong (expletive) garage,’” Schmidt said, “and he continued to walk toward me and my brother.”

Schmidt said he and his brother put their hands in the air.

“I was just scared and waiting for the cops,” Schmidt said. “I told him my mom had cancer, and we were just trying to get money for chemo. Then he said ‘Put your hands in the air, or I will shoot you.’”

Juvenile tries to escape

At that point, the juvenile, who had been hiding, made a noise, which distracted Mr. Brown, according to Schmidt’s testimony. Mr. Brown ordered the juvenile to join the other two in the corner. Cota then attempted to escape by running past Mr. Brown toward the door.

“Mr. Brown turned and shot at my brother,” Schmidt continued. “Because of my positioning, when he shot, I saw my brother go down, and when he went down, he went out of my view. At the time, I thought my brother had been shot. Then (Brown) turned toward me, and I thought he was going to kill me, too, so I was in fear for my life.”

Still holding the gun, Schmidt said he made a decision.

“I pulled the gun from my armpit and shot,” he told the court. “I didn’t even know if the gun was cocked. I just pulled the trigger.”

After noticing Mr. Brown had fallen, Schmidt said he joined Cota and the juvenile in leaving the garage.

“He had shot at my brother, and I was just trying to get out of harm’s way,” Schmidt said.

He said the three reunited outside, and Schmidt asked his brother if he was OK. Cota told him he had slid to avoid the shot, which went right past his head.

Schmidt testified that he was crying and scared. He said Cota had started to vomit, and then the three re-entered the truck, with Schmidt in the driver’s seat.

“I told my brother that we needed to wait for the cops to get here to see what was going to happen,” Schmidt said under oath. “He told me that I was trippin’.”

The juvenile also didn’t want to wait for the cops, Schmidt said, so he called his mother, Jessica Cota, in Springfield.

“At first, I was hyperventilating, I was crying, I was breathing heavy,” he said. “After I got calmed down, I explained to her what just happened. I told her he had just shot my brother, and I had to do it, and I was sorry. Then she went on a rampage about how we were so (expletive) stupid and yada, yada, yada.”

Earlier, the juvenile testified that the three returned to Springfield and met with Jessica Cota.

Prior to Schmidt’s testimony, Jessica Cota took the stand. She is facing charges of obstruction of justice in the case and is due Tuesday in Sangamon County Court. She testified that Schmidt called her and told her he “had to shoot someone.” She said he explained that they were held at gunpoint on their knees, and when Blayton tried to escape, “the man shot at him.”

“Jerome said ‘I had to shoot him, I didn’t have a choice, I was begging for my life,’” she testified. “We begged him to call the police, but he wouldn’t. ‘I’m sorry, Mom, I had to.’”

Cota invokes Fifth Amendment

Blayton Coda, still in custody and awaiting his own trial, appeared in the courtroom but invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and did not answer any questions. Instead, the defense played a portion of an interview he had with Eric Greenlee, a state police crime-scene investigator who became the lead detective on the case.

During the interview, Blayton Cota was reluctant to share much information about the incident but eventually admitted it was Schmidt who fired the gun because he feared for his life.

Closing arguments are set for this morning. Rhoades will announce her decision Tuesday morning in Monticello.