Emotional testimony

Bobby Slatt of Four States shows a jury Wednesday where he was shot with birdshot at close range last May 16. Slatt was testifying against Dale A. Eagle Sr., the man accused of fatally shooting his parents, Robert Slatt Sr. and Tanna Slatt.

Robert T. “Bobby” Slatt Jr., then 31, remembers seeing Dale A. Eagle Sr. walking easily across the fields in front of the Slatts’ two-story wooden farmhouse in Four States last May 16.

Eagle was carrying a rifle on his shoulder, “and he was just looking around, checking everything out,” the junior Slatt told a jury Wednesday.

“Then I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s coming after me,’” said Slatt. He had just come downstairs after running upstairs to his parents’ bedroom to call 911 for help.

He was at the door to the porch, ready to go back outside and check on his badly wounded father, Robert Slatt Sr., he said.

At that point, the memories became too much, and Bobby Slatt cried on the witness stand.

His testimony about what he saw of the last minutes of his parents’ lives and how he said he escaped death by playing dead as Eagle later shot him repeatedly at close range with birdshot in his parent’s bedroom capped the state’s case against Eagle.

Chief Detective Doris James of the Marion County Sheriff’s Department followed Slatt to the stand and was the last of the state’s 17 witnesses.

Prosecutor Patrick N. Wilson then rested his case against Eagle, 63.

Eagle is charged with two counts of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Robert Slatt Sr., 56, and his wife Tanna Slatt, 52, at about 2:30 p.m. on May 16. He is also charged with shooting and wounding Bobby Slatt in the same attack.

The younger Slatt is now blind in his right eye. Tiny birdshot entrance and exit wounds resulted in a detached retina, he said.

James B. Zimarowski, Eagle’s defense lawyer, told the five-man, seven-woman jury in his opening statement Tuesday that Eagle would testify in his own defense.

Judge David R. Janes said the trial will resume at 9 a.m. today with the defense case. Janes told Eagle on Tuesday that the defendant alone will decide whether to testify.

Even if Zimarowski were to counsel him to stay silent, Eagle can still decide to testify, the judge said.

He also has the right not to testify, since it’s up to the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty as charged, Janes said.

Bobby Slatt needed nearly a 10-minute break Wednesday afternoon when he lost his composure.

His father had grown up on the 117-acre farm, set on a plateau one steep ridge away from the Four States County Road. Back then, it was a working farm with horses and pigs, Slatt said.

“Aunt Mary” Slatt — she was a spinster cousin of his father’s — owned the farm. She was a surrogate mother for his father when his father’s mother died of cancer when he was only 4, Slatt said.

His family constantly visited Aunt Mary and the farm when Slatt’s father later got a job in a Ford factory in Lorain, Ohio, near Cleveland.

When Aunt Mary died in 2002, she left the farm to his father.

“Dad’s dream was to restore the farm back to the way it was” as a working farm, he said. His parents didn’t want horses or pigs, feeling that was too much work for them, however, he said.

They chose to raise alpacas. Slightly larger than a sheep and with a longer neck, alpacas are a domesticated version of the South American vicuna. They are valued for their fleece, according to Wikipedia, an on-line encyclopedia.

His father had retired from the Ford factory shortly before Aunt Mary died, Slatt said. His mother, a travel agent, had also retired from her job.

He himself was taking classes at the University of South Carolina. His parents, particularly his mother, wanted him to come live with them, he said.

His father offered to pay his tuition and let him live rent free if he would help with the farm and with the remodeling of the farmhouse.

He agreed. Slatt enrolled for a semester at West Virginia University before transferring to Fairmont State University. He is majoring in political science with a minor in public administration.

On that fateful Tuesday, he was following his usual routine, running and working out. He also was finishing up a 30-second video on the just-released “Da Vinci Code” movie for a church class.

His mother went down the narrow, one-lane drive to the Four States Post office to pick up the mail.

When she returned, she told him she was going to make chicken and rice for dinner, and that she and his father were going to the store. He could come with them, she suggested.

He declined, telling her about the video he wanted to send to a fellow church member.

“They kissed me, they hugged me and told me they loved me, and I watched them go out the door. I went upstairs and got on my computer,” Slatt testified. He was “clicking away” on the computer keyboard.

“The windows were open ... I heard our vehicle go down the road. Then it got quiet. There was a short pause. Then I heard two loud shots.”

In his opening statement, Zimarowski said Eagle said the vehicle was racing at him and that Tanna Slatt “opened her (front passenger) door ... she was yelling, screaming, cussing” at him, the defense lawyer said.

