Eagle takes stand in his own defense

Dale A. Eagle Sr. testified Thursday in his own defense. A five-man, seven-woman jury in Judge David R. Janes’ courtroom is expected to begin deliberating today on the two murder charges Eagle is facing for the May 16 shooting deaths of Robert and Tanna Slatt. Eagle is also charged with shooting and wounding their son, Bobby Slatt Jr., in the same incident.

Saying he was panicked and accusing Robert and Tanna Slatt of trying to run him down in their sport utility vehicle, Dale A. Eagle Sr. said Thursday he thought Robert Slatt was reaching for a gun when he shot him in his left arm.

“My mind wasn’t working right. In my mind, I thought it was either him or me,” Eagle said as he testified in his own defense.

“I wish it never happened. I’d give anything to change it,” he said. “If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t do it.”

Slatt, 56, was driving the late-model blue Ford Explorer XLT. The vehicle had sped past his position — Eagle said he had to scamper up an embankment to get out of its way — by about 50 feet to 100 feet.

A 63-year-old former coal miner, Eagle had a massive heart attack in 1993. He is also diabetic. Eagle said he was already winded from an earlier climb up a ridgetop.

“I was bent over, trying to get my breath” after getting out of the way, Eagle told the five-man, seven-woman jury in Judge David R. Janes’s court.

The jury will begin its deliberations today after Prosecutor Patrick N. Wilson and James B. Zimarowski, Eagle’s defense lawyer, make their closing arguments.

Eagle said he had hiked up a steep and narrow lane from his house at the intersection of Four States County Road and Dora Lane to go coyote hunting on the afternoon of last May 16.

He and the Slatts had been feuding over the graveled path for nearly two years. Originally a natural gas line right of way across his property, Eagle said the Slatts had been claiming it as an easement to serve as their driveway to the hard road.

Since a fight between the two men in the summer of 2004, Eagle had been fighting their asserted claim. Zimarowski had been his lawyer in the dispute since at least January 2005, according to earlier testimony.

It seemed like every time the case was ready to go to court, the Slatts would replace their lawyer, the Eagles believed.

Eagle said his 30.06 deer rifle, a bolt-action model, was slung over his shoulder. There were three shells in it, he said.

A friend had mentioned talk of coyotes lurking around a neighborhood dump. Eagle said he wanted to check it out. He had a .38 caliber pistol in his pocket, but it was loaded with birdshot shells for snakes and rats.

The walk from his house took him over a ridgetop and to a plateau, ringed by even higher ridges.

The Slatts’ two-story wooden farmhouse, which they were remodeling, and their 117-acre farm took up most of the plateau, but several acres of it also belonged to Eagle, part of his 10-acre parcel.

The Slatts backed up their vehicle, he said.

“Tanna jumped out of the car,” he said, leaving the front passenger door open.

“She was calling me ‘hillbilly trash,’ ‘trailer trash,’ ‘you SOB,’ and different things,” Eagle said.

“She was running around. She was waving or doing something with her hands and saying things like, ‘Let’s kill him, Bob, kill him, Bob.’”

For nearly two years, the couple had harassed him, Eagle claimed. In the summer of 2004, Robert Slatt had sucker-punched him once, knocking him about 8 feet down an embankment and into a brier patch, he said. “No Trespassing” signs he had posted on his property had been torn down.

The Slatts had also been videotaping him on his own property, and Robert Slatt, while driving past him once, had lowered his window and said he was going to kill him, Eagle said.

About two months earlier, Slatt had again knocked him down in a fight outside the Four States post office, Eagle said.

“I was very fearful. I was nervous ... cause I know they didn’t like me. He just wanted to hurt and kill me,” he said he believed.

“She was hollering, and he started reaching down” like he was going for a gun in the vehicle, Eagle said. Eagle shot at him first, he said.

“I tried to shoot him in the left arm,” he said.

The shot tore a chunk of muscle and tissue from Slatt’s upper left arm, Dr. Zia Sabet testified Wednesday. A forensic pathologist with the state’s chief medical examiner’s office in Charleston, Sabet said fragments of the bullet or pellets of glass then left grooved tracks across Slatt’s chest. The shot was not the fatal shot, he said.

Eagle said he then shot Tanna Slatt, 52.

“I don’t know why I shot her,” he said. “I just held up (the rifle) and shot her. She fell down.”

The pathologist said there were three entrance wounds on her because the bullet fragmented when it hit her humerus or upper left arm bone.

One was where the bullet struck her left arm bone, he said. The other entrance wounds were on her left breast and chest. The fragments hit part of her aortic artery and her left lung. The path of the bullet and its fragments were left to right, slightly downward and from front to back on her body, Sabet said.

Slatt then went forward slightly and then backed up the vehicle, Eagle said. On cross examination by Wilson, Eagle said it seemed to him that Slatt went forward twice and backward twice, running over his wife’s body both times.

“I couldn’t see her, but I saw the front end go up and back down twice, and that’s what I thought,” Eagle said.

He couldn’t look at her body, he said.

Meanwhile, the Explorer continued to retreat, reversing back down the lane toward the Slatts’ barn and farmhouse.

Eagle said he saw Robert T. “Bobby” Slatt Jr., 31, come out of the house. The couple’s son ran to the passenger side of the vehicle. It appeared he may have gotten in it, Eagle said. He saw the son run back to the house.

He then saw the father running into the barn.

“All of a sudden, he bolted out the door” of the barn. He was running toward the house, Eagle said.

He fired another shot, loosely aiming the rifle to fire it in the air in the general direction of the elder Slatt to “scare him,” Eagle said.

