By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
From a troubling increase in local child sexual abuse arrests to a controversial ban on pit bulls in Bluefield, 2013 is being remembered as another tumultuous and challenging year for the coalfields of southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
As we celebrate the waning hours of 2013, the editorial board of the Daily Telegraph has selected the Top 10 Stories of 2013. They include:
1. High-profile child sexual abuse, pornography arrests in the region.
Area law enforcement officers made significant strides in 2013 in tracking down and arresting individuals charged with the sexual abuse of juveniles. Teachers, church leaders and daycare employees were among those arrested and charged on a multitude of offenses.
Among those arrested and charged in 2013:
• Timothy Probert, 55, a former church youth volunteer and child mentor was arrested and charged Dec. 12 with 38 counts of child sexual abuse related offenses. The alleged crimes stem from incidents that occurred when Probert was a youth volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bluefield and a volunteer with the Working to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect (WE CAN) program. Probert was charged with 22 counts of sexual abuse by a custodian; six counts of first-degree sexual abuse; seven counts of third-degree sexual assault; one count of distribution and display of obscene matter to a minor; one count of use of obscene matter with intent to seduce a minor; and one count of use of a minor to produce obscene matter or to assist in doing sexually explicit conduct.
The abuse charges stem from incidents that date back to 1986, according to an earlier report by Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the Crimes Against Children Unit of the West Virginia State Police. The last incidents occurred between July 2008 and 2010. There are eight alleged victims, all male, who ranged in age from 12 to 17 at the time the incidents occurred, she said.
• Jonathan Kirk, 35, a former PikeView High School teacher, was arrested March 18 and charged with 18 felony charges including multiple counts of use of obscene matter with intent to seduce a minor; use of minors in filming sexually explicit conduct; distribution and display to minors of obscene matter; sexual abuse by a parent or custodian; and soliciting a minor via computer. Kirk, a resident of Walton, later pleaded guilty to six counts of distribution of obscene matter to a minor child and one count of sexual abuse in the first degree, according to an earlier report by Mercer County Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler. The distribution charge carries a determinate sentence of one to five years. The sexual abuse charge carries an indeterminate term of one to five years imprisonment.
Kirk was a former physical education teacher and coach at the school, where he worked with the baseball and football teams. All the alleged victims were female students between the ages of 16 and 18 years old, according to an earlier report by Clemons. The majority of the charges stem from events that occurred on the school grounds, according to Clemons.
• Lindsey Bowling, 29, of Princeton, who was employed as a child care worker at Lil Camper Dependable Child Care in Princeton at the time of his arrest on Nov. 22, was arrested and charged with 150 counts of receiving and possessing material visually portraying a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Bowling was taken into custody after Cpl. Steven A. Sommers, an investigator with the West Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, executed a search warrant in the Princeton area.
The investigation continues. But authorities told concerned parents on Dec. 11 that only “commercially available” child pornography had been found on Bowling’s computer, and no photographs of day care children have been discovered. The forensics work on Bowling’s computer is continuing.
• John Spaulding, 40, of Montcalm, was indicted in October on five counts of sexual assault first degree, one count of attempt to commit a felony (sexual assault first degree), one count of sexual abuse third degree, and 50 counts of possession of material depicting minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. The two victims were ages 3 and 14, according to an earlier report by Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash said.
Spaulding allegedly attempted sexual intercourse and committed other sexual acts with the 3-year-old child, according to the indictment charges. He also allegedly sexually abused the 14 year old, according to the indictment. Authorities also discovered pornographic materials portraying both minors, the indictment alleges. The alleged offenses occurred during a time period ranging from on or about Feb. 18, 2012, to on or about July 26, 2012, according to the indictment.
• Kimberly Ann Cox, 37, of Nemours, originally charged with multiple sexual abuse and child pornography charges, was incarcerated again in 2013 after a judge determined she violated the terms of her bond by visiting minors without supervision.
According to an earlier report from the Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the prosecuting attorney moved to have the woman’s bond revoked after it was revealed Cox had made unsupervised contact with several minors while out on bond.
Cox was originally charged with first-degree sexual assault, first-degree sexual abuse, use of a minor in filming sexually explicit images by a custodian, depicting a child in sexually explicit conduct, possession of material depicting a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and sexual abuse by a parent or custodian.
The latter part of the year also saw numerous other arrests of individuals in Mercer and McDowell counties on child pornography charges.
2. Texting squabble leads to murder in Mercer County.
Judith Kowaleski, 42, of Brushfork, was arrested March 28 and charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Elizabeth Slagle, 42, of Bluefield. Slagle was shot at the intersection of Falls Mills and Nichols roads during a confrontation. The women had exchanged phone calls and text messages earlier that day after an altercation between their children aboard a school bus.
