Washed Up Actor Acquitted In 2014 Killing Of Former Mixed Martial Arts Fighter

VICTORVILLE—One-time actor Sean Briskey has been acquitted in the murder of former mixed martial arts fighter Justin “Bully” Schalk, two years after Briskey and his codefendant in the case botched an effort to dispose of the body in the High Desert.
The case was tried twice, involving a different prosecutorial approach the first time around, ending in a mistrial. The case was full of serpentine twists and turns that the prosecution referred to as “unique” and which observers have cataloged as bizarre and grisly.
The deceased, Justin Schalk, a 6’1” 225 lbs. menacing mixed martial arts fighter originally from Ferndale, Michigan who had ties to the Vagos motorcycle gang and an affinity for methamphetamine, was used to pushing people around. In addition to being able to punch, chop, gouge, kick, and slam people to the ground with devastating force, he also possessed at least two handguns and a reputation for using them to get his way.
Schalk’s killer, Sean Briskey, was a washed-up thespian, who as a teenager and in his very early twenties had found bit parts in Hollywood in mostly forgettable comedies such as “American Pie Presents: Band Camp” and “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” along with a few roles in other entertainment vehicles such as the CBS television show “Judging Amy.”
By 2014, Schalk’s professional career as a pugilist was pretty much over, his having last competed in June 2013, and Briskey was even further removed from the world of show business, having had his last acting role nine years previously.
Schalk and Briskey’s paths would cross when they had both been reduced to an existence, some might call it a subsistence, in a place called the Compound, a mechanic shop on residential property in one of the roughest district’s in San Bernardino County, located at the extreme southwest end of the City of Montclair within spitting distance of an unincorporated pocket of San Bernardino County called the West End. Nestled up against an equally rough district at the extreme east end of Los Angeles County and the City of Pomona, the Compound hosted activity of dubious legality and licensure, such as automotive repair work which was not permitted under Montclair’s zoning code, and the sale of illicit substances such as methamphetamine, not to mention prostitution activity.
Schalk had taken up residence at the compound about a week prior to his demise, which occurred sometime around midnight, April 13, 2014.
In short order after having moved in, Schalk reportedly laid claim to one of the women staying at the squalid compound. Staking his territory over her included beating her repeatedly, which occurred the night before and night of his death.
At his most recent trial in which he was charged with having killed Schalk by means of arson rather than by shooting him, Briskey did not testify. But in his first trial, in which he was charged with having killed Schalk by shooting him, Briskey did testify. According to Briskey, despite Schalk’s overbearing physical nature, he had stood up to him, but not before having taken a .45 caliber handgun that Schalk had. During that confrontation, according to Briskey’s 2015 testimony, Schalk demanded that Briskey return the gun to him.
According to Briskey’s testimony in the first trial and the testimony of another witness, Jamie Johnson, Schalk threatened and intimidated Briskey, called him names, demanded his gun back, then hit him with his fist, and head butted him. When Briskey still refused to return the gun, Schalk bellowed, “I’m going to get my other gun and come back and blow your fucking head off.”
As Schalk stomped off toward his room, Briskey followed close behind. During the first trial, Briskey offered testimony that closely paralleled that of Johnson, further claiming that as Schalk was reaching into a dresser drawer for his other gun, he shot him. The .45 bullet, according to the forensic pathologist who carried out the autopsy, entered the left rear of the parietal/occipital portion of Schalk’s skull, crossing through the mid-brain and exiting the right frontal lobe. The exit wound was about 1.5 inches, slightly smaller than a golf ball.
Briskey dragged Schalk’s body outside the house and put it into the back of Schalk’s SUV, with the back hatch open. Briskey burned Schalk’s clothing and several of his other personal effects on a barbeque at the compound close to the vehicle for at least three hours. Briskey then enlisted the assistance of Major Austin in disposing of Schalk’s body. Briskey drove Schalk’s vehicle, containing Schalk’s body to the High Desert, stopping to purchase gasoline along the way. Austin accompanied him, driving his own vehicle to what they intended would be the Schalk corpse’s ultimate destination: a spot off the road and out of common site but not too far from Stoddard Wells Road and the Lucerne Valley cutoff. There Briskey poured gasoline onto the corpse and into the vehicle and set them ablaze.
Unbeknownst to Briskey and Austin, there were two men camping not far from where Briskey drove the vehicle and burned it. They called 911. While it is likely that had that call not been made at that time the charred remains of Schalk’s body and his burned out vehicle would not have been found for days, weeks or even months, after a second 911 call, firemen and sheriff’s personnel came to the scene and arson and homicide investigations were begun.
Five days later, on April 19, 2014, Briskey and Austin were arrested in Montclair.
Both Briskey and Austin submitted to videotaped interviews/interrogations, including one session where they were brought into the interrogation room together and induced by the investigators to make further incriminating statements. Briskey acknowledged killing Schalk, but maintained a claim of self-defense throughout the course of his grilling by homicide detectives. Offered inducements, Austin within a month pleaded guilty to being an accessory to a crime, and agreed to testify against Briskey, for which he was to receive probation in lieu of a three-year sentence in county jail.
