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Rochester Hills — A homeowner facing charges for firing a shotgun at a teenager he thought was breaking into his house this month was convicted of firing a handgun during an altercation with another motorist in 2004, according to court records.

A Warren police report reviewed by The Detroit News reveals Jeffrey C. Zeigler, then 39, was stopped and arrested by police after a 43-year-old Clawson man reported him as the motorist who fired a handgun at him on westbound Interstate 696 after the two men “flipped off” each other about 3 p.m. Dec. 13, 2004.

Zeigler eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge but served no jail time, court records show.

Zeigler, 53 and white, is out on $50,000 cash surety bond in the April 12 Rochester Hills incident, in which he’s accused of shooting at a black 14-year-old who said he was lost and seeking directions on his way to school.

Zeigler, a retired Detroit Fire Department lieutenant, is charged with assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. The assault charge can carry a penalty of any term of years up to life in prison, and the firearm offense carries a mandatory two-year sentence.

The incident sparked accusations that it was racially motivated.

The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for charges against Zeigler, saying in a statement last week: “We suspect that the alleged shooter may have been motivated to attempt to murder the unarmed teen due to racial bias.”

In a statement the day after the gunfire, Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said, “I am personally sickened by the initial reports, and they suggest behavior completely unacceptable and inconsistent with the character and values of our community. Our city has a strong and unwavering policy when it comes to acts of hatred.”

In the 2004 incident, the Clawson man, who also was white, told police he was traveling west on I-696 near Groesbeck and pulled over to permit an ambulance to get to a crash scene.

When he attempted to merge back into traffic, the man said the driver of a red Dodge Durango — whom he later identified as Zeigler — wouldn’t let him in and the pair exchanged insulting hand signals.

Finally, he maneuvered his pickup ahead of the SUV, then saw the Durango’s driver extend an arm out the window with a silver handgun.

The pickup driver told police he “punched the gas and heard a shot and something hit his truck at the same time.”

He later inspected the pickup and could not find any damage but made an emergency call on his phone and a police bulletin was put out on the Durango, later spotted and pulled over by police on northbound Hoover Road.

Guilty of lesser charge

When stopped by Warren police, Zeigler initially denied being in any altercation. But after police asked him about his concealed weapons permit and asked where his firearm was, he directed them to a .38 caliber semi-automatic Sig Sauer handgun in his back seat.

An empty ammunition magazine and another containing seven live rounds, plus an additional five live rounds were found inside Zeigler’s Durango. The handgun was unloaded, and police reported no spent casings were recovered.

No damage could be found on the Clawson man’s pickup. When officers informed Zeigler they wanted to examine him and the weapon to see if it had been fired, Zeigler said he had cleaned the weapon the night before and couldn’t recall if he had washed his hand afterward.

An officer inspected Zeigler’s left hand — his dominant hand — and no gunpowder residue could be found. Zeigler’s right hand was not inspected because the officer had only one field kit, according to the report.

Examination of the handgun determined “the barrel and chamber had powder residue indicating that the weapon had been fired,” according to the report.

Zeigler was initially charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison and one count of discharge of a firearm from a motor vehicle, which can carry up to 10 years in prison.

During Zeigler’s arraignment on the Rochester Hills charges last week, neither police nor Oakland County assistant prosecutor Kelly Collins could provide Rochester Hills District Judge Julie Nicholson with specifics of the 2004 incident. Collins told Nicholson it appeared to have been “nolle prossed” — a shortened version of a Latin legal term for a decision to not prosecute and to dismiss charges.

Records in Warren District Court indicate a not-guilty plea was entered on Zeigler’s behalf by 37th District Judge Jennifer Faunce, who released him on $1,000 cash surety bond.

On Feb. 17, 2005, Judge John Chmura dismissed the assault with a deadly weapon charge but found Zeigler guilty of firing and aiming a weapon without malice or injury, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and fines.

He was not jailed but sentenced to one year reporting probation and $609 in fines and costs.

Zeigler could conceivably have been charged with firing a weapon from a motor vehicle, which can carry up to 10 years in prison and fines. Because he was found guilty of a misdemeanor, the state’s mandatory two-year sentence for the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony did not apply.

Tale of the tape

Regardless of the resolution of the earlier case, Collins said the Rochester Hills incident was serious and asked Nicholson for a high bond or “no bond at all.”

The judge set a $50,000 cash surety bond, no 10 percent.

Collins said Zeigler “should have known better” than to fire his weapon under the circumstances. His alleged target, a freshman at Rochester High School, has said missed his school bus and was walking through an unfamiliar subdivision when he knocked on Zeigler’s door to ask directions.

Zeigler said in court that he was asleep in his home in the 22000 block of South Christian Hills Drive about 8:30 a.m. April 12 when he awoke to his wife screaming that someone was trying to break into the house.

He grabbed his shotgun and ran outside while his wife made a 911 call to the sheriff’s office and reported her husband had chased the person off with a shotgun. Zeigler initially told police he stumbled and fell and the weapon accidentally misfired.

A home security video shows otherwise, according to investigators who have viewed it. Instead, the footage shows Zeigler fumbled with a safety mechanism, delaying his firing of the weapon and putting more distance between him and the fleeing teen.

According to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, deputies have made numerous runs to Zeigler’s home, including for break-ins where beer was stolen from his garage — later determined to have been grabbed by a teenager.

Zeigler, who is free on bond, told Nicholson there is more to his story but she advised him to remain silent without his attorney present. As of Thursday, Zeigler had no attorney of record.

Zeigler has declined interview requests and did not return a call for comment Thursday.

Case may come into play

While it’s more than a decade old, the earlier firearms incident in Warren may come into play in Zeigler’s current case.

“The incident and police report show he has a history of mishandling firearms, and in this earlier incident, appeared he was out of control,” Warren Police Chief William Dwyer said. “Fortunately, no one was injured.”

Calls to the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office, including to an assistant prosecutor who handled the Warren case, were not returned to The News.

A request for comment was also left with a relative of the Clawson man, who said the man would “probably not” want to comment on Zeigler’s cases — either old or new.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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