The courtroom erupted in cries of "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" when a Ramsey County jury late Wednesday acquitted Aaron W. Foster in his girlfriend's death in a case that stretches back more than 27 years.

It was Barbara (Bobbi) Winn's family members who did most of the shouting. Several young men stormed out of the courtroom, swearing. Several jurors sobbed as the verdict was read.

District Judge Edward J. Cleary immediately told Foster, 56, that he was free to go, and he and his attorney, Earl Gray, ducked into Cleary's chambers.

Foster, who has not been in custody, had no comment when he left the courthouse later.

Winn died from a single gunshot wound to the chest early on May 8, 1981, in the Maplewood townhouse that she shared with her three children and on and off with Foster.

No charges were brought in 1981, but the case was reopened in 2006 by the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office during a contentious election for sheriff between Sheriff Bob Fletcher and former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney, a longtime friend of Foster's who was called to testify during the trial.

Foster was indicted by a grand jury in November on charges of third-degree murder.

The verdict did nothing to assuage the Winn family's belief that Foster killed her.

"If this had been done when it should have been done, in 1981, Foster would have been in prison," Patty Bruce, Winn's sister-in-law and the family's spokeswoman, said after the verdict. "He got away with it.

"It doesn't change what happened, though. He murdered her. He's a murderer."

Foster maintained all along that Winn shot herself. During his closing argument Wednesday morning, defense attorney Earl Gray used a toy gun to illustrate how she could have gripped the gun with both hands and fired the fatal shot.

What is clear about the night Winn died is that she and Foster argued at the Tipsy Tiger bar and she told him to move out.

Winn's sons, 15 and 12 at the time, testified last week that they were awakened by the argument and sounds of a struggle after their mother returned home. Tyrone Winn, the younger son, said he heard a loud noise -- the gunshot -- then heard his mother say, "Oh Bubbie, that hurt."

The boys ran into their mother's bedroom to find Foster running out. Their mother was slumped over at the waist in a corner of the room.

Tyrone testified that Foster told the boys, "Look out, she shot herself."

How the prosecution saw it

Prosecutor Andrew Johnson said after the verdict that he and co-prosecutor Deidre Aanstad were "disappointed but we respect the [jury's] decision."

Prosecutors had argued that Winn was not suicidal. In fact, they said, she was happy she was finally breaking free of Foster and planned to get a restraining order against him.

The crime likely played out this way, Johnson told jurors Wednesday morning: Foster was already angry with Winn because she'd told him to move out. He beat her up and may have put the gun to her chest to scare or intimidate her. There was a struggle and the gun went off.

Finney testified last week about an incident of domestic violence he witnessed between the couple in Finney's car in December 1980.

During his closing, Johnson again showed the jury photos of fresh bruises and abrasions on Winn's face, arm and hands.

Anoka County Medical Examiner Janis Amatuzio testified that the injuries were inflicted within an hour of Winn's death. But both Amatuzio, who reviewed the case in 2007, and Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael B. McGee, who performed the autopsy the day Winn died, said they could not exclude suicide, homicide or accident in Winn's death. The manner of her death is "undetermined," both said.

Gray told jurors Wednesday that it took 27 years but Foster "finally got his day in court."

In his closing argument, Gray reiterated that gunshot residue was found on both of Winn's hands but not on Foster's.

He asked jurors to look at the credibility of witnesses, their interest in the outcome and their inconsistent statements.

A lot was missing

All the physical evidence in the case was destroyed or lost long ago, but Cleary allowed photographs of some items admitted into evidence. Many of Foster's statements to police the night Winn died were suppressed because police did not read him his rights.

Grady Meadows, former owner of the Tipsy Tiger, testified that he saw Foster slap Winn at the bar and threaten her the night she died. Winn's sister, Earmel Jean Tatum, said she saw Foster slap Winn in the face, and family friend Brenda Jones said Winn was holding her face as though she'd been slapped. But all said they never talked to police until the case was reopened in 2006-07.

Winn's brother, Calvin Bruce, was at the bar, too, and talked to police. He testified he didn't see Foster hit or threaten his sister, Gray reminded jurors.

As for the others, "They lied," Gray said. "They lied to help the Winn family."

When Foster told Winn's sons, "Look out, your mother just shot herself," he was warning the boys that she had a gun, not making up excuses, Gray said.

And "Oh, Bubbie, that hurt," is not something someone would say to a man who just shot her, he argued.

"All of my client's actions were those of an innocent man," Gray said. "There's only one possible verdict in this case."

Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551