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Prosecutors outline case against Waffle House shooting suspect as defense mounts insanity plea

·8 min read
Travis Reinking sits in court during the first day of his murder trial at the Justice A.A. Birch Building on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
Travis Reinking sits in court during the first day of his murder trial at the Justice A.A. Birch Building on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

Travis Reinking thought he was told by God to open fire at a Nashville Waffle House in the early morning hours of April 22, 2018, his defense attorneys said Monday.

He waited outside the restaurant, hoping for a sign his so-called mission was over, that he wouldn't have to go into the all-night diner and shoot, the lawyers said.

He did see a sign, they said, but not the one he hoped for.

"In his sickness, his severe mental illness, he sees the number three on a hat, on the head of a man he sees walking by his car," attorney Luke Evans said in the defense's opening statements Monday morning. "In his illness, the number 3 has meaning."

Reinking faces multiple first-degree murder charges in the shooting, which killed four and severely injured others.

2018 Waffle House shooting: The Waffle House shooting put Nashville on edge. Nearly four years later, will the city finally get closure?

Waffle House trial day 1: Opening statements, first witnesses called in Travis Reinking's murder case

He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to all charges on Monday before a Nashville jury.

Defense attorneys are not disputing that Reinking was the one who fired 30 rounds from an assault rifle in approximately 29 seconds in a shooting that put Nashville on edge. But they hope to convince the jury that he was in the grip of delusions so strong that legally he was not aware of the wrongness of his actions.

The state disagrees. They argue he knew what he was doing well enough to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“He chose,” Assistant District Attorney Jan Norman said. “He chose to go to that Waffle House. Travis Reinking went there to take something that couldn’t be given back. He went there to take lives. This was an act of revenge done out of anger.”

Trial underway after nearly four years

Reinking, who will turn 33 on Tuesday, wore a dark blue shirt on Monday. He watched the proceedings actively, sitting with his hands folded in front of him on the table.

He was indicted on 17 counts in the case, including four counts of premeditated first-degree murder.

A Davidson County jury of 12 women and two men was seated on Friday. The trial could last more than a week.

Taurean C. Sanderlin, 29; Joe R. Perez, 20; DeEbony Groves, 21; and Akilah DaSilva, 23, died after investigators say a gunman walked into the restaurant just after 3:20 a.m. and opened fire with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, wounding several others in the process.

The killer was stopped by a patron who stood up and grabbed his gun.

The suspect ran off into the darkness that night, kicking off nearly two days of citywide tension as hundreds of officers, search dogs and helicopters swarmed neighborhoods and swept through schools hunting for him.

Mental health could be central to case

When a middle aged couple walked in to take seats in the front row on the defense side, Reinking perked up, smiling and giving a small wave to them. They waved back. A defense attorney passed them what appeared to be a greeting card in a lime green envelope.

Across the aisle, the mother of victim Akilah DaSilva, Shaundelle Brooks, wept silently each time her son was mentioned. She was joined by victims, witnesses and family members including James Shaw Jr., the hero of the day who grabbed the gun.

Reinking's insanity plea means his defense team has a difficult task ahead of them.

Reinking's trial was previously delayed to allow treatment for his long diagnosed schizophrenia and to allow him to evaluated for his competency for trial. He was found competent in October 2018 after treatment.

His severe mental illness was flagged before his arrest, and he had previous run-ins with police.

Tazewell County, Illinois, law enforcement once removed Reinking's authorization to own weapons in the state.

But the suspect's father Jeffrey Reinking gave them back, including a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle alleged to be the one used in the Waffle House shooting.

"Mr. Reinking was driven by delusions. Paranoid thinking. Auditory hallucinations," Evans said Monday.

At some point in the past few years, his delusions grew to include the belief that he was being constantly surveilled.

Evans detailed a period where Reinking believed musician Taylor Swift was his girlfriend, until the imagined relationship turned sour. He believed his fictitious version of the singer was stealing his thoughts, assaulting him, breaking into his house, Evans said.

"He was so convinced of this delusion over time that he himself was reaching out to law enforcement for help," Evans said. "He (Reinking) told them, 'They’re stealing my thoughts. When I go in to restaurants, people are repeating phrases they would only know if they’d read my private journals and my private thoughts.'"

