Erick Shute thought his neighbors were trying to kill him.
Living on a mountain top in rural West Virginia, the New Jersey native — who moved west to live as a "sovereign citizen" — didn't have many neighbors. But the few he did have, he believes, were out to get him.
Days before Shute allegedly shot and killed three men in what be claims was self-defense, he believes his brake lines were cut by them and they had stolen nearly $20,000 in property from his land.
When he attempted to confront the men for the alleged thefts, the situation escalated.
In a telephone interview from his jail cell in Eastern Regional Jail in Morgan County, Shute recalled the events that led to the fatal shooting and ended in Pennsylvnia after he led police on an 8-hour multi-state manhunt through part of New Jersey.
The secluded lifestyle is what drew Shute, 33, and his mother Linda to the mountains of Great Cacapon, a small town of 350 where dirt roads lead to the doorsteps. Shute's mother bought five acres two years ago, according to tax records, and the two moved from Pennsville Township in pursuit of a better life.
An only child, Shute grew up in Salem County and graduated from Pennsville Memorial High School. His mother said he was an outgoing child and always friendly.
"He loves animals — he has always been a very kind-hearted, loving person," Linda Shute said, adding that her son feared for his life.
As a teen, he loved performing on stage. He participated in theater programs, and later in life became the singer of a heavy metal band and toured Europe and Canada.
While still living in New Jersey, Shute declared himself a Sovereign Citizen, meaning he did not believe he was subjected to federal, state or municipal laws — and he made a point of letting others know his beliefs.
Signs on his front lawn in Pennsville often protested taxes and an upside down flag — meant to act as a "signal of distress" — drew the ire of veterans in his small town.
Five years ago, Shute's beliefs also got him arrested when he tried to get local police to "sign a peace treaty" to allow him to drive without a license. The incident led to a confrontation with police where he was ultimately charged with aggravated assault against a police officer, resisting arrest and obstruction. He was found guilty of fourth degree resisting arrest, according to the Salem County Prosecutor's Office, and spent 194 days in the county jail.
Now, the penalties he faces are much steeper.
Act of self-defense
Shute, was charged with three counts of murder for the deaths of Jack Douglas, Travis Bartley and Willie Bartley.
The three men — and a fourth unidentified man who was able to escape the day of the shooting — were neighbors to Shute. They previously lived on property Shute's mother, Linda, owned in Great Cacapon. The men later moved down the street from the trailer where Shute and his mother lived.
But for at least six months, Shute said he believed the men were stealing from his property allegedly to pay for their drug addiction — syphoning gas from their cars and taking a $7,000 chainsaw.
"These guys had threatened me before," Shute said in the interview from jail. "The only problem is, it is more than a hunch, but not enough to get a conviction. You can't prove it, no pictures, no witnesses."
The day after the brake-line incident, Shute said he saw the men on his neighbor's property in a truck they didn't own, so he confronted them and accused them of stealing. But the men refused to leave.
"They were acting belligerent and hostile. The three guys were acting like thugs," Shute said.
Armed with a .223 rifle, Shute said he fired two warning shots.
"You can fire your gun all you want — I'm not afraid of you or your (explicit) gun," Shute claimed one of them said to him.
Then, one of the men want back to the truck and reached for what Shute believes was a revolver, while another man was holding a chainsaw.
"I could not win a fight. When I saw him reaching into the truck, that's when I fired and shot 'em," Shute said.
Investigators later said the men were clearing wood from a property near Shute's home and that Shute had hid behind a tree when he fired his rifle at the men. A fourth man was able to escape and call 911. Shute said this week he didn't know the fourth man was there until he saw him running into the woods about 200 feet away.
Immediately after the men were shot, Shute fled the state.
"At first I was scared — it took a little for it really to all kick in. I did nothing wrong here," Shute said.
His plan was to head back to his grandmother's home Salem County — roughly a 3.5 hour drive away — and then to his girlfriend's house in Pennsylvania.
"I was going to turn myself in the next day," he said. "I went to get my stuff. I realized what I would have to do. I knew I'd be going away for a long time. I didn't want to see my stuff scattered about."
On the run
Shute said he called authorities an hour after the shooting to tell them what happened. He was also actively posting on his Facebook page and responding to other comments on a community page, claiming the shooting was self-defense.
Meanwhile, law enforcement in West Virginia were tracking Shute's phone to locate him and eventually traced him to Exit 7 on Interstate 295 near Pedricktown in Salem County. It was after midnight when they finally arrested him in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he was held until being extradited back to West Virginia.