BY MIKE FUHRMAN
Before leaving home in the early morning hours of September 7, 2020, to hunt with three friends and his son, Tommy Cass woke his wife and told her he would be back in a couple of hours to take her shopping in Wilkesboro.
Testifying in Iredell County Superior Court on Tuesday morning, Karla Cass said her husband loved the outdoors and few things brought him more happiness than running his beagles and taking his nieces trout fishing. Tommy had been hunting on the old Campbell dairy farm in Union Grove for years and had made plans over the weekend to meet his friends and son Thomas there that morning for the first day of dove season.
“He told me he loved me, and then he walked out the door,” Karla Cass recalled.
That was the last time she saw her husband. Within a couple of hours, Tommy Cass was dead.
The man who shot him, Blaine “Dale” Hague, is on trial in Iredell County Superior Court. He is charged with first-degree murder.
During her opening statement Tuesday, prosecutor Lisa Coltrain told the jury of 10 men and two women that the shooting was the tragic culmination of an ongoing dispute between Hague, a former Iredell County Sheriff’s Office employee, and Tommy Cass.
Hague had repeatedly told Tommy Cass that he did not want him hunting on the farm, which was near Hague’s home, even though Cass had permission to do so from property owner Bonnie Campbell, the prosecutor told the jury.
The evidence will show, Coltrain said, that Hague came to the farm on the morning of September 7, 2020, and reignited that dispute. After Tommy Cass pushed Hague to the ground, the defendant pulled out a pistol and shot Cass in the head, killing him, the prosecutor said.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Mark Davis told the jury that Hague shot Cass because he was afraid for his life.
“He had no choice,” Davis told the jury. “In that moment, he had to decide whether he was going to be the victim of a crime or potentially the defendant.”
After the completion of opening statements, the prosecutor called the state’s first five witnesses to the stand, including Karla Cass, Thomas Cass and the three other men who met Cass in the cornfield off Tobys Footlog Drive before sunrise to go dove hunting on September 7, 2020.
Tommy Cass had told his wife about the ongoing dispute with Hague, which she said included a recent encounter at a 7-Eleven store where Cass regularly filled up his work truck with gas, Karla Cass testified. Her husband was not angry about the situation and had laughed it off, she said.
Thomas Cass told the jury he had spent Labor Day weekend riding all-terrain vehicles with his dad and drove himself to the hunting spot on the Campbell dairy farm about 7 a.m.
When Thomas Cass arrived at Tobys Footlog Drive, his dad and three friends were already hunting. He saw his dad’s white F-350 flatbed truck parked near the field and could see one of his dad’s friends.
Before Thomas could join them, Hague pulled up in his maroon Ford truck and approached him.
“He asked if I was there with Tommy Cass,” Thomas Cass testified. “I said, ‘Yes, we have permission.’ ”
Hague, he said, appeared upset and angry.
“He said we didn’t have permission to shoot his horses,” Thomas Cass said during questioning from the prosecutor.
Thomas Cass called his dad on his cell phone to tell him Hague was there. His dad seemed unconcerned and explained he had written permission from the property owner, the younger Cass told the jury.
After taking the witness stand, Tommy Cass’s friends, Grant Evans, Don White and Brent Cass, offered similar versions of what happened next.
Hague walked into the cornfield and first approached Brent Cass, telling him, “You guys can’t be shooting. You’re scaring my horses,” Brent Cass testified.
Brent Cass said he told Hague that Tommy Cass had permission from the property owner to hunt there.
Hague responded, “I know Tommy” and then continued to walk into the field, Brent Cass told the jury.
About that time, Tommy Cass shot a pair of doves and then began walking rapidly in the direction of Hague, White testified.
“From the way Tommy walked up the hill, I could tell he was mad,” White added during his testimony.
When Hague and Tommy Cass met in the field, they stood toe to toe, the other hunters testified.
Brent Cass, who said he is a distant relative of Tommy Cass, testified that he heard Tommy tell Hague: “Man, I’m tired of every time I’m out here, you’re out here messing with me.”
After Hague said something that none of the hunters heard, Tommy Cass extended his arms and pushed Hague to the ground, the other hunters said.
Tommy Cass had left his gun in the field and was unarmed, they told the jury.
After Hague returned to his feet about two feet away from Tommy Cass, Hague’s arm come up from his side.
“I said, ‘No! No!’ ” White told the jury. “About that time I heard the gunshot.”
Tommy Cass fell to the ground and never moved again.
“I knew Tommy had died,” White testified.
The prosecutor played two recordings of 9-1-1 calls made by Thomas Cass and Grant Evans.
During cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses, Davis, the defense attorney, elicited testimony that Tommy Cass had used illegal drugs — for chronic back pain related to his work, his wife said — and that one of the other hunters was a convicted felon who could not legally hunt because he was prohibited from possessing a firearm — and misled law enforcement by hiding his shotgun and telling them he was not hunting.
Davis also attempted twice to introduce testimony that Tommy Cass was a convicted felon, but Judge David Hall sustained objections by the prosecutor both times, blocking that testimony.
According to the defense attorney, Hague knew that Tommy Cass was a convicted felon and had known him to carry a pistol in his waistband in the past.
The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday morning.