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Policing the police: No oversight

In the video Roger Wolfe talks about the beating he says he took at the hands of State Police. Video by Douglas Imbrogno. 

Click here for more stories on police oversight

Click here for a timeline of events in the story below

State Police secrecy extends to forensic lab

This is the second installment in a three-part series examining the lack of police oversight in West Virginia.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There's a lot Roger Wolfe doesn't remember about the night in June 2007 when West Virginia State Troopers beat him so bad that cranial fluid leaked from his nose.

The prominent Charleston attorney knows that he had been drinking and shouldn't have been driving.

He remembers being pulled over by State Police in Charleston and being taken to the South Charleston barracks on a drunk driving charge.

And he remembers waking up in a hospital room and seeing his reflection in one of the room's shiny metal instruments.

"It was the first time I'd seen myself and I thought 'Oh my God, what happened to me?'" Wolfe said in an interview with the Gazette.

Wolfe sued the State Police and the troopers who allegedly beat him and tried to cover it up.

He is far from the first person to say troopers from the West Virginia State Police, the largest law enforcement agency in the state, abuse their power and put the public in harm's way. It's a story that's been repeated over and over for the past 30 years. (See timeline on Page 5A).

The State Police investigate other agencies when allegations of abuse arise. And in the Wolfe case -- and all others -- they investigate themselves as well.

There is an inherent flaw in having the same agency that is going to pay out money if abuse occurred also investigate that abuse, said Dan Hedges, executive director of Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm.

Under that system, people won't believe it when an officer is absolved of wrongdoing, Hedges said.

"If it's done internally and there's nothing wrong, people are just going to say there is a cover-up. It ought to have integrity," he said. "That is the saddest thing. It teaches disrespect for law enforcement."

No one from the State Police would agree to be interviewed for this story. Spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous cited as the reason the Gazette's lawsuit, filed in November, that requests records detailing how the agency handles allegations of abuse and misconduct.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also declined to be interviewed, citing the lawsuit.

State Police Superintendent Col. Timothy Pack has declined all requests for interviews by Gazette reporters since being appointed superintendent by Gov. Joe Manchin in December 2008.

Investigating each other

State Police troopers from the same detachment used to investigate one another when necessary, until a 1995 Supreme Court ruling forced them to do otherwise.

In 1990, 17-year-old Billy Ray Casto from Harts in Lincoln County said Trooper Joe Parsons beat him with fists and a flashlight.

Casto filed a complaint with the department the following year. A trooper by the name of B.R. Lester, who worked in the same detachment as Parsons, was assigned to the case.

Lester, who soon found Casto's claims unsubstantiated, was no stranger to complaints against State Police troopers.

In April 1980, after a call from Lester, he and about 20 State Police troopers went to the White House Tavern in Lincoln County.

Two biker clubs, the Brothers of the Wheel and The Bootleggers, were camped outside after a night of drinking. Members of the clubs said that the State Police mercilessly beat them with riot batons as they lay in their sleeping bags and tents as their wives, girlfriends and children were forced to stand in front of the bar and watch.

The clubs sued the State Police for $1 million, and got about $24,000 awarded to them by a jury in 1982. It wasn't much money, but it's one of the first, if not the first, time a jury ruled against the agency.

Lester, who is retired and has leukemia, declined to be interviewed for this story.

After Lester dismissed Casto's claims against his fellow trooper, Hedges and Morgantown lawyer Franklin Cleckley went to the state Supreme Court on Casto's behalf.

"It was common knowledge people ended up in the [State Police] barracks with the hell beaten out of them," Hedges said. "It was so common something had to be done. Everyone knew the ones that did it and the ones that didn't."

The Supreme Court asked a criminal justice professor from Temple University, James J. Fyfe, to review the State Police's procedures when a trooper is accused of abuse. Fyfe recommended that outside groups and citizens participate in such investigations.

But Supreme Court justices ignored that recommendation when they ruled on Casto's petition in 1995. In a unanimous, unsigned opinion, they ordered the State Police to ensure a thorough investigation of abuse allegations be conducted by a neutral party. The court refused to require a civilian review panel, saying the State Police superintendent would still make the ultimate decision.

"Making a statement"

To this day, State Police refuse to release information about their investigations of their own troopers.

The lawsuit filed in November for the Gazette, by lawyer Sean McGinley and the firm DiTrapano, Barrett and DiPiero, asks for reports produced by the department's Professional Standards section, which handles internal investigations. It was set up after the Casto ruling in 1995.

The lawsuit was filed after requests for the public information from State Police and the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety were repeatedly denied. The original request said the names of troopers in the records could be hidden.

In past interviews, State Police Capt. Gordon Ingold, who runs the Professional Standards Section, has said legislative rules prevent him from releasing information about cases.

Legislative rule 81-10-6.2, part of the section that governs the State Police, says documents related to internal investigations "shall not be released ... except by the direction of the Superintendent or by order of a court with competent jurisdiction."

"We believe the rule prohibits telling anything, and we don't want to be in violation of the rule," Ingold has said.

Joe Ciccarelli, FBI supervisory senior resident agent in Charleston, has investigated allegations against the State Police. He believes the agency has an aggressive internal investigative unit.

The State Police keep detailed reports, in contrast to many smaller agencies, Ciccarelli said.

"I've had the State Police superintendent call me and say, 'Please investigate this.' There isn't a reluctance on their part," he said.

State Police set up the Professional Standards Division after the Casto ruling in 1993.

Eleven years later the State Police put Joe Parsons in charge of the Professional Standards Division -- the same Joe Parsons accused of beating 17-year-old Billy Ray Casto in 1990, the incident that led to the state Supreme Court ruling and the creation of the section. Parsons retired in 2008.

"It's unbelievable how the person that gave rise to the section, that they put him in charge," Hedges said. "It's the State Police making a statement."

"We did look at that original so-called irony with what took place back in 1991," Lt. Col. Dave Williams, then-State Police deputy superintendent, said at the time. "But there was no real concern or hesitation by those involved in the decision."

'The cover-up follows'

All of the State Police troopers named in Roger Wolfe's lawsuit -- Paul A. Green, Jason S. Crane, Kristy L. Layne and J.K. Rapp Jr. -- are still with the agency. It's not clear if they were disciplined in any way.

There will be no federal prosecution of the troopers, said Chuck Miller, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.

There were no eyewitnesses to the alleged beating, Wolfe's couldn't remember the details of what happened and the video equipment didn't work, Miller said. The troopers themselves all told the same story, he said.

Wolfe said he filed his lawsuit, not because he needed the money -- he doesn't -- but because he wanted to stop such incidents from happening to someone else.

"Our understanding of what they say, it changed over time, their version of events to their bosses. But the essence of what they said was that I tried to head butt them and they had to take me down," Wolfe said. "Meaning they threw me down on the floor. My injuries were completely inconsistent with falling down on the floor. I was handcuffed, remember."

Many victims sue, not because they want money but because they don't want to see someone else be the victims of similar abuse, Hedges said.

"They want to correct the problem but the system isn't set up to correct the problem. The way the system is constructed, the cover-up follows," Hedges said.

In Tuesday's Gazette: Some towns have or are looking at creating their own civilian review boards.

Reach Gary Harki at gharki@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

 

 


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