Sheriff’s investigators sought out other witnesses, including the women in residence at the compound, among whom was the one who had been dominated and beaten by Schalk. One of those went underground, but was finally caught up with when she was jailed in another county. When investigators spoke to her, she feigned lack of memory.
The other witness was Jamie Johnson, who was interviewed at her home a few days after the shooting.
In Briskey’s initial 2015 trial, prosecuted by deputy district attorney Mike Risley, the prosecution sought a first degree murder conviction against Briskey based upon his shooting of Schalk.
Johnson was brought in as a witness for the prosecution, but she was as helpful to the defense as she was to Risley. During direct examination, she did not remember some of the things she told detectives in May 2014. She did remember the fight between Briskey and Schalk, but wasn’t clear about when the shooting took place. She knew that Briskey had taken Schalk’s gun and that Briskey had shot him, but thought that he might have simply shot him from behind some minutes after their altercation calmed down. While that ostensibly advanced the prosecution’s case, on cross-examination she also told the jury that when she heard a shot she expected to see Briskey on the floor. She said she believed the confrontation between the two men could have gone either way, but thought it more likely that it would be Briskey who would end up dead rather than Schalk.
Testifying in his own defense at that time, Briskey maintained the shooting of Schalk was in self-defense. His reiteration of the encounter with Schalk was so convincing that the jury hung, unable to agree on a verdict.
Risley then resolved to retry Briskey, but this time under a different theory. Seizing upon a forensic finding that Schalk’s blood had a carboxyhemoglobin reading of 42%, which could only come from breathing smoke, Risley alleged that Schalk had survived the shooting and actually died from being burned to death while he lay incapacitated and unconscious in his vehicle when it was torched some eight hours after the shooting.
Risley sought to convince jurors in the second trial that Schalk’s blood showed elevated carbon monoxide levels, that there was soot in his trachea, and that his trachea had undergone a thermal change from roughly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to burning in a short window, indicators that Schalk was burned alive. In making his case, Risley undertook to propound the rather far-fetched proposition that Schalk had been shot through the brain but had not expired for more than eight hours. The jury rejected that theory after Briskey’s defense attorney, Gary Wenkle Smith, offered an alternative theory to the effect that Schalk did not die immediately after being shot and survived being drug through the compound and being loaded into his SUV, close to which Briskey was using a barbecue to incinerate Schalk’s clothing and other personal effects for at least three hours. It was smoke from this fire that entered Schalk’s respiratory system in the final moments of his life, according to Smith, that accounted for the carbon monoxide in his blood and tissues.
To convince jurors, Risley put on the testimony of Dr. Brian Hutchins, a forensic pathologist with the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner Department, and Hutchins’ supervisor, Dr. Frank Sheridan, and Jeffrey Bounds, a neurologist from Loma Linda University Medical Center, which propounded that Schalk had to be alive and breathing smoke to have such a high level — 42 percent — of carboxyhemoglobin. Hutchins testified that in his opinion the burning of Schalk’s clothing and other items on barbecue just outside of the vehicle with the rear hatch opened would not have vectored enough smoke into the confined area where Schalk was laid out to account for the high carbon monoxide level in Schalk’s blood. All three supported the theory that Schalk was alive when his body was burned.
Smith called Dr. Katherine Raven, M.D., a Reno-based forensic pathologist, for the defense, eliciting from her the assertion that the burning of the clothing close to the vehicle in which Schalk was lying was the most likely and medically probable explanation for the high carbon monoxide reading in Schalk’s blood, and that it was her firm opinion that Schalk should not have lived more than an hour after the shooting. On cross-examination, Dr. Hutchins testified that he was unable to explain how Schalk could have lived the 8 hours before his body was burned, and that in patterns such as Schalk’s, he should have been brain dead within an hour, at the longest.
Neither Briskey nor Johnson testified at the second trial. The prosecution, however, had Johnson’s testimony from the first trial read by a district attorney’s office employee to the jury, with Risley and Smith reading their portions of direct and cross-examination of the prior recorded testimony. While this clearly established that Briskey had killed Schalk, it provided the defense with the advantage of presenting to the jury what even Risley termed a “compelling” case that Briskey acted in self-defense, and it eliminated the need for Briskey’s testimony at the second trial.
At the conclusion of trial, the jury deliberated for a day and a half, and found Briskey not guilty. After rendering their verdict, all of the jurors consented to speaking with Smith and discussing the case with him. They uniformly said the prosecution did not convince them that Schalk could still be alive with a .45 caliber gunshot through the head after eight hours.
While Briskey’s defense essentially acknowledged that he had burned Schalk’s body after he shot him, the district attorney’s office, by not having previously charged him with the destruction of evidence and by failing to obtain a conviction in the second trial under the theory of felony murder by arson by virtue of the not guilty verdict, cannot now charge Briskey with destruction of evidence.
In a twist, Austin, who testified against Briskey at the trial, is now alleged by the district attorney’s office of having not been truthful in his trial testimony, which was a specific finding by the trial judge, and the prosecution is seeking to revoke his deal for probation so he will be required to spend three years in county prison.
This is one of dozens of not guilty verdicts Smith, Briskey’s defense attorney, has obtained in murder and other serious felony trials in San Bernardino County Superior Court and other Southern California Courts.

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