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FBI: UBB Mine disaster families 'may be victim of a federal crime'

Read the FBI letter here.

 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Families of the miners who died last April at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine might be the victims of a federal crime, the FBI has told families in a letter obtained by the Gazette-Mail.

Earlier this week, families received two-page letters from the FBI informing them that they might be eligible for certain government services provided to crime victims under federal law.

The letter was signed by Joseph I. Ciccarelli, supervisory special agent for the FBI's Charleston field office, and also carried the name of Michael A. Rodriguez, special agent in charge of the agency's Pittsburgh office.

"As you may be aware, the FBI has instituted an investigation into various activities at UBB in an effort to determine whether any Federal crimes have occurred," the letter said. "In connection therewith, you may be a victim of a Federal crime."

The letter continued, "This investigation can be a lengthy process and we request your continued patience while we conduct a thorough investigation."

The FBI letter was dated March 28, but was not received by some families until earlier this week.

Among other things, victims of federal crimes are entitled to updates from the government about the status of their case, the right to be heard at certain court proceedings, and to protection from the accused.

Stuart Fronk, assistant special agent in charge of FBI operations in West Virginia, said the Upper Big Branch correspondence was "a standard letter," but refused to answer other questions about the matter.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in Charleston would not comment on the letter, which was sent directly by the FBI and not by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Massey officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Goodwin's office has filed two criminal cases related to the Upper Big Branch Mine, but neither involved allegations that were directly linked to the cause of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.

Goodwin's office has charged the security director of Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary, which operated Upper Big Branch, with lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence in the case. The security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Also, Goodwin's office has secured a guilty plea from a former Massey miner who, for nearly two years, conducted safety examinations at Upper Big Branch without having the foreman's license required for such work. Thomas Harrah agreed to a plea bargain in which he admitted using a fake foreman's license number and then lied to federal investigators about the matter.

Documents previously made public indicate that federal criminal investigators are looking not only at the Upper Big Branch explosion, but also examining potential criminal activity related to hundreds of safety and health violations cited at the Massey mine as far back as 2006.

In a statement earlier this month, Goodwin indicated the criminal investigation of the Massey disaster is continuing.

"Since shortly after the tragedy at Upper Big Branch, the president has been clear in his directives," Goodwin said. "He expects us to investigate the cause of the explosion, bring those responsible to justice, and take the steps necessary to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again."

Pittsburgh lawyer Bruce Stanley represented families of two miners who died in a January 2006 fire at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, an incident that resulted in guilty pleas by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. and five mine foremen. Stanley said the new FBI letter might offer some indication of where the current criminal inquiry is headed.

"It is possible that authorities are referring to the crimes alleged in the two indictments that have already been issued, but the language and timing of those indictments make that possibility seem unlikely," Stanley said.

"In Aracoma, federal authorities regularly updated the widows as indictments or informations would issue, apprising them of their rights as crime victims, including their right to appear and be heard at various court proceedings," Stanley said. "Based upon that experience, I have to believe that, after a yearlong federal investigation, more UBB indictments are forthcoming."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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