Sustained Outrage

Policing the Police: Motorcycles and riot batons

The Lincoln County Massacre wasn’t really a massacre.

No one was killed the night in April 1980 when members of two motorcycle clubs say they were beaten by State Police with riot batons as their children, wives and girlfriends watched. Still, that’s what some of the people connected to the incident call it.

The incident left an indelible mark on the bikers who were there. So much so, in fact, that West Virginia filmmaker Elaine McMillion is making a documentary about it.

Before talking to Elaine, I’d never heard of the White House Tavern or any of the events that happened there. When she told me the story more than a year ago, it got me thinking about how the same types of allegations and problems keep coming up again and again with the State Police. The idea of history repeating itself is not new, but learning about the bikers and what they say happened directly led to yesterday’s story on the State Police.

I helped Elaine get a couple of interviews with lawyers who were involved with the bikers’ case, and in return she gave me more information than I’ll ever be able to use in a newspaper story about the incident.

One more thing to note, Gazette columnist and reporter Rick Steelhammer wrote a great story on it back in 1980 titled, “Modern Day Western.” You can read it, along with other newspaper accounts on Elaine’s website here.

Below is a longer, but still very abbreviated, account of what allegedly happened that night:

April 20, 1980 – Members of the Brothers of the Wheel motorcycle club and other bikers camp out at the White House Tavern in Lincoln County. A local biker, who is not a member of the gang, wrecks his bike outside a nearby house.

The neighbor later testified that another biker who arrived on the scene, who was also not a member of the club, asked him if he knew another man had been killed that night. The biker was lying, no one had been killed. “He said, ‘If you want trouble, you’ll get trouble. There are 50 of us. You’ll never get through the night,'” the neighbor testified.

The neighbor called the police and at 2 a.m. about 20 state troopers clad in riot gear and wielding nightsticks arrive at the White House Tavern. Members of the Brothers of the Wheel said they were mercilessly beaten by the officers with riot batons as they lay in their sleeping bags and tents. They said their women and children were forced to stand in front of the bar and watch.

West Virginia State Trooper B.R. Lester later testified that he called for back-up after residents near the tavern complained they heard gunfire and felt threatened.

Fifteen bikers were arrested and charged with public intoxication and resisting arrest. The charges were dropped when the troopers couldn’t identify whom they arrested. A later Lincoln County indictment on unlawful assembly charges was also dropped.

Rickey Lester, president of the Bootleggers Motorcycle Club, which was also at the White House Tavern, said he held up his hands when he saw the police coming, according to a report published in the Gazette at the time.

“Then a guy hit me on the back of the head with a club and threw me to the ground,” he said. “When I was laying there, I heard screams and thuds. I was kicked and poked. I never said a word, but somebody said I was sassing someone and I got a good portion before I got in the car. … They threw my keys away. One guy stomped on my glasses, then wadded them.”

Members of Brothers of the Wheel sued 19 state police, claiming they were attacked without provocation. They sued for $1 million.

In 1982 a  federal jury awarded 10 members of Brothers of the Wheel and the Bootleggers a total of about $24,000 in property damages and medical and legal costs stemming from the incident at the White House Tavern. The jury did not award compensatory damages to the bikers.

Policing the police: More on the video and timeline

Twelve minutes is a long time to sit and watch a video of anything, let alone just a guy sitting at a table and talking. But that’s the video you’ll find at the top of my story about the West Virginia State Police today. The video is of an interview with Roger Wolfe, who says he was beaten at the hands of State Police.

I don’t think I’ve ever had an interview where I needed to ask fewer questions (most of which were edited out helpfully by Douglas Imbrogno, who produced the video.) Mr. Wolfe simply sat down and told his story.

The reason it’s so long is to give you, the reader, a chance to listen to Mr. Wolfe tell his own story in its entirety.

People call me all the time with stories of how one police officer or another hurt them or abused their authority. Not even half of those stories are believable, and only a small percentage of the ones that are ever have a chance of becoming something you’ll read about in the paper.

In Roger Wolfe’s case, from the beginning we had a Kanawha County Magistrate and his lawyer, Ben Bailey, who were willing to go on the record about the incident, not to mention his mug shot. It was an easy decision to print the first story back in 2007. I didn’t even talk to Mr. Wolfe until earlier this year.

But most of the time the decision to print one of these stories is not easy. When someone calls me with some horrible tale of police brutality, the first thing I do is try to decide whether that person and their version of events is believable or not.

Even if I do think they might be telling the truth, that doesn’t mean they are and it doesn’t mean it’ll ever make the paper – but you have to start somewhere.

I also wanted to give you a little more information about the timeline by Gazette Graphic Designer Kyle Slagle that goes with the State Police story.

In Monday’s story police accountability expert Sam Walker said, “We have news stories about a particular officer when misconduct results in a very serious problem. We don’t really have a professional system to prevent these kinds of problems.”

