Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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March 29, 2013

School bus fight, texting escalate to parent’s fatal shooting

PRINCETON — A spat between best friends on their bus ride home after elementary school escalated via social media between the two girls’ mothers and ended in death Thursday night on a dimly lit intersection of two rural roads in Mercer County.

Judith Kowaleski, 42, of the Brushfork area, brushed tears from her eyes Friday morning at her bond hearing before Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Omar Aboulhosn. While Kowaleski’s court-appointed counsel, Ryan Flanigan, argued that his client has close ties to the community and isn’t a flight risk, Senior Assistant Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Kelli Harshbarger reminded the court that the defendant is being held on a first-degree murder charge related to the death of a Bluefield woman, Elizabeth Slagle, also 42.

“The two little girls are friends,” Sgt. M.D. Clemons said during a press conference Friday afternoon. Clemons serves with the West Virginia State Police Crimes Against Children Unit. “One of them kicked the other on the school bus.”

Trooper J.C. Teubert, of the Princeton Detachment of the West Virginia State Police, was dispatched to the intersection of Falls Mills and Nichols roads at about 9:10 p.m. Thursday night in response to a report of two women involved in an altercation where someone was tazed and another woman was shot in the chest with a .38 caliber handgun. When Teubert arrived on the scene, he discovered the defendant, Kowaleski, and another female, Barbra Harrington, attempting to administer CPR to the victim.

At least two additional troopers including Trooper First Class S.R. Moore and Trooper L.F. Lee responded to the scene as well as Cpl. S.A. Sommers, J.E. Coulter and K.M. Saddler of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department. Paramedics responding with the Bluefield Rescue Squad were held back from the crime scene for a time until Teubert determined it was secure. The rescue squad transported Slagle to Bluefield Regional Medical Center where she died as a result of her wounds, according to a state police press release.

Teubert transported Kowaleski to the state police barracks in Princeton, read her Miranda Rights to her, and started his interview. “Ms. Kowaleski stated that on (March 27) she received a phone call from Elizabeth Slagle and Mrs. Slagle was upset because of a fight their children had on the school bus after school,” Teubert wrote in the criminal complaint charging Kowaleski. “The accused further stated that after the phone call, she kept getting text messages from Mrs. Slagle about the incident and eventually, her aunt, Barbra Harrington took the phone and started texting Mrs. Slagle.

“The accused stated that after a while her Aunt Barbra told her to go down to the end of the road and the accused stated that she wouldn’t walk in the dark without something to protect her,” Teubert continued in his narrative. “The accused stated that her aunt told her they were going to meet Elizabeth and they were going to settle this once and for all.

“The accused further stated that she walked down to the end of the road armed with her pistol and Elizabeth was already there, and they started arguing about the kids,” according to the criminal complaint. “The accused stated that Mrs. Slagle told them that she had a gun and she was going to shoot them. The accused further stated that she was about to walk away then Mrs. Slagle ran at her with something in her hand and hit her in the neck, and the accused stated that she lifted her hand to get her off and the gun went off. The accused further stated that she had the gun in her hand from the time she left the house to the time they got to the end of the road.”

After interviewing the suspect, Harrington and the suspect’s boyfriend, George Slagle, a brother-in-law of the victim, Teubert obtained a search warrant, traveled to the residence that Kowaleski and George Slagle shared, and recovered a .38 caliber handgun that George Slagle said he carried back to the residence after the incident. Investigators recovered the tazer at the scene.

“Social media has been very damaging,” Clemons said during the press conference. “It makes it easier to escalate.” She said that “kids will be kids” and that they can fight one day, and return to being best friends again the next. She said that when there are disputes between children “parents need to let the school system work it out.” Clemons added that parents shouldn’t allow fights among children to grow into fights between parents. “It’s gotta stop,” Clemons said.

Clemons said she has spoken to family members of the victim and they were distraught. They also characterized the relationship between the two girls as being “best friends,” Clemons said.

Aboulhosn said he will revisit his ruling of “no bond” for Kowaleski after her preliminary hearing that will be within 10 days of the defendant’s arraignment. Kowaleski was remanded to Southern Regional Jail.

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