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West Virginia state police face damning claims: ‘The more we dug, the worse it stunk’

Photograph: Jeff Dean/AP

A slew of investigations have opened up against the West Virginia state police department after startling claims surfaced in recent months including alleged hidden cameras in women’s locker rooms, casino thefts, cover-ups, kidnappings, druggings and rape.

The investigations were initiated after an anonymous five-page letter was sent to multiple state lawmakers. The contents of the letter, which were then covered by local media outlets, consisted of multiple damning claims. Those claims triggered leadership changes across the department as well as sweeping investigations into the West Virginia state police.

In February, local reports emerged of the letter that was sent to a handful of the state’s highest-ranking politicians, including the governor, Jim Justice, and the attorney general, Patrick Morrisey. The letter’s allegations ranged from misuse of state and federal dollars, office affairs, illegal overtime practices, drunken fights, hidden cameras and sexual assault.

“The more we dug, the worse it stunk,” Justice said about the allegations in March. He subsequently ordered the state’s department of homeland security, as well as the interim superintendent of the West Virginia state police, Jack Chambers, to launch a multipronged investigation into the alleged wrongdoings.

One of the most disturbing claims involves at least one alleged hidden camera that was placed in the women’s locker room at the West Virginia state police academy. On 23 March, attorney Teresa Toriseva filed the first of four notices of legal action to Morrisey and Chambers, who replaced former superintendent Jan Cahill after his resignation in March.

Two retired West Virginia state police uniformed employees and a civilian, who regularly used the women’s locker room throughout their careers and after their retirements, intended to sue the West Virginia state police after media reported on the alleged hidden camera, according to the letter reviewed by the Guardian.

On 16 June, in her fourth and final notice of legal action, Toriseva revealed that her law office has gone from representing three women to 67, all of whom will be “filing claims against the West Virginia State Police for creating a toxic and hostile environment”.

In addition to the dozens of women who attended or visited the academy from 1994 to the present day, there were at least 10 minors likely between the ages of 14 and 17 who were part of the state police’s Junior Trooper academy and used the locker room, the letter said.

Now we’ve got law enforcement officers destroying evidence

Governor Jim Justice

“During their time at the academy and while under the supervision of West Virginia State Police employees, several of these women were subjected to varying levels of physical and emotional abuse and were most likely video taped on cameras now known to have been hidden on your premises,” one letter read. “All of these women were victims of a civil conspiracy perpetrated by instructors, staff, and leadership at the West Virginia State Police Academy.”

Toriseva says that an investigation by her firm suggests that the camera could have been placed as early as 1998 and continued recording until 2018. She also anticipates filing spoliation of evidence as Governor Justice confirmed that footage from the hidden camera had been deliberately destroyed.

In a public address in March, the governor said that the employee behind the hidden camera had died and that three troopers later found a thumb drive. “From that, they found the video,” he said, adding that at least one of them “immediately jerked the thumb drive out, threw it to the floor and started stomping on it”.

“Now we’ve got law enforcement officers destroying evidence,” he said as he ordered an “all-out investigation” into the matter.

Another claim that surfaced in recent months is the alleged money theft at a casino by an off-duty state police captain, according to another anonymous letter reported by WOWK-TV.

The alleged incident, which was caught on surveillance camera in May 2021 at a casino in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, revolves around a captain who has since retired after being confronted about the incident, WOWK-TV reports.

The letter states that an “appointee of Colonel [Jan] Cahill” was caught on camera stealing an envelope of money after another man left it behind at a slot machine, according to the outlet. It also alleges that the West Virginia state police covered up the incident and no charges were filed.

A report filed in March by the state’s homeland security department appears to confirm the incident. According to local outlets that reviewed the report, it details a security manager’s interaction with a customer who informed the casino that he lost an envelope which contained at least $500. The man told the security manager that he left his slot machine to get a drink from a vending machine and that he had left the envelope behind.

Surveillance footage revealed another man picking up the envelope and exiting the casino, driving away in a truck. Casino security identified the vehicle’s licence plate number and forwarded the details to the state police, WVVA reported. An investigating trooper eventually identified the man, recovered the envelope and returned it to its original owner.

State officials said that the investigating trooper did not report the incident to his superiors, according to WVVA.

The trooper picked it up and took the money … Any way you cut it, that money was stolen

Governor Jim Justice

“There’s no way to look at this other than just this – the trooper picked it up and took the money,” said Governor Justice after details of the incident emerged. “Basically, any way you cut it, that money was stolen.”

Disturbing allegations of rape have also surrounded the West Virginia state police. At least two lawsuits have been filed against the agency as of May. Two women, both represented by attorney Dante DiTrapano, have accused trooper Michael Miller of kidnapping and rape.

In a notice of legal action to the state police published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting in March, DiTrapano revealed a handful of grisly allegations on behalf of one of his clients. The unnamed woman accused Miller of drugging, kidnapping and brutally raping her on the evening of 17 December and the early morning of 18 December 2021.

