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Coonskin logger gets 1 chance to make good on damage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County parks officials will give a logger accused of stealing timber from Coonskin Park one chance to make good on the alleged theft and damage to the park -- or they will sue him for about three times their initial offer.

Chuck Bailey, a lawyer for the Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission, told parks officials at a regular meeting Thursday that he calculated the cost of lost timber and damage to Coonskin Park at about $149,600.

Contractor David Russell Bowen cut trees at the park in May and June under a verbal agreement to help clean up the park from derecho storm damage. However, parks officials said, Bowen was authorized to cut down only 31 storm-damaged trees. Instead, he cut more than 300, which he sold at several sawmills, forestry officials have said.

Bailey hired a forestry expert, at a cost of $2,500, to help figure out the damage over the trees Bowen allegedly took, as well as incidental damage to other trees in the park and damage to the park caused by Bowen bulldozing logging roads through the woods. He recommended the parks board offer to settle with Bowen for the cost of the damage and lost trees, plus court costs.

With legal fees, Kanawha County Parks Director Jeff Hutchinson thinks the bill will come to about $157,000, a sum that will be presented to Bowen for payment.

"I'll make that demand, and I'll make it one time," Bailey said. "I think it's that simple."

If Bowen pays up, parks officials will drop the matter. If not, they will go to court.

The bill will be higher if parks officials file a civil lawsuit. Under state law, the park is entitled to triple damages for at least part of its losses.

Parks Commission President Anna Dailey requested that the parks board ask for higher damages if it ends up taking Bowen to court. She also wants to sue Bowen and his workers personally for the alleged damage and theft.

"I don't want to file suit against a shell company that has no money," Dailey said. She said she wants to reach Bowen, his workers and truck drivers who she said took timber out of Coonskin in the dead of night "and knew they were robbing the park."

Bowen said Thursday afternoon that he wanted to talk to his lawyer before making any public comment.

Cpl. Brian Humphreys of the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the alleged timber theft. No charges have been filed.

Some people are asking how Bowen could have been cutting unauthorized trees for two months without parks officials noticing.

Former state National Guard adjutant general Allen Tackett, a member of the Parks Commission, said it is embarrassing that Bowen was allegedly able to take truckload after truckload of timber out of the park without park staff, park police or Hutchinson knowing about it. Parks officials were not aware of the problem until Margaret Zaleski, a frequent park visitor, pointed out the alleged theft.

Zaleski repeatedly has grilled the Parks Commission on the sequence of events that led up to the timbering contract. The discussions that led to the oral agreement are unclear from Parks Commission minutes, although members of the parks board have said they gave Hutchinson permission to negotiate the contract with Bowen.

Nancy Ward, who has clashed with parks officials in the past over the handling of walking trails at Coonskin Park, suggested that mismanagement is behind the problems with Bowen.

"This park has had a lot of problems, and it's centered around the parks director, Jeff Hutchinson," she said. Ward, who co-owns a Charleston business, suggested she'd fire a manager under similar circumstances.

Humphreys said he has found no evidence that parks officials were involved in any kind of conspiracy surrounding the alleged timber theft. He said he still can pursue criminal charges if the Parks Commission files a civil lawsuit against Bowen.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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