Capping a six-year legal battle to prove he acted in self-defense when he shotgunned a fugitive rape suspect, an upstate judge on Thursday found Carlson not guilty of manslaughter. But the surprising verdict, which reversed an earlier jury conviction at trial, won’t bring back the wife who left him with two of his children, the job he couldn’t hold onto, the home he’s about to lose, or his fractured peace of mind.
Carlson, standing in his rural, spartan home, parts of it still bare plywood and joists, looks almost beaten down.
He says the case was “the catalyst” for his family falling apart just seven months after the controversial shooting, although his eldest son, who is 20, still lives with him.
On Jan. 27, the Sparrow Bush, New York, home where he kept horses, two dogs, a cat and a goat, will go into foreclosure.
“I’m losing my whole farm over this,” the 48-year-old carpenter told The Post during a series of post-verdict interviews. He says it was impossible to hold down a job and keep up with mortgage payments while fighting the case.
He plans to go back to work full time but might still not be in the financial clear; he faces a civil suit brought by the relatives of the man he killed in 2013, 35-year-old Norris Acosta-Sanchez.
And Carlson, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2014 and remains in therapy, may never shake the regret he feels every day.
“This man lost his life and I feel horrible about it,” Carlson says. “I can’t go back and change that. It’s always going to haunt me.”
Thursday brought at least a moment of joy to Carlson, when Judge Robert Freehill announced, “I find the defendant not guilty of all charges.” A weary-looking Carlson hugged attorney Michael Mazzariello, who choked back tears.
“I thought I misunderstood him. I really did,” a stunned Carlson said moments afterward. “I feel like I’m almost dreaming . . . This is the day I’ve been waiting for six years to happen . . . I almost want to leave the building because I’m scared they’re going to change their mind.”
The odyssey began innocently enough in October 2013, when a bearded Acosta-Sanchez popped out of the thick woods while Carlson was fishing with a friend, and introduced himself as “Daniel,” the caretaker of a cabin next door. Carlson befriended him, and gave him odd jobs in exchange for fresh eggs and his wife’s homemade bread.
But one night over the campfire, Acosta-Sanchez admitted his first name was Norris, and he was running from criminal charges in Rockland County of having sex with a 14-year-old girl. “It was consensual,” he claimed.
“He made it out like he’s the victim,” Carlson recalled. Two days later, Carlson and his wife decided to secretly alert the local Deerpark police, sparking a chain of events that led to tragedy.
The cops enlisted Carlson to help them capture the fugitive, but they botched every attempt.
Looking back bitterly, Carlson said: “I never would have trusted the Deerpark police. I shouldn’t have played along with this stupid plan to begin with. They just keep dragging me into it. I’m a carpenter — not a cop.”
On Oct. 8, 2013, a Deerpark officer wanted Carlson to deliberately speed with Acosta-Sanchez in his car so cops could pull him over. Carlson invited Norris to join him on a beer run — and raced at 65 mph as advised. But because of a police department shift change, no cops showed up. The next day, they tried again.
This time, Sgt. Elizabeth Sullivan pulled Carlson over, and Detective Thomas Kalin arrived in a second car. Norris identified himself as “Daniel Costa,” but had no ID. He then offered to show his ID if they drove him back to his cabin. He rode in Sullivan’s car without handcuffs. When both cop cars pulled in behind the cabin, Norris jumped out, shoved past Sullivan and bolted down a dry creek bed. Kalin started to chase, but quickly “lost sight of him.”
Norris soon returned, but still had no idea that Carlson was cooperating with the cops.
That evening, Carlson rummaged through a box Norris had stored in his garage and found a car insurance card with Norris’s last name, Acosta-Sanchez, which he turned over to cops. Sgt. Sullivan then found the Rockland County warrant for his arrest.
On Oct. 10, Deerpark police obtained a “no knock” warrant to raid the cabin next door. Joining local police, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office sent a 23-member SWAT team armed with M4 assault rifles, two sharpshooters and canine units. A state police helicopter flew overhead.
Hearing the break-in, Acosta-Sanchez jumped from a wooden box where he was hiding just 20 yards from two snipers watching the cabin. He ran down the same creek bed he had used to flee the day before, dove into the Rio Reservoir and swam across a narrow stretch — escaping again.
His neighbors were “scared to death,” as one put it. Carlson sent his wife and kids to stay with a friend. Home alone, he borrowed some Xanax from his mother-in-law and took out his .22-caliber rifle and two shotguns, including a 12-gauge Remington 870.
The next day, at about 9 a.m., a “pissed” Acosta-Sanchez banged on Carlson’s front door.
Instead of ignoring the intruder, Carlson decided to take over. “Hold on,” he told Acosta-Sanchez. “Go to the back door.”
Carlson then grabbed his Remington and put it to Acosta-Sanchez’s head. “I was like, ‘F–k you . . . I’m turning you in.’” He ordered the fugitive to walk up a hill to another house so the neighbors, he thought, could call 911.
Acosta-Sanchez begged Carlson to let him go. He laid on the ground, crying, “Don’t shoot!”
Carlson fired a shot into the ground to make him get up, he recalled. “I didn’t want to shoot him at all.” He yelled for the next door neighbors, but no one was home. Carlson fired another shot in the ground to force Acosta-Sanchez to keep moving.
He then marched Acosta-Sanchez down Old Plank Road to a tiny clapboard house, where a neighbor, Carmine Ferrara, lived.
According to Carlson, as he turned and yelled, “Carmine!” Acosta-Sanchez started coming at him. Carlson fired, shooting his prisoner in the left arm. Acosta-Sanchez yelled in pain, “You f- -k!”
“That’s where I should have stopped, but I didn’t,” Carlson later told cops.
As the two men faced off about five feet apart, he said, Acosta-Sanchez lunged at him. Carlson shot Acosta-Sanchez in the head.
Corroborating Carlson’s account, Ferrara said he peeked out the window in that instant and saw Carlson “backpedaling” up a slope, almost falling backward, while Acosta-Sanchez moved toward him.
Carlson was so traumatized he told cops that day, “I’m a murderer, basically.”
The Westchester DA’s Office, which prosecuted Carlson, called it vigilante justice. He “chose to take the law into his own hands,” killing an unarmed man without provocation, the DA argued.
Carlson’s attorneys said it was self-defense. “If this happened in Brooklyn, they’d throw this guy a party,” Mazzariello said.
In November 2016, an Orange County jury acquitted Carlson of murder, but found him guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Judge Freehill sentenced Carlson to five years in prison, freeing him pending appeal. Carlson’s Sparrow Bush neighbors put up their homes to post a $500,000 bond.
Acosta-Sanchez’s mother, Rosario Sanchez, told the court at Carlson’s sentencing her son died in a “cruel, vile and absurd manner.” She was not present for the judge’s verdict Thursday in Carlson’s second trial, which came after an appellate panel in August 2018 overturned the 2016 conviction.
Carlson and his lawyers, Ben Ostrer and Mazzariello — who worked pro bono because they believed in Carlson’s innocence — opted for a nonjury trial before Judge Freehill the second time.
For now, Carlson said he plans to play his guitars, fish, hike, and spend time with his three kids.
“Everything seems a little better . . . tastes better,” he says.
He’s grateful for his lawyers’ perseverance, and counts his blessings for “dear friends” like Wilbur and Carol Eckes, who put up properties to keep him out of jail, and will now rent him a three-bedroom house down the road.
“I have my freedom,” Carlson said. “I’m going to try and look at this as a fresh start, move on. But I’m never going to be able to completely move on. It’s always going to haunt me.”