Investigators said at the time of the arrest that a kicking incident between the children of the two women on a school bus led to a heated exchange of text messages between the two women that ended with a confrontation. During an earlier preliminary hearing in April, Trooper J.C. Teubert of the West Virginia State Police Detachment in Princeton testified that when he arrived at the scene on March 28, two women were kneeling next to a woman lying on her back. One, Kowaleski, was giving Slagle CPR. She had also tried to use her shirt to stop the bleeding, he said. Slagle had been shot in the chest with a .38-caliber handgun.
A pink handheld taser — not a model that fires projectiles — was found next to Slagle, Teubert said in the earlier testimony. A search warrant was obtained and a .38-caliber Rossi revolver was recovered at Kowaleski’s nearby home. The gun had one discharged round; it can hold five bullets.
Kowaleski is currently on home confinement as condition of her bond awaiting trial.
3. Tazewell County man arrested on two counts of capital murder for death of parents in Pizza Plus slayings.
Christopher Dean Looney, 32, of Belfast, Va., was arrested Feb. 14 on charges including capital murder — multiple victims and two counts of capital murder — robbery, according to an earlier report by Tazewell County Commonwealth Attorney Dennis Lee.
Looney was charged with the murder of his parents, 52-year-old Harvey Looney and 48-year-old Valerie Looney. The couple was found at their business, Pizza Plus in Claypool Hill, Va., the morning of March 30, 2009 when an employee arrived for work. Harvey Looney’s body was found outside the restaurant, and Valerie Looney was in the restaurant’s office. Their murders had remained unsolved until Christopher Looney’s arrest on Feb. 14.
The Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office conducted an extensive investigation into the crime for almost four years. Looney waived his preliminary hearing in October. He is currently being held at the Southwest Regional Jail in Tazewell awaiting trial.
4. Dozens of arrests on drug and meth charges across the region
Law enforcement agencies across the region recorded a near-record number of arrests in 2013 on drug-related charges, including multiple arrests associated with the discovery of highly dangerous methamphetamine labs. By June, the number of arrests associated with the two-year joint law enforcement effort called the Bluefield Pill Initiative had topped 50. The number of arrests and related sentencing hearings associated with the campaign had climbed to more than 80 by late December. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in June that the Southern Regional Drug and Violent Crime Task Force is constantly working to build cases against pill pushers and others involved in the illegal drug trade. The task force is composed of the West Virginia State Police, the sheriff’s offices of Mercer, McDowell and Wyoming counties, and the police departments of Princeton and Bluefield.
Law enforcement officers also located multiple meth labs throughout the region, including several in McDowell County that were discovered by Sheriff Martin West and his deputies. And between Oct. 26 and Nov. 26, nine active methamphetamine laboratories and three “meth dumps” were located in southern West Virginia. A total of 32 arrests were made during the time period on methamphetamine-related charges.
First Sgt. Michael Baylous, of the Charleston detachment of the West Virginia State Police, says the raids were part of a state police effort that began Oct. 26 to discover how pervasive the methamphetamine problem is in the southern part of the Mountain State.
Baylous said methamphetamine doesn’t just hurt addicts.
“Contamination comes from the meth labs and the people around them that take the chemicals out into the general public,” Baylous told the Register-Herald in Beckley in November. “Sometimes their kids are exposed to it, they take it to school, and other kids are exposed to it.
He adds that fumes from meth labs are highly toxic and explosions are also a possibility when meth is being made — adding to the overall highly dangerous situation.
5. Bluefield ignites anger with controversial pit bull ban
City leaders in Bluefield created controversy in 2013 when they voted on April 22 to ban new pit bulls from being owned in the city limits of Bluefield.
The ordinance gave owners of pit bulls already living in the city 10 days to register their animals with the city’s police department. Any animal that wasn’t registered after the 10 day period could be removed by city animal control officer and the owner can be cited for possessing the dog, according to the ordinance.
The controversial ban prompted outrage from animal owners and animal advocates across the region. Numerous letters and phone calls were received by the Daily Telegraph from concerned animal owners, and the newspaper’s Facebook page was flooded with pit bull comments for a period of several weeks. Members of the Mercer County Commission vowed not to enforce the ordinance. County Commission President Mike Vinciguerra told the Daily Telegraph shortly after the ordinance was passed that the county shelter would accept pit bulls picked up in Bluefield only if the dog was accompanied by a court order signed by a city judge. If there is no court order, the owner could come to the county animal shelter within five days and claim the dog, Vinciguerra said.
