Rossville, Georgia, man gets 50-year prison sentence for shootout with Walker County deputy, sergeant

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Robert Eric Owenby speaks with his attorney Joshua Smith during his court hearing Monday, June 3, 2019 in Walker County Superior Court in LaFayette, Georgia. Owenby is charged with two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of obstruction of officers, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and other charges.

Robert Eric Owenby will go to prison for at least 50 years after a jury convicted him Wednesday of shooting at a Walker County, Georgia, deputy and sergeant.

Owenby was convicted of two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of obstruction of officers, two counts of possession of a firearm in commission of a crime, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, failure to stop at a stop sign, two counts of failure to use a correct signal and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

The jury deliberated for about 30 minutes. Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. then sentenced him to 55 years, with a requirement to serve at least 50 years behind bars without the possibility of parole.

With warrants out against him, Owenby, 43, of Rossville, led Deputy Harley Elliott on a chase from Wilson Road to James Street to a construction site behind North Sherry Drive on Nov. 20. He crashed into a pine tree, grabbed his .45 pistol from the floorboard, tucked it inside his flannel and crawled out the passenger-side front door.

Elliott testified this week that, as he deployed a stun gun, he spotted Owenby's gun. He missed Owenby, dropped the stun gun, backed up a couple of steps and fell. He crawled backward, firing his Glock 9 millimeter pistol toward Owenby.

photo Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Robert Eric Owenby listens to testimony during his court hearing Monday, June 3, 2019 in Walker County Superior Court in LaFayette, Georgia. Owenby is charged with two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of obstruction of officers, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and other charges.

At some point, Owenby fired at Elliott. He then exchanged shots with Sgt. Bobby Webber, who pulled up to the construction site after Elliott reported the chase on the radio. The three men stood within about 10 feet of each other as they each fired several shots. The deputy and sergeant hid behind a utility van and a Honda Odyssey that were parked there. Construction workers were at the house at the time.

Owenby eventually ran back to the house that workers were framing, and Elliott shot him in the back of the upper right leg. Owenby staggered, fell, got back up and ran into the woods. He sneaked into an abandoned home on East Sherry Drive, where he hid until investigators found him a day later.

Owenby admitted to opening fire at the officers during an interview with Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dan Nicholson days after his arrest. The only question for the trial centered on who shot first. The Walker County Sheriff's Office has not supplied Elliott or Webber with body or dash cameras, a hole in the investigation that both men conceded is present in all of the department's cases.

Owenby's attorney, Joshua Smith, told the jury during his opening statement that his client opened fire in self defense.

"Mr. Owenby didn't shoot first," Smith said. " That can be a viable defense in Georgia, under Georgia law."

Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Lynsay Chapman told the jurors that Owenby fired first, resorting to violence because he didn't want to go to jail. With warrants out against him, he panicked when Elliott tried to pull him over. Elliott testified he had flashed his blue lights because Owenby failed to signal before he made a couple of turns.

"This defendant was in control of every step of the way," Chapman said. " He was going to stop at nothing to not be captured."

During his interview with the GBI after the shooting, which Chapman played for the jury Tuesday, Owenby said he smoked about a quarter of a gram of methamphetamine that day - but only to wake himself up. He denied being paranoid. He led Elliott on the chase through a residential area, planning to escape in the woods. He used to dirt bike and ride all-terrain vehicles back there, in an area that used to be abandoned. He didn't realize workers were building a home there.

"It f--- my whole plan up," he told the GBI in November. "I'm not anticipating a big-ass house and these vans."

Before this case, Owenby had been convicted of five felonies, including a charge of aggravated assault on a police officer in Catoosa County in 2000. A judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison and another 10 years on probation in that case.

Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.