Mitrel Anderson admitted to jurors Tuesday that he swung a knife into the side of DeMario Lee’s head in a gas station restroom but said he did not intend to kill his former childhood friend.

“I was scared for my life. I begged for my life. I begged for him to let me go,” he testified. “It was my only option.”

Anderson at times sobbed through his 3½ hours of testimony as he recalled the morning he said he took Lee’s life to save his own, while offering only short answers when forced to admit that he lied during the investigation into the homicide.

Prosecutors in La Crosse County Circuit Court contend Anderson, 27, of La Crosse acted with the intent to kill when he stabbed Lee early June 2, 2013, in the restroom at the Cass Street Kwik Trip.

Anderson knew Lee, 24, to carry guns in his waistband and car to protect himself, his money and his drugs, he testified. Anderson witnessed Lee in 2012 throw to the ground and kick a woman who embarrassed Lee, and return fire at rival gang members in Illinois.

“At the time, he was like my brother and I trusted DeMario and I loved him,” Anderson said.

Their friendship changed in mid-April 2013 when Anderson reported to Lee’s mother that her son had defaulted on a $2,500 loan. Lee told Anderson that he had “some nerve” complaining to his mother.

“When I catch you, I’m going to kill you,” Lee threatened, according to Anderson. “I knew he was serious.”

Anderson changed his phone number and avoided Lee until early June 2, when they found each other in a crowd at Third and Pearl streets.

“When I catch you by yourself, I’m going to kill your (expletive),” Lee told him, Anderson said.

Anderson went to his Fourth Street apartment and called Oliver Odulana at 3:08 a.m. Odulana knew where there was a party and told Anderson to meet him at Kwik Trip.

Anderson walked into the gas station’s restroom at 3:13 a.m., followed within seconds by Odulana and Lee.

“I was scared. I knew I was in trouble,” Anderson testified. “I tried to go out of the door.”

Lee started the six-minute fight that would end with his death when he struck Anderson in the mouth, Anderson testified. Lee threw him to the ground and pinned him to the floor, while Anderson cried out for help.

“I told you I was going to catch you. You aren’t making it out of here alive,” Lee threatened, according to Anderson.

Anderson broke down on the witness stand as he recalled that Lee ordered bystander Prince Gibbs to, “Go get my (gun). I’m going to kill this (expletive).”

Outnumbered, held against his will and terrified for his life, Anderson reached for the knife in his pants pocket.

“I swung the knife at DeMario,” he said.

“Were you trying to kill Mr. Lee?” defense attorney Elizabeth Wright asked.

“No, I didn’t want to kill him. I just wanted to get out of that bathroom. I didn’t want to die.”

Anderson drove the blade of his knife 3½ inches into Lee’s skull. He was dying in a pool of blood while Anderson walked out of the gas station and past Gibbs, who Anderson believed was armed.

He fled to Madison with his girlfriend to see family before state agents arrested them the next day. Anderson admitted lying to investigators during his interview because he was distraught over Lee’s death.

“I do not regret defending myself,” he testified.

Twice Anderson told investigators that Gibbs said he needed to leave the restroom because he was armed, but only for jurors did Anderson claim that Lee ordered Gibbs to retrieve a gun, Assistant Attorney General David Maas pointed out.

“My story wasn’t all together,” Anderson said of his statements to police.

Anderson admitted he “exaggerated” to investigators when he said he pulled the knife from Lee’s pocket.

“Everything you told police about the knife in that interview was a lie, correct?” Maas asked.

“Yes.”

Anderson testified he carried the knife, which he described as “kinda” Swiss Army style, that night because he was drinking and it came equipped with a bottle opener. Anderson said he was able to open the blade while Lee was flinging him around “like a rag doll.”

Lee was walking backward from the restroom when Anderson “out of pure instinct” swung the weapon at his head.

“You knew at the moment you swung that knife into Mr. Lee’s head that you were practically certain to kill him?” Maas asked.

“No.”

Anderson did not know the extent of Lee’s injury when he pocketed his knife, walked past the dying Lee and out of the store.

“And you didn’t look back at him, did you?” Maas asked.

“No.”

“You walked down that aisle away from the bathroom like a boss.”

The defense continues its case today.

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Anne Jungen covers law enforcement and the criminal justice system in La Crosse County. She joined the Tribune reporting staff in December 2005. You can contact her directly at ajungen@lacrossetribune.com or 608-791-8224.

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