Suspect in fatal shooting waives hearing
BLAIRSVILLE — A Marion Center-area man waived a preliminary hearing on charges that he shot his friend to death on Memorial Day weekend, and will remain in jail while attorneys try to craft a plea deal that would avoid a jury trial in Indiana County Court, a public defender said.
James Buterbaugh, 59, of Hartman Road, has been held without bail since May 25, when he was charged with homicide in the death of David Ackerson, 51, of Buterbaugh Road.
Buterbaugh appeared Wednesday before District Judge Jennifer Rega in Blairsville District Court and opted out of having a preliminary hearing with witnesses and evidence being presented. While Buterbaugh gave up his right to a hearing, attorneys discussed setting the degree of homicide at third-degree murder, assistant public defender Robert Bell said.
Bell said a plea agreement is among the options in the case.
“If it would go to trial, the most serious charge would be third-degree murder,” Bell said. “Basically the commonwealth took first-degree murder off the table today. That’s a good thing for Jim. It takes away the possibility of life in prison.”
Investigators said the men spent much of May 25 together and shared several beers. Late that afternoon, Buterbaugh became angry that Ackerson accepted a plate of food from Buterbaugh’s mother, and started an argument that culminated in the fatal shooting.
Buterbaugh twice confessed to the chain of events, the charging documents show.
He told troopers he slept in his pickup truck on the night of May 24 outside Ackerson’s house, then was awakened about 8 o’clock the next morning — a Sunday — by Ackerson.
Each drank a beer.
The men then visited Ackerson’s brother, and went to Ackerson’s house where they drank more beer, Buterbaugh told police.
Investigators reported Buterbaugh went to sleep again in his truck while Ackerson went to church. Then, the charging documents show, Ackerson woke Buterbaugh again late that afternoon.
Ackerson brought two plates of food given to him by Buterbaugh’s mother — one plate for each of them — and Buterbaugh angrily accused Ackerson of being a moocher.
Buterbaugh drove away to a nearby gas well road with Ackerson following, then threatened to shoot him, according to state police. Ackerson told Buterbaugh, “Go ahead and shoot me” — then Buterbaugh fired one round at Ackerson from a .22-caliber revolver.
Buterbaugh first related the story after paramedics rushed Ackerson to Indiana Regional Medical Center for treatment. The coroner’s office reported that Ackerson died in the emergency room at 7:26 p.m. from a wound of his upper abdomen.
Troopers wrote that Buterbaugh gave a second statement a few hours later at the state police station, again conceding that he intentionally fired the gun at Ackerson.
Investigators reported Buterbaugh had bloodshot eyes and a strong odor of alcoholic beverages about him, and that officers found several empty beer cans in his truck right after the shooting.
The level of intoxication may factor into how the charges are resolved, Bell said. So would the history between the men and their families.
“I’ve been told … that they realize Jim and the victim were very, very good friends, they were like brothers,” Bell said. “And I don’t think that (Ackerson’s relatives) are interested in seeing Jim spend the rest of his life in jail over this. I think they are really close people, they are close friends.
“I don’t think there was any type of malice between Jim and the victim. Sometimes bad things happen when you drink, and that’s one of the things that took place.”
Assistant District Attorney Sarah Ross represented the prosecution in court on Wednesday and referred questions to D.A. Patrick Dougherty.
“I have no comment other than to say the parties are exploring a fair and reasonable resolution to this tragic case,” Dougherty said.
Along with a general count of criminal homicide, Buterbaugh also is charged with simple assault, recklessly endangering another person and two counts of aggravated assault.