Sustained Outrage

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.

Continue reading…

W.Va. and guns: Is a statewide policy a good idea?

During yesterday’s House debate, Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, held up his Cabela’s credit card and said gun buyers would be inconvenienced by a three-day waiting period.

One of the refrains yesterday from supporters of a House bill that would override local handgun purchasing restrictions like the one in place in Charleston for more than 20 years was that it’s better for West Virginia to have a common, statewide policy on such matters.

Is that really true? Not necessarily, at least according to a study of gun availability and gun crime performed a few years ago by the state’s Division of Justice and Community Services.   The study, Gun Availability and Crime in West Virginia: An Examination of NIBRS Data (subscription required), was published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed journal Justice Research and Policy. Among other things, it concludes:

The results indicate that counties with high concentrations of both legal and illegal guns are associated with violent crime, gun crime, and knife crime. These findings partially substantiate results from previous studies.

In its coverage of yesterday’s House debate, the Daily Mail included some figures on gun deaths (similar numbers to what we published on this blog in a previous post):

In 2010, West Virginians were killed by guns at a higher rate than people living in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, New York and many other states with large urban centers.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14.1 West Virginians per 100,000 were killed by a gun in 2010. The rate is adjusted to take all ages into account and includes all gun-related deaths. The CDC recommends it for comparison purposes.

Michiganders died at a rate of 11 people per 100,000. Rates for deaths caused by guns in Ohio, Illinois, California and New York were all below 10.

West Virginia’s rate was 13th in the nation for 2010, the latest data available. States with higher rates included Alaska, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming.

The Daily Mail story also noted:

Neither supporters nor opponents mentioned any statistics or data to prove the Charleston law is or is not working. Only anecdotal evidence was provided.

If lawmakers had asked the authors of this state report for their conclusions, they might have been told this:

… The findings do appear to support the notion that guns are related to elevations in violent crime and that guns do not lead to lower crime rates. Both the legal and illegal gun measures were positively and significantly related to each of the three offenses examined in this study—violent crimes, gun crimes, and knife crimes. The significant relationships held even after controlling for various other community structural factors.

Lawmakers might also have learned:

In summary, these analyses have identified significant “hot spots” and “cold spots” of illegal gun availability across West Virginia through the use of spatial analysis tools. These graphs also depict co-occurring and notable pockets of both criminal incidents and presence of guns (both legal and illegal) rather than a more uniform distribution of crime and guns across the state.

And:

… The geographic analyses revealed that gun crimes are not uniformly distributed across the state. Rather, these crimes are significantly clustered in only a few counties. This suggests that any policies, programs, or practices designed to target such criminal incidents are likely to be best launched in and around these counties rather than applied statewide. Such analyses are likely to be of particular importance to states with small population centers such as West Virginia, where counties rather than cities are often the units targeted for crime reduction initiatives.

Of course, this is just one study — and if you read the whole thing, the authors outline a variety of caveats and weaknesses in available data. But it is also one more study than lawmakers relied on when the House passed its gun bill yesterday …

Why Charleston limits handgun purchases

In the aftermath of the May 17, 1993, gangland-style slayings of Tyrone and Jermaine Judd at a Summers Street bar, a white sheet covers one of the victims and yellow evidence markers cover shell casings. Gazette file photo.

As some West Virginia lawmakers move to try to block Charleston’s two decade-old law to limit handgun sales, the Gazette’s Jim Balow this morning provided readers with a glimpse back to why the city passed this restriction in the first place:

Tom Lane remembers the furor over his plan to limit handgun sales in Charleston 20 years ago like it was yesterday.

“I have a vivid recall of the anger,” said Lane, a veteran member of City Council and its current president.

“My mother wanted me to have a police escort at the time. I got phone calls. I was accosted at my home. The NRA came out in force. I don’t recall threats directed at me, but it was clear that, being the focal point for this bill, they directed a lot of attention to me.”

This was long before Sandy Hook, Gabrielle Giffords and the Aurora theater, before Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine.

City Council members in 1993, by a slim margin, passed laws to make it harder for people to buy multiple handguns in Charleston, and from carrying guns on city property.

Now a number of state lawmakers seem intent on overturning those measures. A House of Delegates committee approved a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the ability for cities and counties to enact gun laws within their borders. The full House will consider the bill Friday.

The problem in Charleston in the early 1990s was not mass murders, but a drugs-for-guns trade that led to violence in the streets. Rose City Cafeteria, a Lee Street landmark for 41 years, closed its doors in 1992 because dinner customers were scared off by the crack cocaine sales and gunfire on nearby Summers Street.

Dallas Staples, who was then Charleston’s police chief, explained:

Charleston was experiencing a lot of violence, violence related to drugs.

West Virginia has some of the most lax gun purchasing laws. We worked closely with federal agencies, especially Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where we got information from other states that weapons used in crimes in major cities — Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington — were being bought in Charleston.

Straw purchases were going on, where people were buying six, seven handguns at a time. People with no criminal background were being paid to go in and buy handguns.

West Virginia was just known as a place to get guns. What do you buy five 9mm guns for, and you no longer have them? Those people who were purchasing couldn’t justify why they were doing it.

There’s also some media coverage (we ran the AP story in our print edition) out this week about a major new study published by the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The AP summarized it:

States with the most gun control laws have the fewest gun-related deaths, according to a study that suggests sheer quantity of measures might make a difference.

Continue reading…

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.”

Continue reading…

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

Ryan Diviney: Tragedy of a night in Morgantown

The Washington Post has a story today about West Virginia University student Ryan Diviney, who was walking to the Dairy Mart on Willey Street next to WVU’s main campus when he was assaulted after exchanging words with some fellow students.

