Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

March 2, 2014

Magazine article provides new insights into War mayor’s death

WELCH — Less than a year after the Playboy magazine edition with Vince Beiser’s article titled, “Overdose County, USA,” hit local newsstands, Dr. Thomas Clark Hatcher, 72, mayor of War was found dead in his home.

Two criminal trials have followed Hatcher’s death, and McDowell County juries have arrived at different verdicts after listening to essentially the same evidence in each case.

In both trials, the defense has argued that Hatcher, an overweight, diabetic with a cardiac condition, died in his sleep, while the state’s cases were based on testimony and a small portion of physical evidence to point the finger of guilt in the direction of Mayor Hatcher’s daughter-in-law, Rebecca Lynn “Becky” (Click) Hatcher, 32, and her brother, Earl Click, 27, who had been released prison less than a month before Mayor Hatcher’s death.

On Nov. 5, 2013, the jury in Rebecca Hatcher’s case returned a not guilty verdict on the charge of murder in the first degree, but was hung on the conspiracy charge. On Feb. 5, the jury in the Earl Click returned guilty with a recommendation of mercy verdict on the 1st degree murder charge, and guilty on the conspiracy count, even though none of the physical evidence placed him in the bedroom where Mayor Hatcher died. Click’s sentencing will be on March 12.

Beiser attended Rebecca Hatcher’s trial, before writing the sequel to his first piece. This one is titled: “Prescription for Death: How painkillers destroyed the Town of War, West Virginia,” and had a March 1, release date. The publication was available in local newsstands at least a week earlier. In it, Beiser correctly pointed out a fact that after the release of his 2012 article: “The local papers and TV stations all ran stories about my article, ensuring that just about everyone in the county heard about it.” As a result, in the current article, Beiser wrote that he wasn’t surprised when he received several emails and phone calls alerting him to the death of Mayor Hatcher on July 17, 2012.

Playboy is one of the world’s most well-produced publications, and it should come as no surprise that Beiser’s “Prescription” article would be presented with excellent graphics from the Playboy staff along with photography by Dan Saelinger, an Oregon-based photographer. To introduce the story, Playboy used a distinctive graphic of the palm of a hand holding 47 OxyContin pills placed in the shape of West Virginia, complete with the state’s eastern and northern panhandles.

Theresa Hennessee, vice president of public relations for Playboy wrote in response to an email message asking if the number 47 was significant since the Mountain State has 55 counties. Hennessee said that the number had no significance.

“Rather we found the scale of the pills that allowed us to portray the shape of the state while not losing the immediate read of the pills as pills,” she wrote. “We did mark War at the southern end of the state with a star on the pill.”

Without question, the world has had a long-standing fascination with southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Few places in North America — perhaps the world —  are ignorant of the famous Hatfield-McCoy Feud that was covered by publications like the New York Times and other major newspapers. While pizza pie makers toss dough in the storefront windows of their establishments, coal miners work in dark places, hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface — lending to the overall mystery of the region and its people.

But the misery of the epidemic of drug abuse is a universal problem. As Beiser so rightly illustrates in his thoroughly researched article, the number of people who die by overdosing on painkillers has quadrupled nationally since 1999, “[a]nd in McDowell County, where War sits, victims are dying faster than just about anywhere else. The overdose death rate there is 16 times the national average.”

Beiser, 48, a native of New York City who was born into a prominent Canadian family, is an award-winning investigative freelance journalist who has earned his stripes working in newspapers and other periodical publications including “Harper’s,” “The Los Angeles Times Magazine,” the “Village Voice,” “Rolling Stone,” and more. He graduated from the University of California/Berkley, Summa cum Laude, and lives in Los Angeles. He’s a son of well-known Canadian educator, psychiatrist, epidemiologist, Morton Beiser, who became a member of the Order of Canada in 2004.

Beiser’s article provides a wealth of details — many of which did not come out during either trial — through jail house interviews with both Rebecca Hatcher and Earl Click. For example, Hatcher told Beiser in her pre-trial interview with Beiser that she was “closer to Tom than I was to my dad,” Beiser quoted Hatcher as saying. The interview took place in a Spartan room at Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.

Beiser wrote that Hatcher responded an emphatic: “No,” to a question as to if she took pills to get high. “Never,” he quoted her as telling him. “I expected Becky to tell me she hadn’t killed Tom, but this denial was surprising,” Beiser wrote. “After all, one of her friends, her stepsister, her grandmother, her brother, her sister and her husband had all told me she used pills. Why would John have said that if it weren’t true?” Beiser asked in the article.

“I don’t know, I really don’t,” Beiser quoted Hatcher as responding. “He’s (John’s) upset with me right now. I think he wants me down to his level,” Beiser quoted Hatcher as saying.

“I think he did a good job of portraying what happened to Tom,” Jerry Roncella said after reading the Playboy article. Roncella, a retired McDowell County educator is Tom Hatcher’s sister. She testified in both trials. “I was a little disappointed in his characterization of where we live. As far as being factual, he did a good job.”

Beiser characterized War as “an impoverished backwater in a narrow valley in deepest Appalachia,” and added: “It’s a chore to get to McDowell County and no less of one to leave it.” He quotes Mayor Hatcher’s neighbor Patty Hawkins as telling him about the vibrant War where she grew up in the 1950s, but goes on to write that War’s downtown buildings, “are a glum procession of empty storefronts, broken windows and caved in roofs.” Beiser’s image of Welch, “the rundown, half-abandoned county seat a couple of valleys from War,” doesn’t pull punches either.

“I wish he could have had the verdict in Earl’s case in the story,” Roncella said. “One thing that the article brought out that didn’t come up in either trial was that she (Becky) was addicted to the pills as well as John,” she said making reference to her nephew, John Hatcher, Tom’s son and Becky’s former husband. John Hatcher is set to be released from jail this spring after serving a prison sentence for stealing money from his father. “That did not come up in trial,” Roncella said.

Keith Flinchum, lead defense counsel for Rebecca Hatcher, said that he purchased a copy of the magazine to review the article, but later received an electronic copy of the article from Beiser via email. Flinchum is mentioned in Beiser’s article, but is not quoted. Since he is still representing Hatcher in the new trial on her conspiracy charges, he only stated that he thought the story would focus more on the trial than it did. He added: “Drug abuse is a major problem in our nation.”

McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Ed Kornish reviewed the article and said he approved of it. “I think he did a decent job, with the exception of the minor point of me being in the Army.” Kornish is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but was identified as a former Marine in the article.

The article is available on line at (www.playboy.com/playground/view/prescription-for-death) according to Beiser.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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