Six and a half years ago, Dale Wayne Eaton was stabbed, beaten with a rifle butt and left bleeding in the Red Desert near Rock Springs. The first officers to find him assumed that he was the victim of a brutal attack.
"What we first perceived was that this guy had been assaulted by some whacked-out hippies," said Wyoming State Patrol Officer J.B. Tibbets.
But Tibbets and the other officers who investigated quickly discerned that Eaton, a middle-aged man with no criminal past, was the instigator of an attack which years later would help detectives solve the murder of a young Billings woman.
On Wednesday, a jury in Casper convicted Eaton, 59, of kidnapping, raping and killing Lisa Marie Kimmell. The verdict was reached after a nine-day trial in which Eaton's public defender didn't dispute that he killed Kimmell, but argued that prosecutors had overcharged him for the crime.
Now, the same jury will decide whether to sentence Eaton to death. The penalty phase of the trial is scheduled to begin today.
The DNA sample from Eaton that eventually linked him to Lisa Kimmell's murder was taken after his conviction in 1997 for the attack on a couple and their 5-month-old baby in the Red Desert.
The woman, Shannon Breeden, is among the witnesses expected to be called by prosecutors in their effort to convince jurors that Eaton deserves the death penalty for Kimmell's murder. Breeden' s testimony will be offered to show that Eaton has a history of committing crimes, an aggravating factor that prosecutors need to support a death sentence.
For Breeden, who now lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., it will be the first time she has seen Eaton since he pulled a gun on her and demanded that she drive into the desert. In a telephone interview with The Gazette, Breeden said she has always opposed the death penalty in general, but she feels differently about Eaton.
"He tried to kill us," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, he slipped through the cracks once and I'll be damned if I'll let him slip through the cracks again."
Here's Shannon Breeden's story of what happened during her encounter with Eaton in the desert, which she is expected to describe when she testifies today:
Breeden and her husband, Scott, and their 5-month-old son, Cody, were driving from Michigan to Washington state in September 1997 when their van broke down on Interstate 80 about 40 miles west of Rawlins.
Breeden said they tried unsuccessfully to get someone to stop and help them. They spent the night in the van and were running out of water the next morning when a man pulled up.
Dale Eaton seemed concerned for the stranded family, and offered them a ride in his van to Rock Springs where they could get help. Afraid of spending any more time stranded on the side of the desolate stretch of highway, Breeden said, they accepted Eaton 's offer. It was about 9 a.m. when they climbed in Eaton's van and headed west toward Rock Springs.
Breeden said she was uncomfortable with Eaton right away. "I thought to myself he looked like a serial killer," she said. "But I'm kind of a hippie mom, and I told myself not to judge and think like that."
After awhile, Eaton said he had to relieve himself and pulled the van off the highway at a maintenance exit. Scott was sitting in the passenger seat holding the baby as Eaton stepped out of the van. When he returned, Eaton told her to move to the driver 's seat because he wanted to rest.
Breeden obliged, and got behind the wheel. Eaton climbed in and stretched out on a bed in the rear as Breeden started the van. She had driven only a short distance when something caught her eye. She turned to see Eaton holding a rifle on her husband and her baby.
"He said, 'Drive down this road,"' Breeden recalled. The road was a two-track dirt trail leading away from the highway.
"When I saw nothing in front but desert, I thought if I'm going down I'm going down right here," Breeden said.
Breeden pushed her foot on the accelerator and turned the van in a tight circle, trying to knock the rifle away from Eaton. Eaton jumped forward and tried to grab the keys out of the ignition. Breeden's husband jumped out of the van with the baby.
With Scott and the baby out of the van, Breeden also fled from Eaton, jumping into the dirt and scrambling toward her husband. But Eaton grabbed her and the two went down next to the van. The rifle fell out of Eaton' s reach, but he grabbed a knife from under the passenger seat of the van. Breeden jumped on Eaton's back, and the man spun her down to the ground and put the knife to her ribs. Her husband grabbed Eaton's arm to keep the knife from plunging into her.
"He said, 'Let go or I'll kill her,"' Breeden said.
Scott grabbed the rifle with his other hand and hit Eaton on the head, breaking the wooden butt. Eaton went down, but started to get up. Scott lunged at Eaton to keep the knife away from his wife. The two wrestled, and during the struggle Eaton was stabbed in the chest. The wound slowed Eaton long enough for Breeden to grab the broken rifle and fire a shot into the dirt.
"He said, 'If you fire that again it will blow up and kill you," Breeden said.
She handed the rifle to Scott, who beat Eaton several more times until the man said he had enough.
When Eaton gave up the fight, the couple grabbed their baby, jumped into the van and fled. They stopped about a mile away at a maintenance area where they were able to call for help.
Tibbets and two other Wyoming Highway Patrol Officers were closest when the call for help was broadcast. Officer David Gray, who is now sheriff of Sweetwater County, was among the first to speak with Shannon Breeden after the incident.
"She was still wired tight, still afraid," Gray said. "Obviously, she knew she was fighting for her life."
Tibbets and another officer found Eaton alone and bleeding in desert. An ambulance was called, and the officers gave Eaton first aid. Eaton didn't have much to say, Tibbets recalled.
At first, it was difficult to distinguish attacker from victim, said Sweetwater County Chief Deputy Attorney Anthony Howard. Eaton was seriously injured, and the Breedens were distraught but unharmed. Fortunately, Howard said, Eaton made the prosecutor 's job easier by making a quick confession.
The story Eaton gave still puzzles the prosecutor, who described Eaton as "kind of broken down."
"It was real odd," Howard said. "Eaton's statement all the way through was that he had cancer or a life-threatening disease and he wanted to commit suicide but didn't have the guts. He was hoping they would kill him. Suicide by stranger."