BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Massey Energy's security director at the Upper Big Branch Mine was found guilty Wednesday of lying to federal agents and attempting to destroy evidence in the investigation of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
A 12-person jury returned its verdict after nearly six hours of deliberations in the case of Hughie Elbert Stover, a former Raleigh County deputy and longtime security director at Upper Big Branch.
Stover now faces up to 25 years in prison for two felony counts of making a false statement and trying to cover up records in a federal investigation.
Both charges focused on Stover's involvement in what prosecutors say was a widespread practice at Upper Big Branch of security guards helping to warn underground workers when government safety inspectors arrived.
U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger scheduled sentencing for Feb. 29.
"This will send a very clear message that this is way too important an investigation to obstruct," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a press conference outside the federal courthouse here. "We need to get to the bottom of what circumstances led to this explosion and who was responsible."
Stover left the courthouse without speaking to the news media, accompanied by family members and other supporters who partly filled one side of the courtroom for much of the two days of testimony.
Defense lawyer Bill Wilmoth said that Stover is "strongly considering an appeal."
"We're all obviously very disappointed with the verdict," Wilmoth said.
Wilmoth had argued in his closing statement that Stover was little more than a scapegoat "in the land of government gotcha."
"We're no closer to finding the real villain or villains in that disaster," Wilmoth said.
"They couldn't get you some executive who cut corners or shaved expenses," said Wilmoth, a former U.S. Attorney. "Instead, this is who they brought you -- a man who accidentally threw away some documents without thinking."
Stover is the second person convicted in what government officials have described as a massive and widespread criminal probe of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Last month, Berger sentenced former Upper Big Branch miner Thomas Harrah to 10 months in jail. Harrah pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009 and to then lying to investigators about his actions.
An independent investigation, a union probe and preliminary findings of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration have blamed the explosion on Massey's failure to maintain mining equipment, provide adequate underground ventilation and properly clean up explosive coal dust from mine tunnels.
During closing statements Wednesday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaire Malkin said the evidence clearly showed Stover falsely told investigators that his guards did not announce the arrival of government inspectors at the mine. Malkin said Stover then directed a subordinate to destroy documents that would reveal his lie.
"This wasn't just a small white lie," Malkin told jurors.
Investigators began exploring the inspection warnings after families of several miners killed at Upper Big Branch described the practice in some detail during a congressional field hearing in Beckley just weeks after the disaster.
Providing advance notice of inspections is a crime, but is currently only a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of six months in jail.