Self-Defense or Murder? What Drove Man to Kill Neighbor

'It Wasn't Murder,' Raul Rodriguez says in exclusive interview.

September 13, 2012, 11:18 AM

Sept. 14, 2012— -- Two years before Florida's Trayvon Martin case brought national attention to state Stand Your Ground laws, another controversial Stand Your Ground case rocked a neighborhood -- this time, in the sleepy town of Huffman, Texas. There, in May 2010, 36-year-old Kelly Danaher was shot in front of his home during a birthday party for his wife and young daughter.

Huffman, 30 miles northeast of Houston, is the kind of place where neighbors borrow tools and bring food when there's a death in the family.

Watch the full story on "20/20" TONIGHT at 10/9c.

Danaher's wife, Mindy Danaher, grew up there and returned to her family home with her husband and their three-year-old daughter, Peri. Kelly Danaher was a P.E. teacher.

The neighborhood was made up of people like Pete Fornols, Terri Hackathorn and Donna and Raul Rodriguez -- all of whom had escaped the city for more space and a little peace and quiet.

May 1, 2010, began with a celebration of Mindy and Peri Danaher's birthdays. Kelly Danaher had filled the yard with activities for the kids. Birthday cake and barbecue greeted friends stopping by throughout the day.

As day turned to night, the party became more exuberant, with drinking and karaoke. To neighbor Raul Rodriguez, a former firefighter, the party became a nuisance, and he called the police several times. The police responded to his calls but never asked the Danahers to end the party.

PHOTOS: Deadly Neighbor Fight: Man Kills Neighbor Over Loud Party

This angered Rodriguez, according to neighbor Pete Fornols, who visited with him that evening. Another neighbor, Terri Hackathorn, said she sensed trouble when she saw Rodriguez walking down the street toward the party.

Armed with a video camera, a gun and his cellphone, Raul Rodriguez made his way to the Danahers' driveway and began recording the party.

Mindy Danaher's father, James Storm, approached, and they exchanged heated words, all captured on video. Hearing the argument, Kelly Danaher approached the two men. Rodriguez pulled his gun, telling Kelly, "Stop right there. Don't come any closer."

Danaher said Rodriguez didn't need to pull a weapon. Rodriguez threatened to shoot Danaher. At this point, Rodriguez said very clearly into his video camera, "I'm in fear for my life; my life is in danger."

Multiple 911 calls were made. Rodriguez was asked to leave, and he refused.

Then came a sequence of events, over a split second, that would shake Huffman, Texas to its core.

Kelly Danaher's friend Ricky Johnson made a series of movements including waving his arms and laughing. Later his friends said he was stupid not to take Rodriguez seriously.

Rodriguez later claimed Johnson was lunging at him. Still holding his camera and gun, Rodriguez said, "I'm not losing to these people anymore." Then he shot Ricky Johnson, Kelly Danaher and Marshall Stetson.

When it was all over, Kelly Danaher lay bleeding to death at the end of his driveway, steps from his wife and his daughter's birthday party.

Raul Rodriguez was arrested. He would tell police he was confident he had a compelling defense, believing he acted within his rights under the Texas Stand Your Ground law. The law states that a person may use force -- in certain circumstances, deadly force -- in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat. All but seven states have some version of the law, including Florida, where the Trayvon Martin case happened.

George Zimmerman allegedly shot and killed Trayvon Martin, 17, on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty and has requested a hearing under the provisions of Florida's Stand Your Ground law.

Stand Your Ground Doesn't Apply, Prosecutor Says

Rodriguez was incorrect in claiming Stand Your Ground in his defense, according to one of his prosecutors, Kelli Johnson.

"This is not a Stand Your Ground case," Johnson told "20/20." "[Rodriguez] broke the law. He went down to neighbors that would have given a plate of food. He walked down packed, ready for a chance to use that gun that he artfully carried every second of his life. He confronted four unsuspecting men who had spent an entire day celebrating their family."

In June a Houston jury agreed, finding Raul Rodriguez guilty of murder. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Raul Rodriguez sat down with "20/20" for an exclusive jailhouse interview. "I regret [Danaher's] dead," he said. "I regret everything that happened. ... It wasn't murder. I had to defend myself."

Rodriguez said he went to the house only to capture video evidence to show the police how noisy the party was. He had no intention of starting a fight, he said.

The prosecutors "made me out to be some evil person that did all kinds of horrible things," Rodriguez said. "It breaks my heart to know that people said that about me, 'cause I'm not like that."

Nine neighbors testified for the prosecution. They said Rodriguez was a neighborhood bully who wore his gun to the bus stop to pick up his children, killed dogs he felt were threatening him and poisoned cats.

Rodriguez's defense attorneys, Bill Stradley and Neal Davis, put the following question to the jury: If Raul Rodriguez had premeditated intent to kill, why did he call the police and videotape his every move?

They said he feared for his life, believing Kelly Danaher and his friends to be armed. He had every right to defend himself, with the weapon he was licensed to carry, they said. They plan to appeal.

Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Brown told "20/20" the only weapon recovered from the scene was Rodriguez's.

Kelly Danaher's mother, siblings, and widow do their best to keep his memory alive. They say they are reminded of him every day they look at his daughter Peri, now 5.

Danaher's brother Brett told "20/20" that while he was pleased with the verdict, he will forever feel his brother's loss.

"No verdict is going to bring Kelly back," he said. "Three people were shot and my brother was killed over something very senseless. The entire thing didn't have to happen. ... Knowing that [Peri's] not going to have a dad -- it breaks your heart."

Watch the full story on "20/20" TONIGHT at 10/9c.

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