by Kate Shunney
Morgan County’s Prosecuting Attorney opened the murder trial of Erick Shute on Monday, July 16 by telling a Morgan County jury of nine men and three women that the 35-year-old Great Cacapon man “took the law into his own hands” on June 13, 2016 when he shot and killed three men on a neighboring property.
Dan James delivered a 25-minute opening statement to the jury shortly before lunchtime on Monday. Jury selection went faster than anticipated, letting the prosecution launch into the case, which is expected to continue throughout the week. Jurors were selected from a pool of 77 who packed into the courtroom Monday morning.
Circuit Judge Steve Redding is presiding over the trial.
Shute faces three counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
He is accused of shooting Jack Douglas, Travis Bartley and William Bartley with an assault-type rifle as the three men were checking on a property that borders Shute’s. A fourth man, Terry Lee Marks, escaped the shooting and ran for help. Marks is expected to testify in the trial.
Shute has argued that he killed the men in self-defense, claiming they had threatened him with violence and tampered with the brakes on a truck he was known to drive.
Prosecutor Dan James told the jury that none of the shooting victims were armed and no weapons were recovered from the pickup truck they had driven onto the property of the late Clarence McBee on June 13.
James told the jury the three men were on the property because McBee’s family, who lived out of state, wanted Jack Douglas to keep an eye on the place.
James showed crime scene photos of the three victims lying dead on either side of Douglas’ pickup truck.
Shute, he argued, had words with the men about why they were there, then shot them with a rifle from his property, roughly 70 feet away.
James also showed the jury post-mortem photos of the victims and their gunshot wounds during his 25-minute opening statement. Douglas had been shot in the back, Travis Bartley was shot in the back and side and William Bartley was shot in the face and neck.
Defense attorney Andrew Arnold told the jury that much of the evidence in the case against his client is not in dispute.
He said Shute didn’t know the men were authorized to be on the property and thought they were at the neighboring trailer to burglarize it. Arnold told the jury that a murder verdict would require them to find Shute had malice and ill-will toward the victims at the time he shot them.
Arnold said Shute was in fear for his life after the men got into a heated argument on the afternoon of June 13.
“In his fight or flight moment, he chose fight,” said Arnold as he closed his 10-minute statement. Arnold called the deaths “tragic.”
Erick Shute was seated in the courtroom next to his attorneys dressed in a suit and tie.
Member of the victims families were present during the first day of the trial and could be heard crying as photos of the victims were shown to the jury.
State opens case
James called two brothers as the state’s first witnesses on Monday afternoon.
Russell Gentry, 17, testified that he had been staying at his family’s cabin in the Valley High Timber Farms subdivision west of Great Cacapon on June 13. He said he and his younger brother, Jacob Gentry, 13, were walking along Gamble Lane looking for rocks for their slingshot when they came across Douglas and the Bartley father and son working to remove trees and rocks that were blocking the driveway to the McBee property.
The boys said shortly after, they heard multiple gunshots, but didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary until Terry Marks came running out of the woods, screaming that the three other men had been shot.
Under questioning, Russell Gentry said he hadn’t heard any yelling prior to the gunshots. Jacob Gentry said his older brother told him to go inside and call 911.
Former Sheriff’s Deputy Cliff Cobern was the state’s third witness to give testimony on Monday. Cobern was the first officer to arrive on the scene of the shootings. He said the emergency dispatch call came in around 4:45 p.m. that Monday afternoon.
Cobern told the jury he was joined by several other officers – Deputy Chris Roper, Cpl. V.E. Branham of the West Virginia State Police and Chief T.J. Johnson of the Berkeley Springs Police Department – before proceeding onto the McBee property. Officers were unsure at first where the shots had come from, or whether the shooter was still in the vicinity.
Cobern told the jury that officers cleared the vehicle and the trailer on the McBee property and did a preliminary search of Douglas’ truck, where Chief Johnson found a bullet hole in the truck door. That led police to look at the Shute residence to the east.
James played clips from Cobern’s police body camera for the jury, showing officers sweeping the area around the properties and going over a wire fence from the crime scene onto the Shute property. Video shows the property filled with multiple outbuildings, trailers, vehicles, dirt mounds and piles of construction materials.
Cobern’s body camera shows officers later spotting Linda Shute, the mother of the accused, on the property and approaching her. She was carrying a pistol that she surrendered to officers.
During questioning by multiple officers, Linda Shute initially says she didn’t know anything about the shootings.
“You didn’t hear the three people get shot next door?” asks State Police Captain Eric Widmeyer.
Linda Shute later admits that her son left the property after stashing a rifle in one of the trailers on the property. She tells officers he is probably heading to New Jersey. Video shows Cobern locating a black 5.56mm rifle in the bottom of a closet in one of several trailers.
