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.

Sources:

  1. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19910309&slug=1270598
  2. http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2007/04/coach_who_killed_debater_will.html
  3. http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/William_Slagle
  4. http://www.leagle.com/decision/1996876686So2d190_1876.xml/COPELAND%20v.%20SAMFORD%20UNIVERSITY