Official convicted in West Virginia mine disaster
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- The only person prosecuted so far in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in decades was convicted Wednesday of lying to investigators probing the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
It took jurors about six hours to find the mine's former security chief, Hughie Elbert Stover, guilty on the lying charge and a second count of seeking to destroy of thousands of security-related documents following the explosion. The jury had begun deliberating Wednesday morning after hearing two days of testimony, in which prosecutors painted Stover as an obstructionist and defense attorneys claimed he was a scapegoat.
Stover remains free pending a Feb. 29 sentencing hearing. Stover faces an estimated two years in prison on the record-disposal count alone. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said prosecutors will seek as stiff penalty as possible to deter such conduct.
"While we press forward with this investigation, we will not tolerate obstruction," Goodwin said.
No one else has been charged in the mine disaster. With both state and federal investigations ongoing, Goodwin said no potential criminal charges for others are off the table.
"There were serious matters that existed in this mine that didn't just happen overnight or without the involvement of individuals," he said.
Stover's attorney, William Wilmoth, said it was too early to discuss any future motions or appeals. "While we're disappointed at this result, we're very appreciative of their services," he said of the eight men and four women on the jury.
The defense had portrayed the former law enforcement officer, a veteran of both the Navy and Marines, as a by-the-book employee who became a victim of the government's zeal to blame someone for the deadly explosion.
"You wanted justice, and this is who they brought you," Wilmoth said during his closing argument.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaire Malkin had earlier reminded jurors of testimony from others at the Raleigh County underground mine. These witnesses alleged that Stover instructed mine guards to send out alerts by radio whenever inspectors entered the property. Such a practice is illegal. One of the criminal charges alleges Stover denied in a November 2010 interview with investigators that there were any advance warnings at the mine.
"This so-called by-the-book guy had his own playbook and terminology," Malkin said.
The other count alleges that Stover sought to destroy the documents the following January, by ordering a subordinate to bag and then throw them into an on-site trash compactor. Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Ellis suggested to jurors Wednesday that those records would prove that Stover had lied about inspection tip-offs. The attempted disposal also violated repeated warning from the mine's then-owner, Massey Energy, to keep all records while the disaster remained under investigation. Massey officials told investigators of the trashed documents, which were recovered.
"There's too much at stake here," Ellis argued, while urging the jury to "send a message that this investigation ought to be allowed to go forward."
Wilmoth attributed Stover's November statements to confusion over evolving policies at the mine, run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. As for the document disposal, Stover had called that the "stupidest, worst mistake" of his life when he testified Tuesday in his defense.
Questioning criminal intent, Wilmoth said Stover could have burned, shredded or otherwise destroyed the records himself, instead of delegating the task of throwing them out to a subordinate during daylight hours and in front of a security camera. Prosecutors said the documents were dumped around 6 a.m., and after being placed in trash bags. Hauling them out in their cardboard storage boxes would have drawn notice, as would Stover performing the deed himself, prosecutors argued.
In urging jurors to acquit, Wilmoth argued that Stover's actions amounted to innocent mistakes, citing how several witnesses had described him as by-the-book and honest. Rather than targeting mine executives or engineers who may be at fault for the deadly blast, prosecutors have seized on Stover in a game of "government gotcha," Wilmoth told the jury.
"We're no closer to finding the real villain or villains behind this explosion," said Wilmoth, a former U.S. attorney. "Instead, this is what they brought you."
Three investigative reports issued so far on the disaster have each concluded that poorly maintained machines cutting into sandstone created a spark that ignited both a small amount of naturally occurring methane gas and a massive accumulation of explosive coal dust. Malfunctioning water sprayers allowed what could have been a small flare-up to become an epic blast that traveled seven miles of underground corridors, doubling back on itself and killing men instantly.
One of those reports was issued Tuesday by the United Mine Workers union, which criticized government regulators while slamming Massey. Labeling the disaster as "industrial homicide," the findings urge criminal charges against a number of then-executives at Massey. Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon, Va., acquired the Richmond-based Massey in June through a $7.1 billion takeover deal.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)