During questioning as part of jury section, both parties pressed potential jurors on whether they could find someone not guilty by reason of insanity, a somewhat rare defense strategy.

In a conversation with The Tennessean last week before the trial began, longtime Nashville defense attorney David Raybin said proving an insanity defense is difficult.

"Unlike in most defenses, where the state has to prove it, you have the burden of proof," he said. "You have to prove you were 1) mentally ill and 2) at the time you didn’t’ appreciate wrongfulness of the behavior.

"It's all or nothing."

Juries often reject the defense, he said.

But what's key in this case, Raybin said, without being formally attached to it, is that Reinking's history of struggles with schizophrenia are well-documented.

"Running away hurts the defense in this case. It could show he appreciated what he was doing was wrong, that makes a big difference," he said. "But what helps the defense is he has a long history of mental illness. This isn't something concocted out of whole cloth. There's a history of this sort of thing."

Nashville officer first witness

Metro Nashville Police Officer Brett Johns was the first on the scene that morning.

In emotional testimony as the state's first witness, he recounted the harrowing details of what he saw.

He had been helping another officer at a vehicle accident when the call came in. At first, on mistaken instructions from dispatch, he headed out full speed, with lights and sirens, in the wrong direction. When the correct address came through, he pulled a U-turn and headed back up Murfreesboro Pike, he said.

When he got there, he saw Shaw limping at him out of the dark, repeating, "I fought him, I fought him. I pushed him out the store. I threw the gun."

It was difficult to get a description of the shooter from the overwrought Shaw, he said. But he was able to get small details — naked, green jacket, blonde hair, male, white — to report back to dispatch.

Johns moved closer.

He saw bodies in the parking lot and radioed dispatch to let them know.

He went inside.

Johns saw a woman, later determined to be Sharita Henderson, who he thought was dead.

She blinked.

He said he remembered a story from a fellow officer who stayed conscious after being shot by counting to 10 over and over in her mind.

"I tried to get her to count to get her to stay alive," he said.

He was talking to Abede DaSilva the whole time, he said, the pair grabbing towels from staff, attempting to render first aid to whoever they could as paramedics and other officers arrived.

Once Akilah DaSilva and Henderson had been taken out by paramedics, he tried to hold Tia Waggoner's leg together with a towel and his bare hands, he said.

Assistant District Attorney Ronald Dowdy walked Johns through his story and had him identify images of the scene — broken glass and pools of blood.

"The extent of their injuries, the conversations I had with the people who didn't make it. I think of it quite often," said Johns, at times had to dry his tears while on the stand.

There was no cross examination.

Final arguments before trial

Before the trial began Monday, defense attorneys argued for a pause to show certain documents related to Reinking’s mental state to one of their experts.

Prosecutors argued they waited until the last minute and it was too late.

After a brief recess, Fishburn agreed to allow the expert witnesses to see newly available videos and journals by Reinking and prepare new reports by 6 p.m. Tuesday.

"They'd better get busy," he said.

Arguments on the motion between Deputy District Attorney Roger Moore and defense attorney Paul Bruno took more than half an hour.

All the while District Attorney Glenn Funk stood out in the hallway, locked out with victims’ family members.

Funk waited for Fishburn to approve a note from his doctor confirming he was cleared from a COVID-19 diagnosis last week to return to court. He joined prosecutors just as the jury walked in.

Fishburn had previously entered an order allowing both video and still photography under the provisions of the state Supreme Court Rule 30.

But on Monday morning, he suddenly changed course, passing a message through clerks that still photography by The Tennessean, which is providing pool photography for other media outlets, or anyone else would not be allowed. He did not issue a written order laying out the ruling until several hours after the trial had started.

A court officer said the decision was made to avoid "distracting" the jury.

After questions, the judge decided to allow photos to be taken only while the jury was not in the room, typically a small portion of the day during a jury trial. The judge continued to allow video.

Fishburn changed course after The Tennessean and the Associated Press raised concerns about the access.

Natalie Neysa Alund contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Mariah Timms at mtimms@tennessean.com or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Waffle House 2018 shooting trial: Travis Reinking pleads insanity case