The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 11, 2013

Prosecutors: Probable cause found to charge Portis in woman’s murder

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

BECKLEY — Prosecutors had “probable cause” to charge a Beckley man with first degree murder in the shooting death of a Lanark woman last month, Raleigh County Magistrate Greg Tanner ruled Tuesday.

West Virginia State Police charged Aaron Portis, 38, on Aug. 31 with murdering Debra Dalton, 51, although Portis told police that another man had shot Dalton on Aug. 18 or Aug. 19.

Dalton’s body was discovered Aug. 19 beneath her Jeep in Harper Heights.

State medical examiners reported that she’d been shot twice with a “small caliber” weapon.

Portis’ attorney, John Mize, asked Tanner to drop the charges. Mize said police were unable to provide a motive, a weapon or any physical evidence directly linking Portis to the crime.

Mize also said that Portis had been held more than the 10 days that by law may lapse between a preliminary hearing and arrest, if weekends were counted.

“There’s nothing in the rules that say weekends don’t count,” Mize said, adding that in a first-degree murder case, all legalities should be followed.

Mize also said that Portis was erroneously informed at the time of his arrest that he would have to face an arraignment hearing in “circuit court” and would not be given one before a magistrate.

After reviewing the record of the arraignment proceedings, Tanner said the arraignment had been legal and denied the motion for dismissal.

According to testimony by West Virginia State Police Trooper First Class J.J. Martin Tuesday, a woman alerted police on Aug. 19 that she had discovered Dalton’s body under a Jeep parked on property that had been owned by the woman’s late mother.

Martin said when police arrived at the property around dusk, they discovered that Dalton’s body had been positioned under the Jeep. Using flashlights, they saw blood on the “center area” of her Jeep, including the gearshift and front passenger seat. Police did not open the Jeep that night, Martin said.

Martin testified that lab technicians later found at least one .25 caliber shell casing in the car, but he was not sure how many were found or whether they were tested for fingerprints.

Police did not locate a weapon.

They identified Dalton by tracking down her ex-boyfriend, who had transferred the Jeep to her, Martin testified.

Martin said Portis came to the police station to be interviewed on Aug. 31, after police had identified him as a person who was known to spend time with Dalton.

According to Martin, Portis told police that he and Dalton were friends and had not had any arguments. He said he and a Beckley man had been riding around with Dalton in her Jeep from 8 or 9 p.m. on Aug. 18 until around 1 a.m. Aug. 19.

Portis said the trio had pulled up on the Harper Heights property in the Jeep and the other man had apparently shot Dalton while Portis was “outside of the vehicle, according to Martin’s testimony.

“He heard shots and he took off running,” Martin testified concerning Portis’ statement to police.

Portis then called a Beckley man and asked for a ride, saying he’d had a sexual encounter with an unidentified person. The man picked Portis up in a company truck owned by a local financial business, and Portis drove the truck from the pick-up point because the friend was unlicensed, Martin testified of Portis’ statement.

Although Portis denied touching Dalton after the shooting, “bodily fluids” were discovered on the driver’s side in the work truck, Martin said.

Martin testified that the man Portis identified as the shooter was caught on surveillance tape at an Eisenhower Drive gas station shortly before midnight on Aug. 18, the same time Portis said he’d been riding around with Dalton.

Under questioning by Mize, Martin admitted that police did not identify a motive for the shooting or find a weapon and did not find any physical evidence linking Portis to the crime, even after executing a search warrant on his house.

They did discover illegal drugs at Portis’ house during the search, Martin added.

Martin said all reports from other troopers have not yet been submitted to him.

Mize said he was disturbed that Portis had been arrested on so little evidence and without all necessary reports.

“Before we take away somebody’s liberty or freedom, get those results,” Mize said.

Raleigh assistant prosecuting attorney Pat Lamp argued that sufficient evidence was presented against Portis for first-degree murder because “in this type of murder, there is no evidence of any plan.”

Portis’ case will now proceed to a grand jury.