Second impoundment bill gets paid, political
A bill for a second vehicle stored at Johnny's Garage in Edray got county commissioners' attention last Tuesday night. Although commissioners agreed to pay the local storage facility $11,357.50, the decision did not come without a round of contentious, and sometimes loud discussion between two professional, now political, rivals.
The vehicle in question was towed from Bartow in January 2011, following an explosion at the Hermitage Motel there. According to a fire marshal's report later that month, the blast was caused by the manager using a homemade device to take propane from the motel. No charges were ever filed against the manager, who suffered burns and was airlifted to a Morgantown hospital.
Since that time the 1984 Chevrolet box van has been accruing a bill at Johnny's Garage to the tune of $25 a day.
"Who's responsible?" asked county commissioner Martin Saffer. "Which department is responsible? We'd like to know why we're writing the check."
"I was told by Chief Walton she would take care of the bill," Johnny Dean said, indicating Price.
Saffer's sights are squarely set on Prosecuting Attorney Donna Price, the county's chief law enforcement officer. Saffer, a candidate for that office, said he'd talked to Assistant State Fire Marshal B. J. Robinson.
"He tells quite the tale," Saffer said.
Robinson was supposed to be available by telephone Tuesday evening, but could not be reached, so "the tale" became Saffer's.
The commissioner said Robinson told him he was summoned to the scene at the Hermitage Motel, and responded with Chief Deputy David Walton. He called the prosecuting attorney's office, and believed he spoke to then-assistant prosecuting attorney J.L. Clifton, who relayed the information to Price, who then authorized the impoundment, Saffer said Robinson told him.
"He told me he spoke to [Price] to say the matter would be turned over to the sheriff's department, and soon thereafter, it was determined by the prosecuting attorney [there would be] no charges for the theft of the propane," Saffer reported.
According to Sheriff David Jonese, the victim did not want to pursue charges.
Price finally burst into the conversation.
"I learned the vehicle was in [Dean's] facility on December 5, 2011," she said. Price said that never during the course of the investigation of the blaze in Bartow was she made aware of an impounded vehicle until Dean contacted her. "I still don't have the fire marshal's report," she related.
Price further had evidence that she was not involved in the initial impoundment of the van.
Call sheets from the 9-1-1 Center reflect only communication with Walton and Robinson. Walton called the 9-1-1 Center for a driver's license check, and during that call, mentioned the van.
"I'm not contacted anywhere," Price said. "I don't speak to Mr. Robinson until well into the investigation, and I've tried to call him twice.
"You are using this as a platform in your candidacy," Price told Saffer.
"[Robinson] told me he contacted you and you approved it. He spoke to your assistant, who spoke to you," Saffer countered.
"And I'm telling you [I did not]," Price shot back. "I'd like to know we can all be reasonable. Issues like this could be corrected."
Price said later that she had spoken to Robinson about the "nature of the case." She said Robinson told her he was not going to pursue charges against the motel's manager, but did not mention the vehicle.
Commission president David Fleming eventually put a stop to the abrasive exchange.
"It's a forgone conclusion that the commission is going to pay this bill," Fleming said.
Walton said the sheriff's department did not have the authority to release a vehicle impounded by the State Fire Marshal's office. Robinson did sign the request for a search warrant for the vehicle.
Price said she would present an order to release the van for the chief judge to sign.
In yet another wrinkle in this ruckus, the van holds some hazardous material, including a propane tank, with a not disclosed, if determined, amount of propane in it.
Dean said he could not move the vehicle to the unsecured courthouse parking lot.
Price offered to get a destruction order.
Dean said the vehicles' ownership needs to be determined, so that he can seek some redress from him or her.
"It cannot be stripped at my place," he said.
Dean said he would give the county 20 days to move the van from his property.
Robinson did not return a telephone message left on his voice mail.
Earlier this month, the county commission paid more than $10,000 to Johnny's Garage for a vehicle that had been impounded from November 2010 to January of this year. That vehicle was evidence in a drug-related case. Price said the defendant in the case has been indicted on felony charges, but she had trouble getting evidence from the State Police Crime Lab.
Pamela Pritt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org