A Josephine County jury Thursday morning found Donald Easley guilty of murder in the shooting death of his neighbor, Laron Estes.
Arguments during the trial focused on what happened between the neighbors during several crucial seconds along a so-called "fence from hell."
The fence consisted of pallet wood, chicken wire, black plastic and barbed wire — a prickly mess, not unlike the relationship between the defendant, 65-year-old Easley, and the man he fatally shot, 59-year-old Estes.
Easley lived on Redwood Highway in Kerby, and Estes and his wife, Barbara Hicks, had moved onto an adjacent property formerly occupied by Kenneth Vaughn — a previous neighbor who was shot and killed by Easley in November 2009. That shooting was ruled a justified case of self-defense.
The Estes shooting occurred on Sept. 7, 2013, and Easley's trial began in Josephine County Circuit Court on Sept. 3. Closing arguments were delivered Wednesday, and jurors deliberated briefly Thursday.
Easley, wearing a beige sport coat and glasses, sat bolt upright Wednesday morning as deputy prosecutor Lisa Turner rehashed the evidence in the case, pacing back and forth and gesturing for emphasis.
"Is the defendant guilty?" she said, walking up to the table where Easley sat with his attorney and looking him in the eyes. "The answer is yes."
As Turner spoke, a photo of Estes, who had a full salt-and-pepper beard, was displayed on an overhead screen. He wore glasses and a red stocking cap, and was holding a Chihuahua inside his black flight jacket.
Easley, who did not testify during his trial, has claimed he was standing on a ladder on his property putting up barbed wire along the fence when an intoxicated Estes came lunging through the plastic tarp, ripping a hole in it and grabbing at his shorts. According to the account Easley gave to police, he dropped his hammer, grabbed for the pistol he was wearing in a holster, and fired toward Estes, fearing for his life.
In an interview with Oregon State Police that was played in court, Easley said it all happened too quickly for him to think about what was going on — without warning, a hand came through the fence and began grabbing him, he said.
"That's when I pulled the pistol and popped him," Easley said.
The prosecution alleges that Estes had backed up his pickup truck to the fence to make some repairs and was standing in the bed of the truck when he heard Easley on the other side of the fence. He got off the truck in such a hurry that he slipped and fell into the fence, according to Turner. When Estes realized Easley had a gun, he started running, she said. Easley fired two shots, hitting Estes with the second bullet.
"Mr. Estes was shot in the back while retreating at a distance," Turner told jurors.
The fatal shooting was preceded by about a year and a half of disputes between the neighbors that started when Estes unplugged a security light of Easley's that was disrupting his sleep. Points of contention after that included garbage on Estes' property, Estes' and Hicks' many Chihuahuas, claims by Easley that Estes was shooting at his cats, the use of a leaf blower by Easley at odd hours, and more. At one point, in reference to the 2009 killing, Estes and Hicks put up a plywood sign bearing the word "murderer" and pointing at Easley's house.
Things came to a boil on Aug. 9, 2013, when Easley, a thin man who stands 5 feet 5 inches, claimed the burly Estes dragged him across the fence and assaulted him. He suffered scrapes and bruises and went to a hospital afterward.
Easley told Oregon State Police that when Estes came through the fence on Sept. 7, he feared for his safety.
"If I didn't have that pistol, I'd be beat up, maybe dead, on his side of the fence," Easley said in the OSP interview.
Hicks was standing nearby and saw her husband get shot. She claimed to have seen a hand come through the fence and fire a small silver gun. Hicks testified that she didn't see a hole in the fence until her husband grabbed and tore it while falling into it. Turner alleges that there were cuts made to the plastic tarp before Estes fell through — possibly by Easley using the barbed wire. She suggested Easley, who had obtained a restraining order against Estes, had planned to lure Estes to the fence in order to be able to shoot him and claim self-defense.
Easley's attorney, public defender Gary Berlant, dismissed the ambush scenario in his closing argument as far-fetched and said Hicks' account of a hand coming through the fence and firing shots doesn't add up because the shell casings were found on Easley's side of the fence.
"That story is less credible because of that, if nothing else," he said.
Berlant emphasized to jurors that if they have any doubt that Easley intended to kill Estes, they should not find him guilty of murder.
"We're really only talking about three, four seconds, five seconds … It's about what was in his mind when he shot that gun," Berlant said.
Easley's mother, Clarice Bishop, has been in court watching the trial, as have Hicks and other family members of Estes.
Estes' mother, Kathleen Devol Jackson, filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Easley in Josephine County Circuit Court earlier this month, seeking $500,000 in damages.
Estes grew up on a family-owned dairy in Cave Junction, where he broke and trained horses, and graduated from Illinois Valley High School in 1972, according to his obituary. He served for three years in the U.S. Army and met Barbara Hicks in 2001.
Reach reporter Melissa McRobbie at 541-474-3806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.