State: Defendant’s texts with victim’s wife sparked fatal shooting

DOVER — Sexually charged texts sparked a confrontation that resulted in the shooting death of a 39-year-old man at Towne Point Elementary School last year, the prosecution said Tuesday in opening statements at Rodney West’s murder trial.

But, defense attorney Joseph A. Hurley noted that West, 54, had contacted Dover Police the day before Derrick Combs came to the school after hours on Aug. 28, 2018.

Mr. West, who worked as a custodian at the school, had been concerned about alleged harassment from Mr. Combs, Mr. Hurley said.
“(Mr. West) realized from his point of view his life was in danger,” the defense attorney added. He said the custodian had carried a gun to work.

A relationship between Mr. West and the wife of Mr. Combs, both of whom were working at Towne Point Elementary in 2017, had transitioned from an initially professional relationship to texts that became flirtatious and sexual in nature, according to the prosecutor Deputy Attorney General Gregory R. Babowal.

“What started as an inappropriate texting relationship ended in the shooting of an unarmed 39-year-old man,” Mr. Babowal said.

But the relationship between Mr. West and Mr. Combs’ wife never became physically intimate, Mr. Hurley said.

Yet, Mr. West supposedly continued to contact Mr. Combs’ wife, which left Mr. Combs agitated, the prosecutor said.
Defense layer Hurley said the relationship ended in October 2017.

However, evidence would show that Mr. West contacted the wife the day before the shooting and Mr. Combs went looking for him, the state maintained. Mr. Combs left home again the next day to search again, Mr. Babowal said.

In opening remarks lasting about seven minutes, Mr. Babowal first repeated an “I messed up” quote he attributed to Mr. West while speaking to a Dover Police homicide detective on the telephone in the shooting’s aftermath.

The prosecutors.

Mr. Combs was shot once in the head and chest and then twice in the abdomen while lying on the ground at around 10 p.m., according to the prosecution. Surveillance video of the incident was shown in court.

A Kent County EMS technician testified that Mr. Combs was pronounced dead at the scene after about 15 minutes of lifesaving attempts.

Following the shooting, Mr. West traveled to a family member’s home in Maryland, where he was apprehended by U.S. Marshals on Sept. 4, 2018, authorities said.

During a break Tuesday, Mr. Hurley said Mr. West would testify sometime next week. He is claiming self defense in the incident.

After the incident
Late in the day, Towne Point Principal Toriano Giddens testified that Mr. West called him moments after the shooting and they communicated two more times before midnight.
“He was frantic, seemed very upset, emotional,” Mr. Giddens recalled. “At one point he said, ’I’m sorry.’ “

The final contact came when Mr. Giddens was at the Dover Police Department and the call was placed on speakerphone with detective Dale Boney present. Mr. West told the officer he needed time to “clear his head” before turning himself in, Mr. Giddens said.
While Mr. Giddens was aware that Mr. West had a gun, he attributed that to being an Uber driver and said he never saw the weapon at school.

Also, the principal said that Mr. West had informed him of “talking” to Mr. Combs wife and that Mr. Combs had come to the defendant’s house where an argument ensued.

Mr. West believed “he would be fine,” Mr. Giddens said.
According to the prosecutor Mr. Babowal, Mr. Combs’ cousin was in his vehicle and then ducked down when shots were fired, emerging after Mr. West had departed the scene. The cousin checked on his wounded relative, tried to flag down any passing motorist and then fled for fear of Mr. West returning, Mr. Babowal said.

The cousin testified to hearing Mr. Combs say to Mr. West “What’s up?” and heard gunfire and then the defendant supposedly said, “This is what’s up.”

The defense attorney.

Explaining his actions and statements to police afterward, the cousin testified several times that “fear” and “panic” set in, and he was concerned that he had violated probation by missing a 10 p.m. curfew. He said that while he never saw Mr. Combs holding a gun that night he could not say whether he was in possession.

The cousin believed Mr. Combs was dead when he left the scene and testified that he did not contact police when he returned to his empty home.
A photo of a firearm recovered from Mr. Combs’ vehicle was presented as evidence. Defense lawyer Hurley described the sequence as an “ambush.”

Escalating voices
A witness living near the school testified that she called 911 twice after seeing two persons in the parking lot during a conversation with escalating voices. She did not know what was said and heard one gunshot, according to her testimony.

Earlier this month, Mr. West declined to accept a plea deal to manslaughter, which would have discontinued prosecution of the murder charge and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
Indicted on Dec. 19, 2018, Mr. West is being held in custody by the Delaware Department of Correction.

Judge Noel Eason Primos is overseeing the proceedings.
Indicted on Dec. 19, 2018, Mr. West is being held in custody by the Delaware Department of Correction.
The trial resumes this morning at 9:30.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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