Sniper case was a deep festering wound, U.S. Marshal says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some 12 hours after the last of the three victims of the 2003 sniper-style slayings fell dead in the parking lots of rural Kanawha County convenience stores, a former U.S. Marshal said that witnesses pointed to Shawn Thomas Lester as the connection that linked the three shootings.
"We definitely had a comprehensive grasp that he was involved," said John Perrine, who led portions of the sniper investigation while he was a supervising deputy with the U.S. Marshals Service. Perrine has since retired from the U.S. Marshals and is now the Winfield chief of police.
But according to Perrine, a disconnect between the local agencies assisting with the investigation and the federal task force that headed the search for the killer created the nearly decade-long lag that prevented authorities from charging Lester, who pleaded guilty last week to second-degree murder charges linked to one of the three slayings.
In June, during a preliminary hearing leading to the trial, Kanawha County Chief Circuit Judge Duke Bloom refused to allow testimony from Perrine. The former Marshal would have revealed that Lester, when he was arrested on a supervised release violation shortly after the slayings, admitted that he was at the scene when Jeanie Patton, one of the three victims, was murdered.
Lester's defense team said that the testimony should have been prohibited because Lester, at the time, was not under arrest in connection with the slayings, and that his rights were never properly read to him. The judge agreed.
The FBI, Perrine told the Gazette, ignored the U.S. Marshals' assertions that Lester was systematically linked to victims Gary Carrier Jr., Patton, and Okey Meadows, Jr.
Carrier, a car enthusiast, often hung out at Lester's garage in Campbells Creek on Rutledge Road. Marty Walker, one of the people reportedly responsible for the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of pink methamphetamine that Lester had stored in an engine block, was Jeanie Patton's common law husband.
Meadows, who police say wasn't involved in the drug theft and may have been randomly killed as a way to throw off the investigation, had known Lester since childhood.
Perrine said the FBI refused to listen, and told him to "let the professionals" handle the investigation.
"[It was] a deep wound that has festered over the years," Perrine said. "I'm a little touchy with it. I'm a little angry that people didn't give us our due."
Representatives from the FBI field office in Charleston did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Less than 12 months before the 2003 slayings, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who were dubbed "the Beltway Snipers," went on a three-week shooting spree in the Washington, D.C., area, killing 10 people.
In the wake of the random shootings, the FBI theorized that the Kanawha County sniper also selected his victims at random and began collecting information that eventually fit the profile for a man named Brian Caldwell.
Caldwell, according to previous Gazette reports, was a former coal miner turned stock market entrepreneur. Early on in the investigation, authorities identified Caldwell as having a large gun storage case with a cache of ammunition and telescopic sights.
He also owned a black F-150 that investigators believed was at the scene of at least one of the three slayings. Investigators said last week that the vehicle was probably a black Dodge truck.
Caldwell, according to Perrine, was a "loner, anti-personality-type" who would tend to fit the profile of the random shooter the FBI had spent a lot of resources trying to find. He was never charged with the sniper slayings.
"They were given a direction to go in," Perrine said. "They were narrow-minded and they didn't put the effort into looking for anyone else."
The Gazette has previously reported that Lester had a series of open-heart surgeries in 2005 and 2006, and that he suffered from a severe addiction to painkillers.
Sandra Shaffer, the wife of Rodney Preston "Big Rod" Shaffer, who was allegedly inside the same vehicle with Lester at the scene of Patton's murder, told investigators after Lester was arrested last year that he used drugs daily. Most often, she said, he used a needle to shoot them into his stomach and into a vein in his calf, according to interrogation transcripts filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court.
Doctors, according to Shaffer, nearly amputated one of his legs.
Perrine said that around the time of the surgeries, he and another officer considered visiting Lester in the hospital to illicit what they believed would have been a "deathbed confession" to the sniper killings.
"That's how strongly we still felt that he was the sniper suspect," he said. "[But] we would have been out of our jurisdiction."
Reach Zac Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.