FAMILY CONTINUES TO FIGHT STIGMA OF BOGUS DRUG ARRESTS
Tom Searls, Staff writer
Charleston Gazette (WV)
Sun, 28 May 2006
FORT GAY -- Just weeks ago, Joetta Hatfield was slicing bologna for a customer in the 60-year-old, family-owned general store when the lady asked if it was true that millions of dollars were stashed in mattresses sold at the business.
"I said, 'Do you think I'd be standing here slicing bologna if I had millions in mattressesUKP'" she said.
It's been almost three years -- June 2003 -- since police swooped in on the Hatfield family business, arresting her husband, Shannon, and son, Landon, and charging them with selling cocaine. A few months later, they returned and arrested Shannon again. - advertisement -
In May 2004, Wayne County prosecutor Jim Young had the charges against those two and 17 others dismissed. The "confidential informant" in the case -- the person police provided with money to make drug purchases -- later pleaded guilty to fraud.
Thomas Osborne, serving time in a Kentucky jail, admitted he did not buy drugs from most of those charged, that he gave police fake drugs and spent the $7,000 they gave him on himself instead of making drug buys.
"In my experience, I've never seen anything like that," Young conceded last week.
But many in Wayne County -- a mostly rural area dotted with small towns -- never seemed to realize the charges had been dropped, Joetta Hatfield said. "They told lots of things, but [the mattress stash] was the best one," she said.
Before the arrests, the store, which also sells appliances, a little hardware, a few plants and furniture, employed not only the Hatfields, but also a partner and eight others. Now just the three family members work there.
"Sixty, 70 years of hard work for nothing," 26-year-old Landon Hatfield said of his family. "You can't get back your name."
Eight of the 19 busted have filed federal lawsuits against Wayne County Sheriff Dave Pennington, three of his deputies and the sheriff's department. They are asking for compensation for medical expenses, economic damages, psychological damages, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and any other punitive damages.
In addition, Charleston lawyer Jason Huber, who represents the plaintiffs in the civil action, wants injunctive relief "requiring appropriate training, supervision and discipline" of the sheriff's deputies to remedy what they believe to be constitutional-rights violations.
Young, the prosecutor, may have started some of that remedy, recently telling deputies, "Let's go through remedial drug buying."
He said mistakes were made and changes have occurred. Osborne pleaded guilty in February 2006, but will have to complete his Kentucky jail time before returning to West Virginia.
Picked up in 2003 on criminal charges, Osborne almost immediately began doing undercover work. "He volunteered, 'Let me help you with some drug information,'" Young recalled.
The prosecutor still believes "some of the things he did early on were reliable."
"He had a decent run for a couple of weeks," he said.
But even those busted during those few weeks had charges dismissed after Osborne lost all credibility with Young.
"He would fake the sale and keep the money," Young said. "It's kind of hard to say which [cases] were [credible] and which ones weren't."
The Hatfields insist their arrests weren't only not credible, but created a nightmare.
Shannon Hatfield pulled up to his business that summer morning in 2003 to find employees lined up outside and police cars and television media. "I pulled in and there were cars, deputies, machine guns, FBI and police," he said.
Officers slapped handcuffs on him and put him in a cruiser while they yanked out the insides of his small pickup searching for drugs. They had warrants to search the entire compound of several buildings, except the grocery store.
Hearing someone knocking at his door, Landon Hatfield figured it was a store employee and asked his girlfriend to say he was allowed to sleep in on Fridays. He then nodded back off.
"I woke up at gunpoint," he said.
That's when they began questioning him. "They just kept wanting to know where the mother lode was," he said.
One young employee was questioned for two hours. "When they let him out of the cruiser he never came back," Shannon Hatfield said.
"Just like your customers," Landon Hatfield quickly added.
Joetta Hatfield was at her job as a teacher's aide at the nearby high school when the first arrests occurred. She hurried to the courthouse in Wayne to gather the family's property deeds to put up for bond.
But magistrates said she didn't have enough collateral. "I had to choose which one do you want out, your son or your husband," she said.
With only one child from 30 years of marriage, the answer was easy. She left with Landon to find a bail bondsman to free her husband.
"It scared her to death," her son said.
But the real fright came later.
Shannon and several others were being held in one of the large, open-type cells in the basement of the courthouse. When a guard he knew offered him orange juice, he gave it to the 19-year-old boy in the next cell being held for statutory rape.
When the local news came on, the men moved near the television to watch media reports about their arrests. When they turned around, the teen had hanged himself. They shouted for help.
