Butch Remembers the Guy That Got Off Easy

A picture of the columnist Butch Dale in t-shirt

(NOTE: The names used in this article are not the real names.)

Each night on the news, we hear about the rampant crime, including murders, in the large cities, including Indianapolis. Montgomery County is not crime free. A look at the daily police blotter confirms that unfortunate fact. A wide variety of crimes occur sporadically, many of which are drug and alcohol related, but serious felonies and homicides are rare. Sometimes the perpetrators are caught. Sometimes they aren’t. Here is one I will never forget….

As a deputy sheriff, one evening I was dispatched to a report of a person who had been shot at a residence south of Crawfordsville. I knocked on the door of the house trailer, and not knowing any details, I stood at an angle, my hand on the grip of my Smith and Wesson revolver. A few seconds later, a man opened the door…”Joe’s dead…it was an accident…I didn’t do it.” On the living room floor was a man…laying motionless.

After frisking the fellow who let me inside and searching the other rooms in the trailer, I examined the victim, who was laying face up, with what appeared to be a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. He eyes were wide open, and he was, indeed, deceased. I radioed dispatch and requested the Sheriff head to the scene. As I read the witness his Miranda rights, he sat on the couch and lit up a cigarette. I asked him what happened. “Billy shot him. He had a gun and was playing around. He was pointing it at Joe…and the gun went off. He didn’t aim to shoot him. It was an accident.” As this fellow told me about the incident, he was very nervous, which is understandable, but he also never looked me square in the eyes…a sign of deception.

“Where is Billy now?” I responded. “He took off. He knew he would be in trouble even though it was an accident.” “Did he take the gun with him?” “I don’t know…yes, I think so.” “What is Billy’s last name?” As he lit up another cigarette, he told me the shooter’s last name. I knew immediately who he was referring to…he was a suspect in several burglaries and was also thought to be a drug dealer, which is about as low as anyone can get.

In short time, the Sheriff, along with several other officers, arrived at the scene. Photos were taken, items were dusted for fingerprints. The victim was taken to the morgue, and the witness was transported to the jail for further questioning. As darkness fell, a search then ensued to locate the shooter in the nearby house trailers, some of which were vacant. No luck, so then a search of the surrounding wooded area began. This proceeded slowly and cautiously, as we asumed the shooter still possessed a gun. He was finally apprehended the next morning, taken in for questioning, and subsequently admitted that he had shot the victim…”It was an accident…I swear.”

I was not present during the questioning of the accused. I was also not present during the questioning of the witness. After a while, you just get a gut feeling of when someone is telling the truth or not…their actions, eye contact, mannerisms. I was good at interviewing suspects and solving cases. I was absolutely certain the witness had not told the truth. I was also never asked to testify in court.

The result? The shooter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter/ criminal recklessness with a deadly weapon. To the best of my knowledge he served two or three years in prison, and was released. A few years later, I was at the jail when the city police arrested…guess who…the witness to the shooting…for public intoxication. While he was being fingerprinted, I walked over next to him. I couldn’t resist, “Was it really an accident when Billy shot your friend Joe?” He hesitated and then looked straight at me, “No, Joe owed Billy drug money. Billy pulled out his pistol and made him get on his knees. He told him he wanted the money now…or else. Joe begged him not to shoot, but Billy shot him right between the eyes.” I paused, “Then why didn’t you tell the detective this?” “Because Billy told me if I said one word about it, he would kill me…sometime…somewhere…one way or another.”

I knew it. I just knew it. I am confident that if I had been given the chance to interview the witness, I could have gotten the truth out of him. I don’t blame the detective. He was good at his job. But the first responding officer to a serious crime has the most information and has details in his mind that other officers do not have.

To this day, not counting this incident, there are four unsolved murders here in Montgomery County. Billy got off easy. The law of double jeopardy excludes the possibility of him being charged again for what he did. But when he and the other four murderers face God some day, they won’t get off so easy.

John “Butch” Dale is a retired teacher and County Sheriff. He has also been the librarian at Darlington the past 32 years, and is a well-known artist and author of local history.