Close to 100 pit bulls were ultimately registered with the Bluefield Police Department as a result of the ban. Despite all of the controversy created by the ban, it remains in the city books, and to date has not been overturned by the five newly elected board members.
6. Law enforcement officials crack down on prostitution in the region.
Prostitutes, and the so-called johns who play for their services, were arrested in large numbers in 2013. Most of the arrests occurred in Mercer and McDowell counties. And officers with the Princeton Police Department put a renewed focus on locating and arresting prostitutes, as well as the men who pay for their services, in the downtown and Mercer Street areas.
The Mercer County Health Department announced in late July that an increase in the number of sexually transmitted diseases in the county were most likely linked to the region’s rampant prostitution problem. In June, the Mercer County Health Department saw 27 cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The average number of STD cases, at most, is 10 to 15 a month, according to public health nurse Judy Bolton, RN.
Bolton said engaging in prostitution counts, along with drug abuse, as a high-risk behavior. However, it is difficult to track prostitutes who are spreading STDs, according to Bolton. Men — or those commonly referred to as johns — who have had contact with prostitutes often cannot provide much information about them to health care authorities.
“It’s been especially worse since January this year,” Bolton said in July. “We are having a huge number of Chlamydia and gonorrhea cases, which are sexually transmitted diseases. And there is treatment for those people who come in and get treatment. If they don’t, they can get complications. They need to realize that HIV and hepatitis B is transmitted the same way as Chlamydia and gonorrhea.”
7. Hatcher found not guilty of murder of longtime War mayor
A McDowell County jury acquitted Rebecca Lynn “Becky” Hatcher on a charge of first-degree murder on Nov. 6 in connection with the death of her father-in-law and longtime War mayor Dr. Thomas Hatcher. The jurors deliberated for about nine hours over two days before coming back with the not guilty verdict. They were unable to reach a verdict on a second charge of conspiracy, forcing Circuit Court Judge Rudolph J. Murensky II to declare a mistrial on the conspiracy indictment count. Murensky set a new trial for Feb. 24, 2014, on the conspiracy charge.
McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Edward Kornish said the state intends to retry Hatcher on the conspiracy charge. Kornish said the state also intends to proceed with trial on Jan. 25 for Rebecca Hatcher’s brother, Earl J. Click, 27, of Grundy, Va., who is also charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy in connection with the death of Tom Hatcher.
The state alleges the longtime War mayor was smothered to death with a paper bag. Tom Hatcher was found dead shortly before noon on July 17, 2012, by city of War employees who went to check on him when he did not appear for work.
8. Massive rockslide shuts down portions of Interstate 77
A large rockslide created travel woes in early 2013 for motorists driving Interstate 77.
The northbound interstate lane was closed March 20 as a result of a large rockslide. Tons of boulders and debris had spilled over the lanes between the three- and four-mile markers north of the East River Mountain Tunnel. Traffic, in return, had to be detoured onto U.S. Route 460 toward Princeton. The detour resulted in unusual traffic congestion along Route 460 in both Bluefield and Princeton. Traffic had to be detoured from I-77 for more than a week, but crews with the West Virginia Division of Highways were able to get the interstate back open just in time for Good Friday and Easter Sunday traffic.
In mid-December, crews with the DOH took preventive measures after the cliff above mile marker three along I-77 near Bluefield raised concerns again. Road crews saw rocks that had fallen from the cliff overlooking the highway. Contractors for the DOH scheduled two blastings along the mountain intended to prevent further rockslides at mile marker three on I-77. That work also led to a period of traffic delays along I-77.
9. Washington’s war on coal continues to impact the region, but West Virginia fights back.
There was little relief in 2013 for the region from Washington’s war on coal. President Barack Obama announced a series of new federal Environmental Protection Agency in March that would effectively ban any new coal-fired plants from being built in the U.S. The new EPA rules impose, for the first time, strict limits on pollution that the Obama administration blames for global warming. In order to meet the new standards, new coal-fired power plants would need to install expensive technology to capture carbon dioxide and bury it underground. No coal-fired power plant has done that yet, in large part because of the cost, the Associated Press reported in September.
Under the new EPA rules, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., argued that even the Southwest Virginia-based Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County — touted as one of the cleanest coal-fired power stations in the nation — could not be constructed again today under the new guidelines.
But 2013 was also a year when West Virginia fought back — both in and out of court.