Diviney is now in a coma and cared for at home by his parents.

Last month Austin Vantrease was sentenced to prison for two to 10 years for his part in the beating. He was convicted of malicious assault in July

Co-defendant Jonathan May, 19, of Newark, Del., is serving a one-year sentence for misdemeanor battery.

Below is the story Kathryn Gregory and I did on Diviney and campus security at WVU in November 2009.

Recent violent incidents buck statistics, police say

Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009

By Kathryn Gregory and Gary A. Harki

Ryan Diviney was just going to get a snack the night he was severely beaten in a Morgantown parking lot.

The 20-year old West Virginia University student from Ashburn, Va., was going with some friends to the Dairy Mart on Willey Street about 3 a.m. Nov. 7, when they passed another group of students. The two groups exchanged words and started fighting, said Sgt. Steve Ford of the Morgantown Police Department.

“The fight didn’t last very long,” Ford said. “It took seconds.”

According to witnesses, the people who attacked Diviney and his friends continued to kick and assault him after he had already fallen to the ground.

Diviney is now in a coma in an Atlanta hospital, according to www.ryansrally.org, a Web site set up to update Ryan’s friends and family on his condition.

His beating was the most severe, but by no means the only, instance of violence against a WVU student this school year. But according to statistics provided by WVU police, fewer violent crimes have been reported this year than in 2007, despite a larger student population.

Still, several high-profile incidents have occurred on and around WVU’s campus in recent weeks.

On Oct. 18, 18-year-old WVU student Gregory T. Hansen was stabbed and seriously injured in a scuffle at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Third Street, according to Morgantown police.

One week later, on Oct. 25, police responded to a report of gunshots outside Summit Hall. No one was injured, but police found several bullet casings and bullet holes in the building’s exterior.

On Nov. 11, a female student was walking across campus outside Arnold Hall when a male elbowed her in the stomach, grabbed her purse and ran away. Although the female was not seriously injured, police categorized the incident as a strong-armed robbery because of the physical contact involved.

The next day, a male student allegedly forced his way into the rooms of several female students at the Towers dormitories and fondled the students, according to WVU police. Ethan Kyle Dye, 18, of Parkersburg, was charged with first-degree sexual abuse and released on a $10,000 cash bond.

Trends

WVU police responded to 11 violent crimes in October, including both aggravated and simple assaults, compared to 20 such incidents in October 2007, according to university police statistics.

“The trend so far is that crime is down,” said WVU spokesman Dan Kim. “That’s not to take away from the seriousness of any of the things that happened this year. … The university takes the safety of our campus and students very seriously.”

Two incidents involving weapons occurred in October, the first since March 2007, according to Clery report statistics released by WVU police. Before that, they say, the last campus incident involving weapons was in January 2006. (The Clery Act requires all colleges that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses.)

Two sex crimes, one categorized as a sexual assault and another as a sexual offense, were reported at WVU in September. The most recent reported sexual assault before that was in February.

The university works with police and students to curb crime. Campus police are working with Morgantown police to solve the Diviney case and others, Kim said.

“We have Ryan and his family in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.

Police arrived on the scene of Diviney’s assault moments after someone called 911, said Morgantown police Sgt. H.W. Sperringer.

Family members, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have credited the police department’s quick response with saving Diviney’s life.

“We’ve definitely had some fights, but this actually, based on injuries, is not normal. We don’t get a lot of injuries this serious,” Sperringer said. “It’s a shame this had to happen. You don’t like to see people hurt here in town.”

The Dairy Mart faces a wall of windows in Arnold Hall, the southernmost student housing building on West Virginia University’s sprawling campus. Police have leads in the case but want anyone who saw something that night to contact them, Ford said.

“Ryan’s fevers have not been as high over the past day or so, although they are as frequent,” a family member wrote on the Web site on Thanksgiving day.

“He really looks like his old self, as I remember seeing him sleeping. He was able to tolerate being in a seated position for four hours today.

“We pray that he will wake from his deep sleep every possible second. We pray he will heal, both physically and mentally. We simply pray for his happiness.”

Reach Kathryn Gregory at kathryng@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119. Reach Gary Harki at gharki@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

Gauley Bridge update: A ticket forgiven

No word on how many tickets Gauley Bridge police wrote over the Bridge Day weekend, but Raynell Smith, who said in my Oct. 9 story that she planned on driving about 700 miles to contest her $150 ticket, sent me an e-mail over the weekend saying the ticket has been forgiven.

Smith planned on making the trip from her home in Virginia for the Wednesday court date.

Here’s part of her e-mail.

He (Parsons) said that he was dismissing my case because it was such a “hardship” for me to come so far. I said that I appreciated his gesture. One reason that I had planned to come was to explain the positive point system in Virginia. I have 5 positive points on my license because VA awards up to 5 points to safe drivers. I told him that Officer Whipkey was not aware of this and assumed that I had 5 point against my license. Whipkey became mad when I told him that I had never had a ticket before. Anyway, I told Brian this in hopes that it would get in the record.

As Whitney Burdette and I reported back in August, Gauley Bridge police have issued 5,057 speeding tickets in the last three and a half years — more than any other city or town in the state, according to figures from the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles.

He said that he was dismissing my case
>> because
>> it was such a “hardship” for me to come so far. I said that I appreciated
>> his
>> gesture. One reason that I had planned to come was to explain the
>> positive
>> point system in Virginia. I have 5 positive points on my license because
>> VA
>> awards up to 5 points to safe drivers. I told him that Officer Whipkey
>> was
>> not aware of this and assumed that I had 5 point against my license.
>> Whipkey
>> became mad when I told him that I had never had a ticket before. Anyway,
>> I
>> told Brian this in hopes that it would get in the record.