Rex Copeland was the star of his team, but he was growing weary of the grueling practices, the constant traveling, and, most of all, an overly-demanding and never satisfied coach.
The twenty-year-old student attended college in football frenzied Alabama, but Rex was not an athlete. Instead, he was the star of his Samford University debate team. The debate was nowhere near the level of football, but it was a big deal at the school of approximately 5,000 students in Homewood, Alabama, five miles south of Birmingham. Samford had a long tradition of great debaters and had nearly won the national debate championship in 1989. The 1989-90 team, led by Rex, was poised for another run at the title.
Rex enjoyed arguing issues such concerning capital punishment as a deterrent to crime, the constitutionality of affirmative action, or the effectiveness of the trade embargo with Cuba. Now, however, his priorities had changed. He longed for more downtime to spend with his girlfriend, attend a few social events, and enjoy the remainder of his college career.
By early September, Rex decided to give up his craft. He wanted to be a lawyer, and debating had prepared him well for that career. Now, however, he was stretched too thin, and he wanted to focus on finishing college, preparing for law school, and having a little fun in between.
Forty-two-year-old Bill Slagle was a Stamford professor and the school’s debate coach. He was unmarried, had few close friends, and rarely socialized. Teaching and coaching debate were Slagle’s life, and he took both very seriously.
Slagle, regarded as one of the best debate coaches in America, was a drill sergeant in a suit and tie. He was always quick to ridicule and rarely prone to praise. One student described Slagle as the “Bob Knight of debate coaches.”
An athletics coach might make a player do 100 extra push-ups or run 100 more laps if he were not meeting the coach’s standards. Slagle would make a debate member read scores of articles and write briefs if he was not satisfied with the performance. Slagle produced winners, but many debaters quit the team because of their disdain for him.
Slagle had a saying; “School first, debate second.” Rex accepted the mantra for two years and probably would have continued to do so if there were more to it. For Slagle, however, that was the rule in its entirety; there were no third, fourth, or fifth facets.
On the morning of September 22, 1989, Rex’s debate teammate, Scott Barber, and girlfriend, Susan Dean, went to his off-campus apartment to check on him. They hadn’t heard from him since the previous day and were concerned. He hadn’t shown up for his classes and debate practices. He had told Susan he would meet her at a party on the evening of the 21st, but had not done so.
Upon arriving at Rex’s apartment complex, Scott and Susan found his car in the parking lot. They knocked on his door but received no answer. A maintenance man agreed to let them in.
As the door swung open, Scott and Susan fell back in shock. On the floor in front of the door lay Rex in a pool of blood. An autopsy later determined the college student had been stabbed 22 times.
After examining the crime scene, police found the perpetrator had wiped all fingerprints. Rex’s wallet was found in the apartment intact, so the police quickly ruled out robbery as a motive. Investigators determined the murder was not a random crime because there were no signs of forced entry into the apartment. Two glasses of soda were on the table, indicating Rex had voluntarily let someone into his apartment, likely someone he knew.
Police found a bloody handprint with five stretched fingermarks on the apartment door. They were Rex’s, indicating he had made a desperate attempt for the door before he died. Detective Mike Campbell said the image was one of the most haunting of his career as a homicide detective.
Rex’s valiant fight for his life led to the person who brutally took it. DNA was found on the glasses and elsewhere, but it is not what lead to his killer. At the time, the DNA analyzing process was slow, and labs were overloaded with cases. The tests could take weeks, possibly months.
Police believed Rex had inflicted cuts on his killer’s arms. Their hunch proved correct as such wounds provided the break in the case.
A local hospital informed police that on the evening of September 21, the night of the murder, a man came to the emergency room for treatment of deep lacerations on his forearm. The patient told doctors he had sustained the injures from grabbing a towel rack after slipping in the shower. The injured man’s name was Bill Slagle.
When Slagle attended Rex’s funeral, those around him said he appeared more nervous than sad. He offered his condolences to Rex’s father by shaking his hand and hugging him. William Copeland recalled Slagle wincing, saying he had hurt his arm from a fall in the shower.
By the time police attempted to question Slagle, he had skipped town, having withdrawn $10,000 from his bank account. A manhunt ensued for the debate coach.
One week later, the Homewood police received a letter from Nashville, Tennessee. It was from the coach turned fugitive. Slagle admitted killing Rex but claimed it was self-defense, saying Rex had pulled a knife on him, and Slagle wrestled it from him in self-defense. In the process, the coach said, he killed his top debater.
The following week, Slagle mailed a letter from Los Angeles International Airport, saying he was going to commit suicide.
No one believed Slagle was planning to end his life, but what he did next was nearly as unexpected.
On April 3, 1990, after six months on the run, Slagle calmly walked into the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and said, “My name is William Slagle. I believe you are looking for me.” During questioning, he reiterated his claims of self-defense.
Slagle may have been one of the country’s top debate coaches, but at trial, his arguments fell flat. In less than an hour, the jury rejected his self-defense claims. Slagle’s claims fell flat as the evidence showed he had cleaned up the crime scene, removed evidence, and even locked the door to Rex’s apartment upon leaving.
In December of 1990, Slagle was sentenced to life in prison.
Slagle’s motive for murdering Rex probably stemmed from Rex’s desire to leave the debate team.
At debate practice on the afternoon of September 21, Slagle had been especially hard on Rex and berated him in front of the team for what Slagle considered a poor performance. The coach and student had a heated verbal argument that ended with Rex storming out of the room. Scott went after Rex to try to get him to return, but Rex would have none of it, telling his teammate he had had it with Slagle and was quitting debate.
Rex and Slagle had butted heads many times before, and Rex had made similar statements, but he always returned to debate. Scott believed Rex was blowing smoke again and would return when he calmed down. This time, however, Rex meant what he said.
Police believe Rex told Slagle later that day he was quitting debate and that Slagle went to Rex’s apartment that evening to ask him to reconsider. Slagle longed for the national championship, and he knew, even though he had demeaned Rex’s performance, that he was his best debater and could not win the title without him.
The University of Southern California (USC) was also a preeminent debating school and had asked Rex if he would consider transferring and debating on their team. Prosecutors believe Rex refused Slagle’s request to return to the Samford debate team. His mentioning of considering a transfer to USC may have been what pushed Slagle over the edge.
The great debate coach had plenty of time to prepare his case for appeal, but he was still unconvincing. Slagle was denied parole in 2001 and 2007. He died behind bars in 2010.
To the end, Bill Slagle was a coward who heinously and selfishly took a promising life. To that, there is no debate.
The Rex Copeland Award is given each year to the team that wins the National Debate Competition.
• America’s Most Wanted
• Associated Press
• The Birmingham News
• Gadsen (Alabama) Times
• Orlando Sentinel
• Seattle Times
• Tuscaloosa News
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Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in Arkansas.Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)
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