I Just Shot My Neighbor : Trial Highlights An Ozarks Mystery

April 8, 2018

Depending on who does the telling, it was either a property dispute or something more sinister, but there is no doubt that there was bad blood between two families in rural Crawford County about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis. It ended on a cold January day in 2017 when 66-year-old Arthur Wolverton went to retrieve a Chevy Suburban that his son had gotten stuck on the property line between the Wolvertons' 70 acres and the 5 acres that belonged to Thomas Hunt and his family.

Wolverton had brought along a tractor to tow the Suburban back to his place. He was in the process of chaining the Suburban to the tractor when Hunt, who was then 68, emerged from his house with an AR-15 and walked resolutely toward Wolverton. Hunt stopped, shouldered his weapon and fired a shot. The bullet smacked into the Suburban. Hunt moved closer and fired again. The bullet tore into Wolverton's left hip. He went down. Hunt moved closer. He fired a shot into the center of Wolverton's chest.

Then he walked back to his house and called 911. I just shot my neighbor, he said.

He was charged with murder. The state seemed to have an airtight case. First of all, the shooting was on videotape. The Hunts had installed several motion-activated "game cameras" around their property. One showed Hunt walking out of his back door, doing the shooting and walking back inside.

Also, there was an eyewitness. Michael Duncan, who was then 32, lived in Affton. His aunt was Wolverton's daughter. He told police that he sometimes went to Wolverton's property to bow hunt. On this particular day, Wolverton had asked him to help him retrieve the Suburban. He was going to steer it while Wolverton towed it with the tractor. He said he knew nothing about any feud between the families.

Duncan said he was standing along a treeline a little above the Suburban when he saw a man with an assault rifle approaching Wolverton. He said he fled after the second shot. He can be seen running on the videotape.

Finally, there seemed to be evidence of premeditation. The Suburban had gotten stuck on Friday night. On Saturday, Hunt sent a text message to his son stating that he would have his "weapon at the ready" and would not be calling 911 when his tormentors returned to his property.

Because tormentors is what the Wolvertons were, in the Hunts' telling of the story. For more than seven months, the Wolvertons had been harassing the Hunts, shining lights into their windows, driving the Suburban onto their property, knocking down trees along the property line, destroying a pond and trying, for reasons supposedly unknown to the Hunts, to drive them out. The Wolvertons declined to talk with me.

When the Suburban got stuck on the property line two nights before the shooting, Hunt had called 911 and reported that Art's son, Mickey Joe Wolverton, then 45, had been driving on his property and tearing up the grass in the backyard before getting the vehicle stuck. A sheriff's deputy went to the Wolverton house. He reported that Mickey Joe had bloodshot eyes and admitted drinking beer and smoking pot. The deputy confiscated the pot and charged Mickey Joe with trespassing and possession of marijuana.

The case against Hunt went to trial two weeks ago.

The state's case was ably presented by Michael Hayes, a prosecutor on loan from St. Louis County. He had the videotape of the shooting; forensic evidence showing that the final shot had a downward trajectory, indicating that Wolverton was on his knees when he was hit in the chest; an eyewitness who was, I thought, very credible; and Hunt's text message, which seemed to go toward premeditation.

Scott Rosenblum was the defense attorney. He told me he had been referred to the case by one of Hunt's relatives who is in law enforcement. Rosenblum built his case around what he called an eight-month "reign of terror." Hunt's relatives and friends testified to the harassment.

Hunt testified. He seemed like a good man, but one who had been pushed too hard and too far and had finally been pushed to the point of murder. He denied that. He maintained that he had never been angry at Art Wolverton. He said his first shot had been a warning shot, and that Wolverton had then threatened to kill him and had reached toward his pocket for what Hunt assumed to be a gun.

(That might be reasonable. I later asked Sheriff Darin Layman about that, and he said, "This is Crawford County. Everybody has a weapon.")

Hunt said he had meant the second shot to disable Wolverton, but "it didn't faze him." The final shot was meant "to terminate the threat." He also testified that the text message referred to shots that had been fired toward the Hunt house the day after the Suburban had gotten stuck.

In the state's closing argument, Hayes said it was not reasonable to think that an unarmed man would threaten the life of a man advancing upon him with an assault rifle. He pointed out that all the evidence contradicted Hunt's testimony. He conceded that the Wolvertons might have acted badly, but this is not a property damage case, he said. He suggested that any bad behavior on the part of the Wolvertons was not justification for murder. If anything, it's a motive, he said

Rosenblum spoke for 45 minutes without notes. His cadence seldom changed, but his tone sometimes did. Soft one moment, loud the next. But mostly soft. He mixed facts with assertions, weaving them together until they seemed indistinguishable. He waved away the credibility of the eyewitness because he had said something in a deposition that he didn't say in trial, while Hunt's story, Rosenblum said, had never changed.

He was on his own property, Rosenblum said. He feared for his life.

It took the jurors about two hours to acquit Hunt.