Bluefield Daily Telegraph
WELCH — It was a typical day on the picket line on Jan. 16, 1990. Insults were hurled and rocks thrown as members of the United Mine Workers of America continued an ongoing protest against the non-union Bailey Energy mine. Around 8:30 a.m. the atmosphere changed. Gunfire erupted. When the smoke cleared, one man was dead and two were injured.
John McCoy, 42, of Welch, a UMWA member, died as a result of gunshot wounds to his neck and chest areas. Also injured were Steve Morgan, who suffered a gunshot wound to his right thigh, and Darrell Morgan, who was shot in his abdomen and hand.
The dramatic escalation in violence on the cold winter morning was a surprise to many who had been monitoring the strike for months. “I’ve been on several picket lines just to keep law and order and never had this happen,” former West Virginia State Police trooper Steve Cox said. “I wouldn’t exactly call it friendly – there was maybe fussin’ a little bit – but it was not really aggressive.”
Cox, now retired and a McDowell County magistrate, was the trooper on scene on that fatal January morning in Northfork Hollow. Initial violence that day began with rocks thrown at vehicles carrying non-union miners to the site. “There were three vehicles with non-union workers going to work at the mines,” said trooper B.J. Garretson, of the Welch detachment of the West Virginia State Police. Garretson is handling the McCoy case as part of an ongoing initiative by the State Police to renew investigations into cold cases.
Rocks were thrown at the first two vehicles as they passed the picket lines at the mouth of the hollow near Jake’s Store. The windows were busted out, Cox recalled.
“There was so much confusion, I couldn’t see who threw anything,” Cox said. “I interviewed a few people then they proceeded on to work. I began talking to some of the picketers. They were friendly. There was no aggression.”
As the third vehicle passed, shots were fired. Garretson said the vehicle was hit by a couple of bullets, including one to the rear quarter panel.
“I heard something,” Cox said, recalling that morning 21 years ago. “I thought it was firecrackers. I said, ‘What are you doing throwing firecrackers …?’ ”
The driver of the truck stopped, and he and a passenger got out, Garretson said. “They had weapons and took cover behind the vehicle and returned a few shots in retaliation. [The report] never did state whether they were shooting at someone special, in a wooded area or in the air.” On the scene, Cox called for backup. “They told me they were going to storm the mine,” he recalled. “I pulled my cruiser across the road so no one could drive up there.”
“After they returned fire, several other gunshots rang out,” Garretson said, citing the initial report. “Some were coming from the woods, some from workers. I think this took place over five to 10 minutes.”
When the gunfire subsided, Trooper Cox was “the only one there,” Garretson said. “There was not a whole lot he could do. Once the gunshots stopped, he started going around talking to people. About 30 minutes later he found Mr. McCoy dead and two other picketers had been shot.”
Strikes during the 1980s and ’90s marked a turning point for the UMWA. Buck Wade, former UMWA field director for district 17, now 29, recalled how a lot of new people, “educated people,” came into the southern West Virginia counties and agitated the miners.
Wildcat strikes became more frequent.
Wade described the mine being picketed in 1990 as a “small operation.”
“The mines had once been union and they turned it to non-union, and some of the fellows up there they were picketing the mines because they wanted it to be a union mine,” Wade said. “Some of the guys who once worked there wanted their jobs back.”
Daily Telegraph articles at the time report unpaid medical bills as the cause of the strike.
“There’s been lots of problems down here between the two groups in the past, but the incident at Northfork Hollow didn’t have anything to do with it,” Danny Surface, a UMWA international board member, told the Daily Telegraph. “They were protesting because they wanted $375,000 in back medical bills.”
Surface told the Telegraph that United Pocahontas Corporation owned nine mines in McDowell County, three union and six non-union, before selling them to Regency Industries Inc. He said members of the union protested for six months trying to get all the mines to shut down operations until the money owed to the workers by Regency had been paid.
All the mines closed except for Bailey Energy and H.C. Industries, both located near the scene of the incident, Surface said in a January 1990 Daily Telegraph story. When the two non-union mines refused to stop operating, UMWA members began to protest.
First Sgt. J.R. Pauley, West Virginia State Police Troop 6 commander, was a trooper at the Welch detachment when the strike was taking place. He said troopers were sent to the site each morning to monitor the situation.
However, the police presence did not stop tensions from escalating on that January morning.
At McCoy’s funeral on Jan. 19, 1990, hundreds of UMWA members, dressed in camouflage, came to pay their final respects and show solidarity. The shooting death was described by District 28 spokesman Gene Carroll as “cold-blooded murder.”
“It’s a great tragedy,” Carroll said in a Jan. 22, 1990, Daily Telegraph story. “The fact is the man had a couple of children and a family he cared about. It was murder, nothing but cold-blooded murder.
“It’s a terrible thing,” Carroll continued. “It’s a sad day for all of us. If the resolution to bloodshed is with more bloodshed then there is no solution.”
Many were surprised by the violence at the strike. Jack Wells, former captain of plant protection at Gary, told the Daily Telegraph in 1990 that there had been shootings in the past, but nothing as tragic as McCoy’s death.
“The only violence around here is when this area (Gary) was first organized,” he said. “I do remember shots being fired, but nothing quite as serious. That was back in 1941 when U.S. Steel first signed an agreement with the United Mine Workers.”
Also in 1990, Jim McNeely, general counsel for UMWA District 29, told the Daily Telegraph that the shooting was uncommon. “There have been disputes in the area, but nothing to cause people to shoot people over,” he said.
Even today, the incident is still recalled as a surprising act of violence. “Nothing like that ever occurred around here, as far as the union,” Wade said. “I think that was about the biggest thing.”
During the investigation into McCoy’s death, it was discovered that “a bunch of people had guns on both sides,” First Sgt. Pauley said.
He described the scene as “very difficult, with multiple people involved.”
“There’s no list of players beforehand,” Pauley said. “You have several people – a crowd of people – and then one trooper there by himself trying to confiscate all the weapons.”
Although shots were fired from both camps, Garretson said the only two confirmed non-union workers shooting were the two men in the truck. Weapons were seized from these men and the picketers.
“I think, total, they seized 17 guns and sent them all to our crime lab,” Garretson said. “They did ballistics testing of all the bullets and shell casings from the wooded area and the truck and attempted to match them up with the bullets that killed McCoy.”
No weapon was traced back to the one that killed McCoy, Garretson said.
Garretson said there was controversy surrounding the shooting in 1990 because of “rumors floating around” of other picketers hiding up in the woods who may have shot McCoy.
Additionally, he said there was speculation at the time that McCoy’s death may not have been related to the strike.
Garretson said McCoy was under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at the time of the shooting. “It had something to do with explosives – selling or transporting dynamite. That’s noted in the report.”
Pauley describes the investigation into McCoy’s death in 1990 as “very thorough.”
“We were just right on top of it, and stayed on top of it for days,” he said. “Several troopers were brought in for additional help.”
Now, more than two decades after the crime, Garretson hopes someone with information will come forward.
“After reading the report and talking to a few of the officers involved, someone knows something about this,” he said. “And it’s going to take them coming forward to put this to rest.”
Anyone with information on the case can contact Garretson at the Welch detachment of the West Virginia State Police at 304-436-2101. Tips can be made anonymously.
— Contact Samantha Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org
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