By Janice Morse
Enquirer staff writer
HAMILTON - Tom West, the delusional suspect in a deadly Butler County shooting spree, suddenly went from incompetent and innocent to competent and guilty.
In an abrupt end to a 10-month-old case, a three-judge panel Monday accepted West's guilty plea and sentenced the 51-year-old drifter to two life terms plus 43 years, with no possibility of parole, for the Nov. 6 slayings of two men and the attempted murder of four others at a West Chester trucking company.
Days ago, West's lawyers had been prepared to wage a precedent-setting legal battle that could have tied the case up in court for months or years while judges wrestled with a thorny issue: whether West could be forcibly medicated so he could be restored to competency and face trial.
But the battle became unnecessary because of two key developments last week.
A new psychological opinion found that West was competent - and prosecutors became willing to accept a guilty plea on all counts, with an agreed-upon sentence of life without parole.
"My biggest fear was him walking free," said Vicki Haury, whose husband, Donald, 50, of Beavercreek, Ohio, was slain by West. "He'll go away. He'll go away forever. He will never be able to hurt anybody else again."
Authorities and spectators said the plea deal guaranteed a satisfactory result for all concerned. It spared the survivors and victims' families from hearing testimony about the shootings at Watkins Motor Lines in painful, graphic detail. It saved taxpayers the cost of a two-week trial.
And it insulated West from a possible death sentence. That outcome was considered unlikely, Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper explained, because a jury would have been required to give strong weight to West's undisputed mental illness when considering whether he should be sentenced to death.
Judge Keith Spaeth had originally declared West competent to stand trial but changed that status to incompetent in June and sent him to a state mental institution after an evaluator was unable to get West to talk coherently about the shooting.
Instead, West launched into rambling discussions of his delusional theories that Watkins, the company that had employed him as a truck driver, was conspiring with the U.S. Army to ruin his life.
Bobbie Hopes, a Hamilton clinical psychologist, said she had that same difficulty with West - until last week, their third meeting.
"I told him that we needed to focus on him telling me the story of the events, that we didn't have time for him to ramble off into conspiracy theories. I wanted him to tell me what happened -- and he did it. And he had no difficulty doing it."
Hopes told Common Pleas Judge Keith Spaeth that she thought West was competent to stand trial because he understood the proceedings against him and could aid in his defense.
Spaeth then declared West competent and, at the requests of West's lawyers, assembled a three-judge panel. Judges Matthew Crehan and Patricia Oney agreed to accept West's guilty pleas after Spaeth questioned West at length as to whether he understood what he was doing and the consequences of pleading guilty.
Fourteen times - once for each of the six charges and eight specifications - Spaeth asked what plea West wanted to make. "Plead guilty, your honor," West repeated 14 times, emotionlessly.
Vicki Haury said when she heard the judge say her husband's name and declare West guilty of aggravated murder, "I wanted to scream - and I couldn't."
The widow of Bob Lines, 65, of Springfield Township, was unable to attend the trial, officials said.
Another spectator, Mary Lou Saylor, 67, a Watkins employee from Hamilton who witnessed the shootings, squeezed her eyes shut repeatedly while Spaeth read off the words, "guilty." She said she kept picturing the shooting scene: "Everybody laying on the ground dead ... blood everywhere."
No one, not even West's lawyers, said they can make any sense out of his crimes. They also cannot make sense out of a 27-page statement he filed with the court.
"I don't think he's capable of (remorse), because, as we sit here today he sincerely believes they were out to get him," Christopher Pagan, defense lawyer, said. "And that's what makes it sad."
Time line: Shootings and aftermath
Nov. 6, 2003: Gunman opens fire at Watkins Motor Lines in West Chester Township, killing dispatcher Bob Lines, 65, of Springfield Township, and Donald Haury, 50, of Beavercreek. Three others were wounded: Billy F. Claywell, 48, of Cave City, Ky.; Glen Brierly, 48, of Hamilton; and Gary Fissel, 50, of Huntersville, N.C. Hours later, Tom West, formerly Joseph John Eschenbrenner III, surrenders at an Indiana truck stop.
Dec. 19: Judge Keith Spaeth finds West competent to stand trial.
May 25: West's new lawyers, Noah Powers and Christopher Pagan, argue that the first mental evaluation of their client was flawed because West had been uncooperative.
June 8: Spaeth declares West incompetent to stand trial after a report says he suffers from delusions. He sends West for treatment at state mental facility.
Aug. 6: Psychiatrists ask Spaeth to order West forcibly medicated with psychiatric drugs.
Aug. 23: After a new evaluator finds West was cooperative, Spaeth finds West competent. West accepts prosecutors' plea deal. He is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He also is fined $110,000 and ordered to pay the costs of prosecution - payments that are unlikely to ever happen, prosecutors say.
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