The state’s fourth witness, West Virginia State Police Sgt. Joseph Flanigan, was the first law enforcement officer to talk to Shute after the killings. The prosecution played a 45-minute telephone call that Erick Shute made shortly after 8 p.m. on June 13. Shute was trying to reach then-Sheriff Vince Shambaugh. In the recorded call, Shute identifies himself to Flanigan and says Shambaugh had asked him to call.
“There’s a lot of people looking for you,” Flanigan tells Shute.
During the phone conversation, Shute repeatedly says the shooting victims were “drug dealer scumbags” and accuses them of being thieves.
Shute tells Sgt. Flanigan that he told Douglas and the Bartley’s to leave the McBee property but they wouldn’t.
“I had to do what I had to do. This is self-defense at the highest order,” Shute says.
Flanigan urges Shute to come and make a statement or turn himself into police, but Shute tells the officer he is no longer in West Virginia.
“They’re not going to stop looking for you,” Flanigan tells Shute.
In the phone call, Shute promises to turn himself in the following day and asks multiple times to be put on the phone with then-prosecutor Debra McLaughlin.
“It’s a triple homicide. She should be jumping all over this,” Shute tells Flanigan. He then says he is willing to talk to the press so the media can’t control coverage of the shootings.
“I will call into InfoWars if I have to,” Shute says.
The Morgan County Sheriff’s Department’s lead investigator, Capt. Tim Stapleton, took the stand for more than an hour on Monday. He took over investigation of the case when Deputy Cobern left the department.
Stapleton said he and Deputy Roper interviewed several residents of the Valley High Timber Farms subdivision. searched the Shute property for more ammunition casings and reviewed phone calls and computer records related to the case.
The prosecutor played a 35-minute recording of Stapleton’s interview with Shute on June 15 in a Chester County, Pa. jail, where he awaited extradition back to West Virginia.
Shute says on June 12, he saw Douglas and the Bartley’s at the McBee property and told his mother they were robbing the property. He says he asked his mother to contact the McBee heirs to let them know about the thefts. Shute then puts wood across the driveway “to deter them” from coming back.
Shute says when the men return next door on June 13, he went to the fence on his property with his rifle and told them to leave.
William Bartley yelled at Shute to go away and mind his own business, Shute tells Stapleton. Bartley then reached into the truck to get something, Shute said. Shute then fired on them.
“I had to do it. I had to take them out. I was afraid for my life,” Shute tells Stapleton.
In response to questions from Stapleton, Shute says he shot Travis Bartley first, then Jack Douglas, then Travis Bartley a second time and then shot William Bartley.
Shute then tells Stapleton he left Great Cacapon in a white work truck that he needed to return to his mother’s boyfriend’s business in Pennsylvania.
Shute was arrested in Chester County, Pa. just before midnight on June 13.
During the interview, Capt. Stapleton asks Shute if he shot the men because he thought they were thieves.
“This is what this is over – you thought they were stealing?” Stapleton says.
“I knew they were stealing. They said they bought the place. That’s bullshit. We’re trying to buy it. It has a well on it. It’s more livable that our place,” Shute says in the recorded interview.
The prosecutor then asked Capt. Stapleton to show the jury the 5.56 mm rifle Shute used to shoot the three men.
Shute’s defense attorney Daniel Kirkland cross-examined Stapleton briefly, asking about the wire fence between the Shute and McBee properties.
“Would that fence stop a bullet?” he asked. Stapleton said it wouldn’t.
“Would that fence stop a chainsaw?” Kirkland asked, referring to the chainsaw carried by Douglas on the day of the killings.
“It would mess the chainsaw up,” Stapleton said.
Sgt. H.D. Heil of the West Virginia State Police was the state’s final witness on Monday. Sgt. Heil is a member of the West Virginia Crime Scene Response unit, which processes the scene in June 13. Dan James asked Heil to describe the scaled drawings of the scene, which showed the locations of the victims’ bodies, the property fence line, driveway, trailer, victim’s truck and where police found four fired .223 cartridges.
Heil testified that the distance from Jack Douglas’ body to the nearest ammunition casing was 69.43 feet. James held a tape measure in the witness box and asked Heil to walk across the courtroom to show the jury how far away Shute would have been from Douglas when he pulled the trigger. The jury had to stand up and look out the double doors of the courtroom to see Heil, who stopped in the third-floor hallway of the courthouse.
Defense attorney Kirkland cross-examined Heil on the stand. From the back of the courtroom, Kirkland asked Heil if, from that distance, he could be shot by a revolver. Heil said he could.
The prosecutor followed up with Heil.
“Did you find any firearms on the victims?”
“No, sir,” Heil said.
The trial continued on Tuesday.