Asked Wednesday by Wilson if he heard any yelling or screaming, Slatt said no.

He didn’t want to believe he had heard gunshots. They had just had a new natural gas line to a well installed and “maybe it was just a ‘pop’” or two, he rationalized.

He went downstairs and went out on the back porch.

“I saw our Explorer coming back (in reverse),” he said. “It went straight ... then it went into the ditch.”

He ran down to it, approaching it on the passenger side. “I could see something blue and white laying in the road” some distance ahead of the where the vehicle had stopped. He said he knew it was his mother.

“ ‘Dad, what’s going on? Dad, what’s going on?’” Slatt said.

His father was slumped forward over the wheel in obvious distress. Heaving himself back up against the driver’s seatback, his father’s last words to him were, “Call 911, call 911,” Slatt said.

“So, I looked up at the end of the road (where his mother was lying on her face), and I looked at him,” he said, in obvious distress.

He raced back to the farmhouse, thinking briefly of looking for one of the portable phones before racing upstairs to his parents’ master bedroom on the second floor and their landline.

He called 911, telling the dispatcher “Dale Eagle shot my parents, and we need help.”

When he left his father, “Dad was trying to get out (of the Explorer). I was hoping he would make it back to the house. I went out on the porch and I,” and that’s when he lowered his head to his lap and started sobbing.

When he returned to the stand, Slatt said he could see his father lying on his back in the graveled one-lane drive. “He was laying in the driveway face up. He wasn’t moving.”

As he had first gone upstairs to call for help, he had heard two more “pops” or gunshots, he said.

When he spotted his motionless father, “I just said, ‘No.’”

Eagle crossed in front of where he was standing on the porch. “He didn’t even notice me.”

That’s when he realized Eagle might be coming after him, he said.

“I went in the kitchen. I grabbed a knife,” he said. He was trying to find a place to hide. He went up to the master bedroom and looked in a back closet. He found it packed with some baby ducklings.

“ ‘This is great, I have no place to hide,’” he thought to himself, smiling wryly about finding the baby ducklings.

He thought about running, but “Dale Eagle is a very good hunter.”

He thought if he could find a confined space, Eagle might be discouraged in attacking him. He decided to go to his bedroom and drag some bookcases out and spill them across the floor, Slatt said.

But on his way out of the doorway to his parents’ bedroom, he saw “Dale standing at the foot of the stairs.”

Slatt froze. “I just stood in the doorway. The next thing I know there went a ‘pop,’ and I go backwards. I fell back into the room.”

He sank to the floor. He started crawling. “I was on all fours.”

There was another “pop” and “I felt something burn my back.”

“I hit the floor and I just laid there.”

He thought if he just laid there and stopped moving, “maybe Dale will leave me alone.” Slatt was now feeling “a massive burning on (the right) of my head.”

“He never said a word. After he shot me (again) on the (right side) of my face,” Slatt said he sensed Eagle leaning over him, bending toward him.

“ You think you can intimidate me? You want to make fun of me now?” he heard Eagle say, Slatt said.

He remembers hearing four shots during the encounter.

Police have said Eagle was using birdshot or buckshot in a .38 caliber pistol. Slatt said Wednesday he was wounded only three times.

He heard the phone ringing and ringing, but he was afraid to answer it because he felt Eagle was still in the house and might hear him.

As the moments passed and the pain set in, growing in intensity and he started to become lightheaded from the loss of blood, Slatt moved cautiously.

He looked out a second-floor window, and “I saw my Dad laying there ...” He started thinking about his younger brother Chris who was living in South Dakota.

If he didn’t make it, Slatt said, he had to tell Chris what had happened. He called Chris and left a voice mail, telling his brother Eagle had done it, and that their parents and he loved him and to “always remember that.”

Slatt said he then started getting angry. He went in the bathroom and wrapped his bleeding head in a towel. He told himself to keep moving, and he started calling 911 for police help again and again.

He waited to leave the house until he heard voices in the fields around the farmhouse talking on CB radios.

He asked paramedics and police several times about his parents. “I said, ‘I want to see my Dad.’” They told him to sit down so they could start treating his wounds.

Eventually, they told him “they didn’t make it,” he said.

Crying again, Slatt told the jury he then had this urgent need to tell his dead parents something. He left unsaid that he knew how much his parents had loved him and Chris.

“I just wanted to let them know I was OK.”

Zimarowski did not cross examine Slatt.

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

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