A growing chorus of southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia lawmakers — including Griffith, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — openly called upon EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to bring her so-called “listening tour” to the coalfields of the Mountain State and the Commonwealth. To date she has ignored their request. And Morrisey announced just earlier this month that West Virginia is now leading a bipartisan group of 27 other states in an amicus, or friend of the court, brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Environmental Protection Agency’s retroactive veto of the Clean Water Act permit issued to the Mingo Logan Coal Company’s Spruce surface mine. The EPA announced in 2011 that it would retroactively veto permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for the Spruce Mine four years after they were granted — prompting outrage from local officials coal industry leaders and lawmakers.
According to Morrisey, the states’ involvement in the case is about protecting jobs and ensuring the EPA is not the lone arbiter in deciding whether economic development projects may proceed.
“At its essence, this lawsuit is about jobs in West Virginia and elsewhere,” Morrisey said in mid December in announcing the state’s challenge. “The EPA unlawfully vetoed permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers nearly four years after they were granted, putting hundreds of jobs on the line. But this case is about more than coal mining. It’s about the ability of states such as West Virginia to be able to engage and promote economic development, highway construction, and other needed investments without fearing a federal agency will step in years later and halt the project. That is why we strongly support Mingo Logan Coal Co.’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
10. City voters opt for a clean sweep in Bluefield, new council members in Princeton.
Voters in the cities of Bluefield and Princeton opted for change in 2013. And they spoke the loudest in the city of Bluefield, ousting all five incumbent board members on June 4. The defeated incumbents included Lindza Whalen, Mary Frances Brammer and Pete Sternloff. Two incumbents, Dr. Tom Blevins and Deb Sarver, didn’t seek re-election.
The new board members elected June 4 were Mayor Tom Cole, Chuck McGonagle, Barbara Thompson Smith, Ellen Light and Mike Gibson.
In the city of Princeton, voters opted to elect two new board members on June 4. The winners were political newcomers Jacqueline “Jackie” Rucker and Jim Harvey, as well as incumbents Marshall Lytton and Tim Ealy.
A number of other stories also made headlines in 2013. They included:
• The Bluefield-based 304th Military Police Company of the U.S. Army Reserves returned to the United States following a yearlong deployment that included service in Afghanistan.
• It was announced in late 2013 that the United Way of the Virginias had lost its tax-exempt status and state licensing, two requirements it had to meet in order to solicit and accept charitable donations. The losses occurred because the organization had not filed necessary reports, according to an earlier report by Jake Glance, a spokesperson for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office. The United Way of the Virginias Executive Director Michelle Carter resigned in October. It was announced in late December that two United Way organizations would serve the region. The United Way of Southern West Virginia will accept McDowell County, Mercer County, and the town of Bluefield, Va., into the area it serves. In Virginia, the United Way of the Virginia Highlands will serve the counties of Bland, Buchanan and Tazewell.
• The region had some unexpected visitors in 2013 after a number of bear sightings were reported across southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, including multiple close encounters in the Bluefield area. Bears ended up roaming in residential areas, roadways and other places they normally do not call home — including a local college campus.
• Southern lawmakers on both sides of the aisle led the House of Delegates in early April to overwhelmingly approve a measure proposed by Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, that intended to shift the West Virginia Turnpike to the Division of Highways and dismantle toll booths by 2020. However, the measure was then defeated in the state Senate. A few months later, a panel established by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to explore funding sources for highway maintenance and construction recommended increasing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike — a proposal that prompted outrage by area leaders, lawmakers and concerned citizens.
• Readers of the Daily Telegraph were shocked in early July after learning that two newborn infants — twin baby boys — had been abandoned in McDowell County. The twin infants were dropped off at Welch Community Hospital on June 26. Sgt. J.S. McCarty of the West Virginia State Police later determined that the woman who took the twins to the hospital was actually their mother. According to McCarty, the Mingo County woman, who he did not identify, told state police that she already has children and did not think she could care for the twins. “She knew that the hospital would take care of them,” McCarty said.
• A fight over a parking space at a Tazewell County Walmart on Thanksgiving evening led to a stabbing, police said. Two men were charged after the altercation in the parking lot of the Walmart in Claypool Hill sent panicked shoppers scattering. The altercation resulted in one man being stabbed. Sheriff Brian Hieatt described the incident as a case of “parking lot rage.”
• An ongoing argument on Facebook spilled onto U.S. Route 460 near Bluefield on July 9 when one car allegedly swerved into the path of another, leading to a chase up U.S. Route 460 ending with pepper spray in Bluefield. The Bluefield Police Department and West Virginia State Police stopped two Dodge Hemi Chargers, one yellow and the other silver, near the intersection of Route 460 and Cumberland Road, after the county’s 911 center received a report of a possible road rage incident. One person was arrested as a result of the dispute.
— Contact Charles Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org