"We tried to get him down, but he had it knotted tight," said Shannon, a 1977 Marshall University criminal justice graduate.
Guards had nothing to cut the kid down with, allowing his body to dangle for some time. "There was nobody there to help him. It went on forever," Shannon said.
Worse yet, he said rumors floated through the courthouse that he was the dead person.
When his wife returned to spring him, she instead found ambulances and police lights. "Tell me, is my husband alive or not," she recalled saying to jailers.
While they would tell her nothing, she heard her husband's distinctive voice in the background, giving her some reassurance.
After Shannon's 17-hour jail stay, the Hatfields returned to Fort Gay.
That caused Joetta to stay near the property for a few months. But one day while in Huntington she called the store and a police officer answered.
This time officers came only for her husband, and to search the grocery store.
"The first time was like a dream. A nightmare," she said. "The second time I thought, 'This can't be happening again because I knew he wasn't selling drugs.'"
She recalled being hot and thirsty that afternoon, but she wasn't allowed inside her store until deputies decided her husband must have been selling drugs from an old cash register tucked under the counter. "It was his dad's old cash register," she said.
Try as they would, the deputies could not get it opened.
She volunteered to find a way to open it and came inside to find most grocery items had been strewn from the shelves and investigators were sitting around eating her food and drinking her cold pop. "I plugged [the register] in, hit a button and it opened," she said.
Inside, instead of drugs, police found a piece of old jewelry, some wheat-back pennies and a set of nail clippers.
This time teachers from the high school came by to give her support. "They were the ones that went in and cleaned my store back up," she said.
She left for Wayne to bail her husband out, but he was kept overnight.
She wouldn't leave. "I sat on the park bench in Wayne all night long," she said.
Occasionally she would walk to the jail to ask about his status.
"I'd wait about an hour or two and I'd go back again," she said. "I wasn't going to leave him in there. No way."
Joetta began dating Shannon when she was a 16-year-old student at Fort Gay High School. "I can tell you the good and bad about him," she said.
But the questions and continual harassment also began to tear at her. "They get you to thinking, 'Are you that crazy?' You're thinking, 'Could this be possible?'"
She questioned in her own mind if it could be true and her husband had involved her son in the drug trade. "If it was true I'd probably be in jail because I would have killed him," she said of her husband.
The following May, the State Police lab confirmed that the drugs Osborne supposedly bought from the Hatfields were fake.
Young, the prosecutor, said he was suspicious of Osborne by the time of Shannon Hatfield's second arrest.
Standard procedure for using confidential informants to make drug buys calls for police to search the informants before they go to make the buy and after they return. That did not always happen in Osborne's case, Young admits.
"There may have been times when he was in his own vehicle [that police] made what I would consider a not-thorough-enough search," he said.
Huber, the Hatfields' lawyer, also believes officers did not field-test the drugs.
Young said Osborne admitted to making a mixture of baking soda and another substance that shows positive on field tests. But he also admits that after the officers got to know Osborne they did not always do that.
"There is no indication in any of the documents we got from them that any of the drugs were ever field-tested," Huber said.
The poor quality of tapes, coming from a wire Osborne wore, also worried the prosecutor. "Some of the tapes, there would be background noise and some of them were not high quality," Young said.
The charges were dismissed in mid-May 2004. That seems suspicious to the Hatfields because it came shortly after Sheriff Pennington won the Democratic renomination, tantamount to winning election, in a tough race with Greg Farley, a former State Police officer.
The Hatfields believe Pennington, who did not return phone calls for this story, used their arrests as part of his campaign platform of being tough on drugs.
"They didn't want to it to come out this was all fake," Shannon Hatfield said.
"They used my father as the spotlight of their campaign," Landon Hatfield said.
Young denied he held up any dismissal because of elections.
While it's all over now, the Hatfields are still trying to rebuild. They lost lines of credit from banks, businesses and financing corporations. They even lost their ability to accept food stamps for payments.
"I lost my partner of 25 years," Shannon said.
"He completely got out of the county, said he didn't want to do business here."
And business hasn't come back. "We've tried. It's been tough," he said, adding it's "just like starting all over again."
Members of the Hatfield clan opened the general store in 1946. Landon Hatfield expects to be the fourth generation of his family to run it.
"They didn't just destroy my father, they went for my grandparents and our name," he said.
Huber filed similar suits for other Osborne-related plaintiffs: Robert Lee Evans, William and Stephanie Lucas, Shawn Christopher Cook, Jerry Marcum and James and Sofia Robertson.
No trial date has been set.