The letter claims that Miller, “while flashing his badge around the American Legion Post 19 club in Logan, West Virginia, changed my client’s life forever”.

It states that the woman “woke up naked in her bed with blood, urine and feces all over her” before going into further horrifying allegations.

“Her earrings were ripped out of her ears, her hair was pulled out, her teeth were damaged, and she had been raped vaginally and sodomized with some instrument. This is all confirmed by the rape unit at the emergency department at [Charleston Area medical center] Women’s and Children’s Hospital, in Charleston, West Virginia,” the letter said, adding that Miller allegedly sent a Facebook message to the woman the morning after the incident, asking if he had left his hat in her car.

The letter describes the woman as the “loving mother of five beautiful children and a grandchild” who now “cannot ever go back to work” and is “suffering from … PTSD and is in intense treatment and counseling in connection with the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological injuries visited upon her by Miller”.

It added that the incident had been reported to the FBI.

Shortly after the first notice of legal action, DiTrapano filed another letter to the West Virginia state police in April, alleging similar actions against Miller on behalf of another unnamed woman.

According to the letter reviewed by the West Virginia Record, on the evening of 9 July and the early morning of 10 July 2021, Miller drugged, kidnapped and raped the woman while repeatedly telling her that he was a trooper.

In an interview with WVMetroNews, DiTrapano said that Miller was in a bar in Logan county where he flashed his badge around the woman, telling her that she needed to come with him after he allegedly drugged her drink.

He then allegedly took her inside a truck and, alongside two other men, sexually assaulted and penetrated her. The letter goes on to accuse Miller of driving to another club where the naked woman managed to leave the vehicle with her belongings and her clothes, the West Virginia Record reports.

DiTrapano claims that the woman tried to report the alleged incident to a friend who was a sheriff’s deputy in Logan county. “The information she got back from the Logan county deputy was … ‘Do not screw with the brotherhood’,” he told WVMetroNews.

The West Virginia state police confirmed that the FBI is investigating allegations against a current employee and that an internal investigation will follow, WOWK-TV reported.

With multiple investigations ongoing and legal actions being taken against the state police, the five-paged anonymous letter’s origins appears to have stirred up its own controversy in recent months.

The whistleblower behind the letter has since come forward, with attorney David Moye identifying his client as Joseph Comer, a police corporal. After the letter was distributed, Comer was arrested for domestic battery and felony strangulation and was subsequently placed on administrative leave, a move which his lawyer regards as “retaliation” by the state police.

On 23 February, a day before Comer was scheduled to have a grievance hearing about his concerns about the West Virginia state police, a criminal complaint was filed against him. It alleged that he’d strangled a woman on 5 December 2022 during a scheduled child custody exchange.

According to the criminal complaint reviewed by WOWK-TV, Comer left bruises on the woman’s neck. In another criminal complaint, Comer was accused of striking a woman in the head with a sippy cup on 12 December 2022 at the same location of the alleged strangulation, WOWK-TV reported.

“He revealed several of the things to Major [James] Findley who was the head of internal affairs hoping to get it investigated, but instead of Major Findley investigating it, he turned around and pretty much placed a target on my client’s back, Cpl Comer, and started to discipline him, demote him,” Moye told WTRF.

“They started investigating him rather than investigating the complaint that he made,” he said.

WCHS-TV has since revealed a series of internal emails among the West Virginia police department’s high-ranking members as they strategized Comer’s arrest.

On 24 February, Sgt KW Huddleston emailed Findley, who has since been transferred from director of the professional standards division to a first lieutenant slot, and wrote: “We maybe need to start thinking about having something in place tomorrow when/if he shows up.”

“Yes. He be [sic] here at 0900. I’ll be here. I can pull him and his attorney and have it taken care of. Place on admin leave when serve dvp and then do warrant after everything secured,” Findley replied, appearing to refer to a domestic violence protection notice.

“Timing if [sic] it is horrible,” he added, to which Huddleston responded: “Yes optics will suck but it is what it is.”

The sweeping investigations against the entire West Virginia state police have raised questions surrounding the state’s policing culture.

“When there’s been public outcry, when there’s been questions raised, the police are very, very quick to circle ranks and to always claim that their actions were justified and necessary. We see this regularly here in West Virginia,” ACLU-West Virginia’s advocacy director, Eli Baumwell, said.

To advocates like Baumwell, a policing overhaul requires several steps including rethinking the transparency and accountability measures that often protect officers who commit acts of wrongdoing.

“One of the things that we run into all the time is that they would use the loophole of open investigations being exempt to withhold any internal records about any potential misconduct. They’ll say it’s under investigation and they will hold it under investigation for, in some cases, years. That is a huge problem in terms of providing that transparency,” Baumwell said.

He continued: “Police lean very heavily on civil service protection that we want people to have. We want everyone to get due process, especially if their livelihood is on the line. But they lean so heavily on protections that make it virtually impossible to actually discipline an officer, even when wrongdoing has been found and confirmed.”

Baumwell added: “They need to actually have true oversight, true accountability, because that’s not here. And that’s one of the major things killing our trust.”