That’s exactly what I found when I started researching this stuff.

The single best source for information has been newspapers, especially the Gazette’s archive. To assemble the timeline, I asked Steve Campbell, who takes care of the Gazette’s electronic library, to run a special search giving me listings of stories mentioning the State Police. The lengthy files aren’t perfect, but they give me just about all of the stories mentioning the State Police in chronological order going back to 1985.

I took those files and put them in DocumentCloud, a really neat tool that helps journalists examine and share documents. From there, I just had to pick out the most important dates and edit the information down to something someone other than me wouldn’t mind reading.

Below I’ve embedded the DocumentCloud files, which list in chronological order stories about the State Police going back two-and-a-half decades.You can make the document full-page by clicking the box in the bottom right-hand corner. The notes you’ll see to the right are my own and mostly just list what certain stories are about.

State Police stories from 1985-1989

State Police stories from the 1990s

State Police stories from the 2000s

Policing the police, part 3

State Police patchSome of the people who commented on my last post think that the Gazette unfairly focuses on the West Virginia State Police and gives other agencies a free pass. I’m not sure that Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster and Kanawha County Chief Deputy Johnny Rutherford would agree, because I have had conversations a lot like the one I described with both of them on more than one occasion.

Both of those departments investigate allegations of officer misconduct internally. Well, the people who conducted the Charleston Police Department’s double-dipping probe were two senior officers, Capt. Kevin Perdue and Capt. Lex Williamson, and a retired CPD captain, John Tabaretti. (The CPD also has its own Professional Standards unit.)

The CPD objected vigorously — to the point of taking the matter to the state Supreme Court — when the Gazette requested time sheet records of its officers. The CPD’s position seemed to be, Trust us, we know what we’re doing. We don’t need the Gazette looking over our shoulder. Everyone should automatically have faith in the results of our investigation of our own officers. (In a unanimous opinion, the justices re-affirmed that payroll records are public and therefore subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.)

As far as reporting on allegations against the four troopers, it is worth noting that the media — the Gazette included — reports on allegations against suspects in criminal matters before they have been proven in a court of law all the time. (And with the blessing of law enforcement, who sometimes tell us when they will be taking certain suspects to their arraignments. Or do you think we just happen to have cameras at the courthouse every time there’s a “perp walk”?)

There’s a difference between making a complaint and filing a lawsuit. To me, it’s analogous to the difference between someone walking into a police station and saying, “My neighbor stole my lawnmower” and an officer filing a criminal complaint actually charging the neighbor with theft.

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Policing the police, part 2

“It’s our policy not to discuss personnel matters.”

That’s the standard answer reporters get when we call a ranking officer at a law enforcement agency and ask if any steps have been taken regarding an allegation of officer misconduct.

“But the public has the right to know if public servants…” we counter, only to run into another stock reply: “The results of internal investigations, if one was conducted, are confidential.” And that’s usually the end of it, because both of us know that internal records are protected by a Freedom of Information Act exemption, and if the police don’t volunteer any additional information, the press has no way of compelling them to produce it.

I ran into this very issue when I tried to figure out last year if any disciplinary action had been taken against any of the four troopers — Jason S. Crane, Paul A. Green, Kristy L. Layne and John K. Rapp Jr. — reportedly involved in the alleged June 2007 beating of Charleston lawyer Roger A. Wolfe while in police custody (and the alleged effort to cover up the incident).

Astute Gazette readers will recall that Layne was the trooper who issued tickets outside former Kanawha Circuit Judge Lyne Ranson’s wedding in July 2007. (Ranson told the Gazette that she felt that Layne and her boyfriend W.C. Moyers, a Kanawha County Sheriff’s deputy, targeted her guests because Ranson represented Moyers’ ex-wife in their divorce proceedings.) That incident led to Gov. Joe Manchin, who attended the reception, calling Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford at home.

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Policing the police (and their attorneys)

Charleston lawyer Roger A. Wolfe’s civil lawsuit against the State Police and four of its troopers over his alleged beating while in police custody is still in the discovery phase, and already things have gotten contentious.

(As I reported earlier, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has launched a grand jury investigation into the alleged beating. But this is a separate issue to any possible criminal charges.)

Wolfe asked for copies of the personnel files of the four troopers alleged to have been involved — Paul A. Green, Kristy L. Layne, Jason S. Crane and John K. Rapp Jr. — as well as any records of complaints of misconduct that may have been made against each trooper and any disciplinary action that may have been taken. This is hardly an unusual request during discovery, when both sides exchange information they plan on using during trial.

Incredibly, the State Police’s attorneys, John A. Hoyer and Virginia Grottendieck Lanham, refused, saying that the police have an exemption from disclosing this material under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. And it’s true, the FOIA law does not require the disclosure of “[r]ecords of law-enforcement agencies that deal with the detection and investigation of crime and the internal records and notations of such law-enforcement agencies which are maintained for internal use in matters relating to law enforcement.”

