‘America must not fail’

Vice President Dick Cheney (left) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. watch as President Bush delivers the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

Dale A. Eagle Sr.’s own actions and words on the afternoon of May 16 when he shot and killed his neighbors and then shot and wounded their son belie his claim that he was acting in self-defense, Marion County Prosecutor Patrick N. Wilson claims.

Eagle shot Robert and Tanna Slatt like a hunter would deer on a farm, he said Tuesday in his opening statement to a jury.

Wilson started by quoting from some of the statements Eagle voluntarily gave police after his arrest:

“‘I walked up to him (Robert Slatt Sr.) and kicked him in the head. ... An ought-six makes a big hole. ... That was a good shot and a good hole in him.’”

“It’s not unusual to hear statements like that from hunters,” the prosecutor said. “Growing up in Plum Run as a boy, I heard plenty of statements like that” from deer hunters, Wilson said.

But this time the hunted were human beings, he said.

An on-going dispute between the retired couple and Eagle over a right of way across his property was not justification for their murders, Wilson said.

Eagle had refused to accept a legal opinion that the Slatts had every right to use the narrow, one-lane track leading to their farmhouse, the prosecutor said.

Deputies from the Marion County Sheriff’s Department and State Police troopers who responded to repeated calls from the Eagles making complaints about the Slatts’ use of the road made the same decision each time, Wilson said.

“The police would give the same advice: ‘Look people, you need to get along. This is a property dispute, and you need to get a decision in civil court.”

As for a fight between Eagle and Robert Slatt Sr. at the Four States post office about two months before the fatal encounter, Wilson told the five-man, seven-woman jury that Eagle got only a “black eye and a bloody nose.”

“There is no self-defense in this case,” the prosecutor declared.

The evidence will show that the Slatts’ vehicle was stopped when Eagle opened fire on them with a 30.06 caliber bolt-action rifle, he said.

Eagle was firing from an embankment above the lane. He made the killing shot on Robert Slatt from “quite a distance,” striking Slatt in the back as he was running back to his farmhouse.

Wilson said Eagle’s actions and words meet the tests of all the elements of the law on first-degree murder.

After shooting the couple, he walked several hundred feet to the couple’s farmhouse, climbed the stairs to the second floor master bedroom and, using birdshot shells in a .38 caliber handgun, he shot Bobby Slatt several times.

“He repeatedly shot (the son) in the front, in the back and the back of his neck ... (and while the son) was playing dead, he shot him in the face,” Wilson said.

The state will also show that the first thing Eagle did when he walked back off a hill to his home where Dora Lane meets the Four States County road was to call his lawyer, Wilson said.

Robert “Bobby” Slatt Jr., 31, the Slatts’ son, is expected to testify today against Eagle. Judge David R. Janes said the trial will resume at 9 a.m.

James B. Zimarowski, Eagle’s defense lawyer, urged the jury to consider Eagle’s state of mind.

Eagle, who had a weak heart and was diabetic, was provoked, he said. Eagle believed he was being threatened by the Slatts, and that police and the prosecutor’s office were failing to protect him, Zimarowski argued.

Eagle and his wife will testify later this week, he told the jury.

Zimarowski said a murder conviction requires proof of not only an overt act, but also a determination as to the defendant’s mental state.

He cited a landmark 1770 criminal trial in American history.

Future President John Adams, then an experienced trial lawyer, was defending a band of British soldiers in Boston.

Adams won the “Boston Massacre” case by proving the Redcoats were provoked to open fire on a crowd by some “rowdy patriots” in the throng.

Trials showed the British fired because they were acting in self-defense. Only two of eight sentries were convicted and then only for manslaughter. Their captain was found innocent.

The verdicts made Adams hugely unpopular for a time, but the principle their cases represent still stands, Zimarowski said.

He also outlined a sharply different version of the dispute over the narrow, one-lane graveled track that climbs a ridge to the Slatts’ 200-acre alpaca farm and which both families used as a driveway.

Eagle, 63, is a disabled coal miner who had to retire in 1993 because he had a massive heart attack, the defense lawyer said. He hiked and hunted the ridges and woods near his home daily because his doctors told him to stay active.

Showing the jury a blown-up photo of Eagle strapped to a backboard with a bandage around his head following the fight at the post office, Zimarowski said Eagle “was not the kind of person to take a beating.”

“The facts will show the Slatts knew about that” (Eagle’s medical problems), Zimarowski said.

He also challenged the police investigation of the shootings. He claimed deputies and Wilson’s office failed to investigate Eagle’s side of the fight at the post office.

Zimarowski said he considers the police failure to get a complaint from Eagle about the fight was a case of mis- or non-feasance, not malfeasance.

The Eagles called the sheriff’s office repeatedly, asking when a deputy would be sent to get their complaint against the Slatts, he said.

The Eagles were then “glad-handed” by the prosecutor’s office, he suggested, when they went to discuss their problem with the Slatts.

Weeks had passed since the post office fight. The Eagles felt police and the prosecutor’s office were not doing anything, he said.

“What do you do when the state fails to protect you?” Zimaroswski asked.

Eagle will testify he was up on the ridgetop near the Slatts’ farm hunting coyotes that afternoon, the defense lawyer said.

The Slatts, who were coming from their farmhouse, “speeded up” their vehicle when they saw him.

“Mrs. Slatt opened her (front passenger) door ... she was yelling, screaming, cussing” at Eagle, Zimarowski said.

“Were they trying to induce him to have (another) heart attack?” Zimarowski wondered.

No one will ever know exactly what happened, he said.

Eagle, who has been wearing a black suit since the trial started Monday, cupped his head in his left hand and wiped tears from his eyes as Zimarowski continued his argument.

The narrow lane is actually a gas line right of way that dates back a long time, Zimarowski said.

When Mary Slatt, a cousin of the Slatts, lived in the farmhouse at the top of the ridge, the agreement between the neighbors was that Eagle could hunt on her property and she could use the right of way as a driveway to Four States County Road, he said.

In 2002, Robert and Tanna Slatt inherited the farmhouse.

They, too, got along with Eagle. He helped put in a water line to the farmhouse — without pay, Zimarowski said. The Slatts and Eagle also worked together on the road.

In 2004, though, Slatt accused Eagle of taking some tools from the grounds of the farmhouse. The couple was remodeling the wooden, two-story house at the time.

The Slatts told Eagle he could no longer hunt on their property. In return, the Eagles told the Slatts they could no longer use the right of way, Zimarowski claimed.

In the fall of that year, “the lawyers got involved.”

But there never were any legal proceedings, he said. It seemed every time the case was ready to go to court, and thus result in a final, court-sanctioned resolution, the Slatts would hire another lawyer and the dispute would start another cycle, Zimarowski suggested.

All the while, Eagle was afraid of Bob Slatt’s temper, he said.

Contrary to Wilson’s characterization of the fight at the post office, Eagle was hospitalized for three days because of it, the defense lawyer said.

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

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