LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Robert Eric Owenby ended a police chase last November when he crashed his girlfriend's Hyundai Sonata into a tree on a construction site. He crawled out the passenger's side door, pausing for a moment to lean back to the driver's side, Walker County (Georgia) Deputy Harley Elliott said. It was as if he was grabbing for something.
He got out of the car and faced Elliott. The deputy held a stun gun in his left hand and a Glock 9 millimeter in his right. Elliott said he yelled, commanded Owenby to show his hands. He showed his left. But his right hand remained tucked inside his flannel.
Elliott said he deployed his stun gun at Owenby but missed. Owenby slid his hand out of his shirt and pointed a gun at Elliott. Elliott dropped the stun gun.
"Did he fire?" Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Lynsay Chapman asked in Walker County Superior Court on Monday afternoon, the first day of a criminal trial against Owenby.
"He did," Elliott said.
"How long do you think this took?" Chapman asked.
"Seconds," Elliott said.
Elliott told a jury he tripped as he backed away from Owenby, crawled and fired shots across his body. The two shot at each other as Owenby allegedly walked toward him. Elliott said he took cover behind a van that was at the construction site, located at 643 N. Sherry Drive in Rossville. Then, he said, Walker County Sgt. Bobby Webber fired at Elliott.
Based on Elliott's and Webber's testimonies, Owenby faces two counts of aggravated assault. But both acknowledge a key hole in the case: There is no video evidence. Elliott and Webber don't have cameras in their patrol cars, much less body cameras.
"We haven't got that equipment yet," testified Webber, a 15-year veteran of the department.
Owenby's attorney, Joshua Smith, did not press either eyewitness about this issue. But during his opening statement, he told the jury this was an important issue.
"Mr. Owenby didn't shoot first," Smith said. " ... That can be a viable defense in Georgia, under Georgia law."
Elliott and Webber testified that Owenby fired before they did. They were in fear for their lives. But without video, Smith could try to create reasonable doubt. He could say Owenby acted only in self defense.
"What you don't see and what you don't hear is as important as what you do see and what you do hear," Smith told the jury.
Before the shootout Nov. 20, Elliott said he was parked in an empty parking lot at Hickory Lane and Wilson Road, near the Rossville Foodmart. He said he watched Owenby turn right onto Wilson Road without using a blinker. He followed the car and watched Owenby turn right onto James Street, again failing to use his blinker.
Elliott said he started his blue lights but the driver didn't stop. Owenby allegedly turned left onto Raydine Lane, a residential area. He slowed down for a second, allowing his passenger to hop out. Then he weaved through the area, eventually driving toward a construction site for a new home on North Sherry Drive, where he crashed.
In addition to Owenby's girlfriend's car, Elliott's patrol car and Webber's patrol car, a utility van and a Honda Odyssey sat on the site. Three workers were at the home, which was still being framed. Owenby, Elliott and Webber circled around the vans, exchanging shots. Nobody was hit. The two officers said Monday they were not sure how many shots they each took, or exactly how long the shooting lasted.
Eventually, Owenby ran away, toward the left side of the house. Elliott and Webber both testified he kept his gun on him. They also both testified that he turned back, toward them. Elliott said he opened fire. Owenby fell. He pulled himself back up and ran some more.
"He could have kept running," Webber said. "But he stopped. He faced me."
Later, he added: "There was never a time when he put the gun down or showed his hands or anything. I don't know if he prepared for this. ... He was just aggressive."
After interviews with Owenby's girlfriend and the passenger in his car, Jeremiah Johnson, members of a U.S. Marshals task force found Owenby in an abandoned home on East Sherry Drive. He was staying across the street from where his girlfriend lived.
Chip Atchley, a task force unit supervisor, testified that Owenby threatened to blow the house up with a propane tank. (Investigators later found no propane tank inside.) After Atchley tossed a tourniquet inside so Owenby could treat a wound on his leg, and after Owenby was allowed to talk to his girlfriend, he turned himself in.
In addition to aggravated assault, Owenby faces charges of obstruction of officers, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, attempting to elude a police officer, failure to maintain lane, driving on the wrong side of the road, failing to stop for a stop sign and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The trial resumes Tuesday at 9 a.m.
Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.