Erick Shute took the stand in his own defense on Wednesday, July 18, during the third day of his trial for murder in Morgan County Circuit Court.
Shute was the first of three defense witnesses that testified on Wednesday. Shute was on the stand for 45 minutes. Linda Shute, the mother of the accused, and a high school friend of Shute also testified briefly. The entire defense case last just under an hour.
Speaking in halting and sometimes fast-paced phrases, Erick Shute answered questions from defense attorney Andrew Arnold about the events of June 13, 2016.
On that day, in a subdivision west of Great Cacapon, Shute shot and killed three men – Jack Douglas, Travis Bartley and William Bartley.
Shute appeared eager to answer questions and recount his version of the neighbor dispute that ended in the men’s deaths. At one point during his testimony, he stood and acted out different scenarios in the dispute and his perception that the victims were going to shoot or injure him.
The 35-year-old has admitted to killing the men by shooting them with a military-style 5.56 mm rifle from his side of a fence dividing his mother’s property from that of the late Clarence McBee.
Douglas and the Bartley’s were on McBee’s property at the request of the owners at the time they were killed.
Shute told the jury that he didn’t know the men had permission to be on the property, and thought they were stealing from the residence. If they had proved they had a right to be on the property, Shute said, “they would be alive today.”
“Basically this whole thing happened out of fear, miscommunication and misrepresentation,” Shute told the jury.
He said if the men had just said they were checking on the property, “this whole thing would never have happened.”
Asked how he felt about the killings, Shute loudly exclaimed, “Horrible. I did not want this. It’s like I was not myself.”
Looking at the gathered families of the victims, Shute said in an emotional voice, “I would do anything to take this back, to give you back your family.”
During questioning, Shute’s attorney asked if, during the last two years, he had seen any other way the events of June 13 could have gone. He said no, and blamed the men for not telling him clearly they had permission to be on the McBee property.
Shute said he knew that William Bartley normally carried a revolver and believed the other men could have been armed.
Shute said his argument with William Bartley over the property fence ended when Bartley walked away, after saying he wasn’t afraid of Shute or his gun. At that point, Douglas told the men he was calling the police.
Shute told the jury he didn’t believe Douglas when he said he was calling 911. Instead, he believed that Douglas had signaled to the Bartley’s to “get him.” He said he then saw Travis Bartley reach into the pickup truck for something.
Shute said he shot Travis Bartley first, then Jack Douglas, then Travis Bartley a second time, and then Travis’ father, William Bartley.
During earlier testimony on Wednesday, the state’s Medical Examiner told the jury that Travis Bartley was shot in the right abdomen and the back, Douglas was shot once in the upper back and William Bartley was shot in the face and neck.
“In my mind, it’s three versus one,” Shute said. “What am I supposed to do? I almost died that day. What was I supposed to do?”
Arnold asked Shute why he had approached the property line armed with the Tavor assault-type rifle on the day of the killings.
“To observe, to keep an eye on the property, to defend the property,” Shute said.
Under questioning, Shute admitted that after shooting the men, he climbed over the fence at his property line and looked at the bodies of the victims. He told the jury he saw a cell phone in Douglas’ hand and checked to see if he had, in fact, called 911.
Shute said when he saw that Douglas had dialed 911, he left.
“I wasn’t prepared to talk to the police,” he said.
Shute went back to his property, where he said he dropped Douglas’ cell phone into a water tub in the yard.
Shute testified that he hadn’t intended to kill the men when he walked to the property line with his rifle, and had no ill will toward them.
Prosecutor Dan James disputed that claim, reminding the jury that Shute had referred to the men as “scumbags” in several recorded conversations and had told his mother after the killings that he had “taken out the trash,” in reference to Douglas and the Bartley’s.
James also asked about the collection of guns collected by police from Shute’s trailer. Shute claimed they belonged to his mother and her friend Jeff. He said he didn’t know much about guns and didn’t buy any because he didn’t have any money and hadn’t had a real job in eight years.
James asked how Shute could have shot the men so accurately from a range of at least 70 feet if he wasn’t an experienced shooter. Shute said he didn’t believe he was that far away from the men when he shot them.
Attorneys for both the defense and prosecution are expected to make closing arguments in the case on Wednesday afternoon. The jury will begin deliberations after closing arguments.
Shute faces three counts of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.