Crime Historian: The Debate Coach & His Student

Crime Historian

Samford University, 2014

It is considered one of Alabama’s most brutal and notorious crimes of the 80’s. When I accidentally stumbled upon the story while chasing one rabbit trail or another, I was surprised to learn my university was connected to it. The timing of my discovery was really bizarre. I’ll explain.

I spent this past summer taking 4-week classes so I could stay on track to graduate with my Master’s in May of 2015. One of the classes I had to take was Debate and Argumentation. It was a full four weeks of debate: introduction to debate, the styles of debate, how to coach a debate team, debate tactics, and basically a crash course for us soon-to-be English teachers. The guy who taught the class is the current debate coach at Samford University. He’s a great teacher, and I can’t say enough good things about him. But right after I finished the class in July, I came across this old news story…

Apparently, Samford’s debate coach in 1989 went apeshit on a student and brutally stabbed him death.

The first thing you need to know is that Samford is in a decent part of town.

The second thing you need to know is that it is a Baptist-affiliated college, and therefore, generally attracts likeminded students and faculty.

The third thing you need to know is that Samford takes its debate pretty seriously. They win awards all the time. The members of the debate squad are deeply committed.

Though the crime did not occur on campus, the fact that it even occurred is out of the norm. In my experience, Samford is a safe place to attend school, and everyone is generally pretty friendly. It’s located in Homewood, Alabama, one of the more pleasant Birmingham suburbs. Though I was only 2 years old in 1989 and lived several hundred miles away, I think it’s safe to say the Samford and Homewood communities were shocked when the news broke.

William Slagle, 42 at the time, was displeased with his star debater. Rex Bartley Copeland’s performance was not up to par at debate practice. Rex, 20 years old, was getting tired of the demands placed on him by the debate team. Rex wanted to enjoy college and fraternity life, and he wanted to focus on his law school aspirations. Slagle, his coach, wasn’t having it.

At 2:00 AM on September 21, 1989, Slagle drove to Rex’s apartment in Inverness (a neighboring community) where the two proceeded to argue. Slagle stabbed Rex to death, leaving blood all over the apartment. He then went back to his office, and in a botched attempt to cover up his involvement, left a voicemail for Rex asking him to return later for more practice.

It’s a sad story. A star debate student’s life is cut short by a professor who takes debate too seriously. But that’s not even the weirdest part.

Slagle went to the funeral and offered condolences. He did all the things you are supposed to do when you have just found out your favorite student has been murdered. Several days later, he sent a letter to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office confessing his deed and then went on the run.

He ran for six months.

What does a middle-class professor do to support himself while on the run for six months in 1989??

Anyway. William Slagle wrote a few more letters, one claiming self defense. He was even featured on America’s Most Wanted.

Slagle was finally captured and found guilty. He is currently serving a life sentence. He was denied parole twice: once in 2001 and once in 2007.

It is worth noting Slagle’s side of the story. During the trial, he claimed he went to visit Rex after a bad practice to try to console him. They got into an argument and Slagle claimed he acted in self defense, even visiting a hospital for a slash wound 4 1/2 hours later. While no one can be sure what Slagle’s intentions were when he showed up at Rex’s apartment in the early morning hours of September 21, 1989, we do know that Slagle left Rex to die.

Rex’s parents later attempted to sue Samford for negligent hiring and supervision regarding Slagle.

This whole story is just weird. A professor takes himself too seriously, murders a student, then goes on the run. I’d like to interview this dude because none of it makes sense.

UPDATED 6/18/2016: A commenter recently noted that Slagle actually died in prison in 2010 of unknown causes.



11 thoughts on “Crime Historian: The Debate Coach & His Student

  1. I watched Bill die. He had cancer, it was misdiagnosed (there is no such thing as health care in the Alabama Department of Corruptions), after his first chemo treatment he told me, “They’re killing me”, later that evening he was dead. Bill ran the law library at Kilby for 18 years. Because I was an attorney, I took over after him. Bill was homosexual and that, according to those who knew him best, had something to do with the murder. He treated me well and was respected by the administration and some inmates. He was despised by a lot of inmates. As far as I know, he is the only inmate in Kilby’s history who had a memorial service. I was there along with the warden and his entire staff. Bill’s brother, who I think may have been his only living relative, refused to take Bill’s body so, he is buried in a pauper’s grave at a prison cemetery. I forget which one but, I can find out. Prison is a bizarre environment and Bill was an enigma. Bill’s best friend is a guy named Ed Flynn. Flynn is at Staton Prison serving time for manslaughter. Flynn is fiercely loyal to Bill and probably would not tell you much about him, however, no one knew Bill Slagle better than Ed Flynn and it might be worth a try.


    • Hi John,

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments. While I am intrigued by the psychological, historical, and social aspects of particular crimes, I always try to keep in mind that these people I write and talk about are real people with stories. And that’s ultimately what I find most interesting… learning more about people. Thanks for sharing what you know about Bill. Maybe I will get a chance to speak with Ed Flynn someday. At least now Bill’s death is not so mysterious to me!


  2. wow…I just watched a show on the ID network called Campus Killers (?) or something along that line…anyways, at the end of the program all they said was that Slagle died mysteriously in Prison and no cause was ever released. strange. so I googled it, and saw this comment section, amazing what you can find out when you check a bit on the internet!!! thank you John m. for putting a bit closure on this story for those that where/are interested!!


  3. I was 24, a couple years out of college, and lived at the same apartment complex in Inverness. Your article contains one minor inaccuracy and IMO one major omission. William Slagle was not captured, he turned himself in. Walked into the police station and said “I believe you’ve been looking for me.” Also, Slagle had a history of being REALLY close to the attractive young men on his debate team. There’s no doubt he was in love with or in lust for or at a minimum totally obsessed with Rex Copeland. Seems that traditionally the star male debate team member would at least humor Slagle by flattering him as a great mentor and coach, smile and play along with his flirtations, and for 1 or 2 of them maybe more. But seems young Rex was quite the rebel, not gonna put up with it. Slagle felt Copeland “disrespected” him at practice the afternoon before the murder. Slagle was enraged, went to Copeland’s apartment that night and took his young life. He’s filth and I personally am happy to hear he suffered and died in prison.


    • Greg, thanks so much for your comments. I wrote this article several years ago, so it is nice to know people are still reading. I may go back and update the article based on your comments if I can find a source.

      Your allegation of Slagle being close to students definitely provides a better motive than being a crazy professor type. Ugh–it’s still so awful to think about.

      Thank you again.


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