Except…

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West Virginia State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous just sent out a press release titled “Continued Assaults on Officers” which says violence against officers is up and complaints against them are down.

It included the following quote:

Research conducted indicates that a majority of external allegations filed against employees of the West Virginia State Police in 2009 were determined to be either not sustained or unfounded.¬†Furthermore, external complaints have continued to decrease in recent years.”

I called Sgt. Baylous and asked him what the research was and where I could get a copy of it. He said that it was “qualitative” research and not “quantitative” – he said he interviewed Maj. Gordon Ingold, head of the Professional Standards section, which is how he came up with the statement.

He also pointed to the department’s Professional Standards Section report, which is released every year. The Gazette has repeatedly asked for more information than the report gives. It’s why we filed a lawsuit in November.

The press release (which is printed in its entirety at the bottom of this post) appears to tie the number of police officer deaths and assaults thus far this year to media accounts.

Here’s part of the quote by Col. Timothy Pack (pictured above):

From time to time, allegations of police brutality on behalf of the West Virginia State Police have been over-sensationalized by a select few in the media. The deaths of fourteen officers and the recent shootings in both Huntington and St. Albans remind us that enforcing the law is a dangerous task.

I asked Sgt. Baylous for an interview with Pack, who has denied all requests in the past. This is the answer Pack had relayed back to me through Baylous:

“When you apologize about the lies you have written about the State Police, then you will immediately have your interview.”

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State Police settle with Roger Wolfe

State Police patchThe West Virginia State Police have agreed to pay Charleston attorney Roger A. Wolfe $200,001.01 to settle his lawsuit over an alleged beating that occurred in the South Charleston barracks while Wolfe was in custody.

Wolfe maintained that on June 17, 2007, following his DUI arrest, two troopers took him to a small room and beat him (with his hands cuffed behind his back) so badly that cranial fluid came out of his nose. While offering slightly differing accounts of how it happened, the troopers suggested that Wolfe became belligerent and lunged at Paul A. Green, who was forced to sweep Wolfe’s legs out from under him to prevent a head-butt.

wolfemugshot.jpgIn any event, Wolfe ended up requiring treatment at Thomas Memorial Hospital. Although he was treated and released that night (and arraigned and jailed; that’s his mugshot to the left), Wolfe later spent six days in the hospital.

The settlement covers all of the troopers that Wolfe said beat him and later covered it up (Green, Jason S. Crane, Kristy L. Layne and John K. Rapp Jr.). It also covers former superintendent D.L. Lemmon, three unnamed troopers and the agency itself. (Court documents indicate that Wolfe wanted to depose troopers L.W. Price, J.T. Portillo and D.O. Bennett, who were reportedly in the barracks at the time of the alleged beating.)

According to filings in the civil case, all seven of the troopers testified in front of a federal grand jury convened in June or July 2008 as part of a criminal inquiry into the alleged beating. The U.S. Attorney’s Office routinely refuses to confirm or deny the existence of a grand jury investigation, and to date, no criminal charges have been filed in the matter.

(Read previous posts related to Wolfe’s lawsuit here, here and here.)

You can read more about this in tomorrow’s Gazette.

Updated: Here is a link to the Gazette‘s story on the settlement.

Thornsbury, troopers, and government transparency

Judge Michael Thornsbury

In this July 2004 file photo, Mingo County Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury¬† stands in a stairwell of the Mingo County Courthouse, in Williamson, W.Va. Federal prosecutors on Thursday, Aug 15, 2013, charged Judge Thornsbury with abusing his power and commandeering a southern West Virginia grand jury in a failed attempt to frame a romantic rival for crimes he didn’t commit. (AP Photo via Charleston Gazette, by Chris Dorst)

Among the more troubling details alleged in the new federal grand jury indictment of Mingo Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury is the accusation that a West Virginia State Trooper was essentially part of the judge’s plot to frame the husband of a secretary who had broken off an affair with Judge Thornsbury.

As the Gazette’s Kate White described in this story:

The indictment also alleges Thornsbury enlisted State Police Trooper Brandon Moore, who worked in the Williamson detachment, to file a criminal complaint against Robert Woodruff, accusing him of stealing scrap metal from his employer.

Woodruff worked at a coal preparation plant, where mined coal was processed before being shipped. There, he removed scrap metal that had fallen in with the coal.

When Thornsbury found that Woodruff’s supervisors allowed him to salvage drill bits, among other scraps that could be repurposed, he allegedly persuaded Moore to file a criminal complaint against him.

Moore — who was named West Virginia State Police “Trooper of the Year” in 2010 — resisted at first because he knew Woodruff’s bosses allowed him to take the metal, according to prosecutors. But the trooper eventually gave in to the judge and filed the complaint, the indictment alleges.

The indictment also alleges that Trooper Moore lied to a grand jury that Judge Thornsbury had put together as a tool in his effort to go after Woodruff.

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