1 shooting, 2 accounts

Trial begins for farmer accused of attack on ex-worker

February 28, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

Told that he was about to receive a big gift to reward his "integrity," David L. Wonderlin peeked through the swinging doors of his former boss' kitchen and spotted something that he said stopped him in his tracks: Eighteen inches - maybe more - of the barrel of a shotgun.

"I turned and ran, and there was a shot," the farmhand and carpenter testified yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court. He later added, "I was running for my life, as fast as I possibly could, and wishing I was in better shape."

No one in the courtroom disputed that a shot was fired that day in August 2005. But from there, jurors heard vastly different accounts of the events that brought police to a sprawling organic farm in northern Baltimore County's Worthington Valley.

James J. Dasher, 58, who owns the 100-acre Garden Harvest Farm, is charged with first-degree assault. As the trial began yesterday, his lawyer told jurors that the nonprofit farm provides food for Maryland soup kitchens as well as the poor of Appalachia and India.

Prosecutor William B. Bickel told the jury that Dasher accused his former employee of having an affair with his fiancee and threatened to kill him. Wonderlin testified that Dasher chased him out of the house that Dasher shared with his estranged wife and fired a second shot at him before Wonderlin escaped into the nearby woods and cornfields to call 911 from his cell phone.

Defense attorney James G. Pyne told jurors during his opening statement, however, that the shooting was an accident. He said Dasher tripped on a shoelace and unintentionally fired the gun, which he had decided on a whim to give Wonderlin as a parting gift after his fiancee forgot to box up the hammock he originally intended to give him.

"It's obviously not a safe thing to do, to walk around the house with a loaded shotgun," the defense attorney said. "And trying to unload it as you're walking is probably not the smartest thing to do."

Pyne suggested to jurors that Wonderlin wants money - he filed a civil lawsuit against Dasher after the shooting - and hopes to win control of Garden Harvest to convert it into an alternative healing center.

The case playing out in the fifth-floor Towson courtroom features so many twists that the prosecutor told jurors, "I think this trial, in the big scheme of things ... it's going to be entertaining."

The defense attorney acknowledged that the case does provide "an entertaining story," but he reminded jurors that the stakes for his client are very high.

He asked jurors to pay particular attention to details that put seemingly strange behavior - such as Dasher living with his estranged wife while being engaged to another woman and offering a 20-inch sheath knife and shotgun as gifts to an employee he had recently fired - into context.

Dasher built his wife, Edie, who suffers from Lyme disease, separate quarters on the farm they run together when their marriage "weakened" and planned to divorce her when her health improved, Pyne told jurors. In the meantime, Dasher became engaged to a woman who lived and worked on the farm, supervising the volunteers who planted, tended and harvested the crops.

And he decided to give Wonderlin - who had come to the farm the morning of Aug. 31, 2005, to pick up his last paycheck - the knife and shotgun as gifts because he thought of him as "a real woodsman," the defense attorney said.

Wonderlin testified that police picked him up on Mantua Mill Road and drove him back to Dasher's farm. On the way, he said, his cell phone rang, and it was his former employer.

"He said, `David, this is Jim. How are you?'" Wonderlin told jurors. After exchanging pleasantries, Dasher said, "David, why don't you come and get your car. I'll meet you by the field," Wonderlin recalled his boss saying. "His voice was calm - the same as always."

Dasher was arrested moments later on the driveway of his farm.

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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