The distance was about 300 yards, Eagle estimated. Wilson asked him to show how he was holding the rifle on that third shot.

Sitting in the witness chair, Eagle then held the rifle like a guitar.

“I didn’t try to aim it,” he said, but the bullet felled Slatt anyway.

Eagle’s account of the bullet’s path and Dr. Sabet’s differ greatly. Eagle said it was his understanding the bullet went up in the air and came down and struck Slatt in the back of his neck and then went down his body.

The pathologist said the fatal shot hit Slatt in his lower right back. It then entered his abdominal cavity, tore his aortic artery, and went into the stomach. It then traveled into the left part of the heart and into his left lung.

The path was “back to front, right to left and upward,” Sabet testified.

Eagle said he was “like in a trance,” saying he doesn’t remember much about walking into the Slatts’ house and shooting Bobby Slatt with the .38 caliber loads of birdshot.

The younger Slatt testified Wednesday, saying his father’s last words to him were to go call 911.

The son, who said he had heard the first two shots from his bedroom, said he had also heard two more shots while running back to the house to call for help.

When he spotted Eagle crossing the fields surrounding the farmhouse, he had gone into the kitchen and grabbed a knife, Slatt said. He then went back upstairs to his parents’ bedroom, looking for a place to hide.

Slatt said Eagle shot at him four times, wounding him three times, while he was in the master bedroom. The last time he was shot, he was lying motionless on the floor, pretending to be dead, he said.

Eagle bent over him. Eagle then asked him, “You think you can intimidate me? You want to make fun of me now?” the son testified.

Eagle said Thursday he doesn’t remember saying that or much else about the encounter. He said he saw Bobby Slatt “come running through the house with that knife sticking up.”

“If anybody would have raised a flag, I would have stopped ...,” he said.

“I shot at him ...” Eagle said he was tired. “I had to use the bathroom. I grabbed me a rag and took off up the hill” to defecate in the woods.

o o o o o o

Earlier Thursday, Zimarowski called Rose Eagle, Eagle’s wife, to testify.

She agreed with him that the altercation in the “berry-picking incident” in the summer of 2004 soured the heretofore good relationship between the neighbors.

Eagle himself testified that about two weeks before that dispute, he had been working with Robert Slatt Sr. They spent the day picking raspberries. At the end of the day, the elder Slatt insisted he come in the farmhouse to see the progress on its remodeling.

Suddenly, Slatt started saying “somebody” was stealing items from his buildings. Eagle said he remembers Slatt was wearing a Luger pistol on his side, and he was tapping the gun throughout and pointing his fingers at him.

Saying a screwdriver and a box of (roofing) staples were missing, Slatt started getting red in the face, Eagle said. Slatt’s son got in between them and urged his father not to do anything.

Protesting he didn’t know anything, Eagle said he quickly left and avoided going back up on the ridge near the Slatt farm for about seven to 10 days.

When Rose Eagle wanted to go four-wheeling, however, he reluctantly agreed, and they set off for the berry patch.

Within minutes, he heard another four-wheeler approaching.

Slatt got off it and started in again about the alleged thefts, Eagle said. Without warning, Slatt punched him, knocking him over an embankment about 8 feet. He came to rest on his back with his head below his legs.

“My wife got on him” as Slatt continued to pummel him around the head, Eagle said. She was shouting about his bad heart and trying to pull Slatt off him. Slatt stopped then and left on his four-wheeler.

The incident plunged Eagle into depression, his wife said. He began going to counseling. “He was scared of Bob Slatt,” she said.

He was losing weight and crying at night, she said. The Slatts started digging up fresh gravel on the lane, which the gas company spread to fill potholes on the part that crossed their property, she said.

They also started tearing down “no trespassing signs.”

The Eagles started calling the sheriffs’ department, but their complaints were largely ignored, she claimed. At one point, they tried to sell their home, but found no takers.

After the March 2 fight at the post office, her husband “just gave up,” taking down the signs himself, Rose said.

After finally getting an appointment with Wilson, they were told “he didn’t think he could be the prosecuting attorney on it,” she said.

Weeks passed and nothing happened, she said.

On cross-examination, Wilson, referring to police incident reports, cited multiple examples of many different deputies who had investigated various complaints to police by the Eagles — and not all of them about the Slatts.

The Eagles’ problem with deputies and other law enforcement agencies was that after talking to both sides, the investigating officers decided the Eagles’ claims could not be proved or did not merit an arrest, the prosecutor said.

The Slatts were considering filing a cross complaint against the Eagles for the post office fight, he said.

Wilson asked Rose Eagle if she remembered a January 2005 meeting in his office when Wilson got the Eagles, the Slatts and Zimarowski together to discuss the dispute.

An objection by Zimarowski ended that question.

But Wilson got Rose Eagle to agree that he indeed, as prosecutor, had been monitoring the dispute for quite some time. He had known their son, Dale Eagle Jr., for about 15 years, starting when both of them took kung fu lessons together. Because of the friendship and his prior role in mediating the dispute over the road, he would have a conflict of interest in prosecuting any complaint by the Eagles, Wilson indicated.

In meeting with them after the post office fight, Wilson said he told the Eagles it was possible a special prosecutor would also approve a cross complaint being filed against them. In that case, two special prosecutors would need to be found, he said.

Wilson also got Rose Eagle to agree that he had told them he did not think a special prosecutor would agree to file a felony charge against the Slatts.

He also told the Eagles the next county grand jury would not meet until June, which was the earliest a special prosecutor could get an indictment, Wilson said.

E-mail Bill Byrd at bbyrd@timeswv.com.

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