A look back at 2012
In 2012 Pocahontas County was buffeted by strong winds, as well as controversies at the courthouse. The county also found itself heading for the big screen, while one of its largest employers grappled with the ominous prospect of big budget cuts.
These were the top ten stories of 2012.
1. The super-storms
Two "once-in-a-lifetime" storms hit Pocahontas County and the mid-Atlantic region, bringing chaos and inconvenience for county residents.
The first of these was the June 29 derecho—a rapidly moving windstorm—that started in the Chicago area in the afternoon and picked up incredible momentum as it barreled through Pocahontas County later that evening and on toward the Atlantic coast, clocking winds in the neighborhood of 80 miles per hour.
Arriving with little warning at one of the hottest points in the summer, the storm knocked out power to residents in Pocahontas County and around the state for as long as two weeks, as the high winds quickly made a mess of the state's electrical grid.
But county residents and emergency responders, as well as members of the National Guard, quickly pulled together, delivering meals, water and ice, lending generators and checking in on elderly, homebound residents.
Meanwhile utility crews from around the country worked around the clock to restore power and phone service.
When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the eastern U.S. four months later in late October, Pocahontas County Emergency Management Director Shawn Dunbrack noted that residents were much better prepared, thanks to their experience with the derecho and the ample warning given as Hurricane Sandy made its approach.
Likewise, utility providers were better prepared, and for most customers, disruptions were significantly shorter than with the June storm.
2. Sexual allegations against former courthouse employees
In April and in August, the Pocahontas County Sheriff's Department and Prosecuting Attorney's office were rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct by former employees.
In April, a grand jury charged former deputy Bradley C. Totten with a dozen counts of sexual abuse and misconduct, including one count sexual intercourse with an incarcerated person by a person working as a deputy sheriff.
An additional 47 charges were leveled against Totten in August.
A trial date has not been set. Totten remains on home confinement in Hillsboro on a $50,000 bond.
The August grand jury also issued charges against Assistant Pocahontas County Prosecuting Attorney Jarrell Lee Clifton, II, alleging sexual assault and imposition of sexual intercourse on an incarcerated person in May and June 2010.
However, those charges were dismissed with prejudice by Senior Status Judge John L. Henning in December after doubts were raised about the credibility of the alleged victim. Henning ordered that bond paid by Clifton be returned and said Clifton is entitled to have his record expunged.
3. NRAO divestment recommendation
In August the National Science Foundation's Portfolio Review Committee released a recommendation to divest all funding from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank. If the NSF accepts the recommendation, the Green Bank facility would lose all its federal funding.
Congressman Nick Rahall, Associated Universities, Inc. President Ethan Schreier and local residents have rallied around the observatory, noting its significant contributions both to the astronomical community and the community of Pocahontas County.
Rahall joined with Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller to write a letter of concern to Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation. Rahall said the delegation is focused on working with the NSF to change the recommendation.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me that we have close to $100 million of federal dollars already invested here,” he said. “To see that go down the drain doesn’t make economic sense in these times of tight budgets. The fact that it may cost more to relocate the functions and the facilities of GBT to another location, it’s certainly going to cost more than the annual budget of GBT that is being proposed to be eliminated. That doesn’t make much economic sense.”
While divestiture is just a recommendation, and the NSF has turned down committee recommendations before, NRAO Green Bank is operating under the worst case scenario in order to be prepared for the future.
At a town hall-style meeting in October, NRAO Site Director Karen O'Neil said the facility has begun the arduous task of looking for other funding sources.
An online petition asking the NSF to continue to fund the Green Bank facility has gathered nearly 2,700 signatures to date. The petition may be viewed at http://www.change.org/petitions/national-science-foundation-continue-to-...
4. Stull guilty of manslaughter
In June, a Pocahontas County jury convicted Charles Stull, 54, of Durbin, of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Jesse Bennett on June 7, 2010 .
On June 8, 2010 Jesse Bennett, 20, succumbed to a gunshot wound he sustained the night before in an incident which occurred in Stull's apartment. Stull was arrested and charged with manslaughter for the shooting. He stated he was "showing" Bennett his newest gun, a .22-caliber pistol, when it discharged. Stull said he believed the gun was not loaded.
5. Film crews descend on the area
Two film crews, both working on very different projects, used the towns of Cass and Hillsboro the backdrop for upcoming films.
A film crew from Hollywood moved into Cass in September to begin filming on the feature film "Angel's Perch." The film written by J.T. Arbogast about his grandmother's (Dess Kane) struggle with altzheimer's, is based in Cass, Kane's home.
The crew not only shot the film locally, it also features local actors and musicians. Shot on location in Green Bank, Cass, Marlinton and Snowshoe, the film is expected to be released later this year.
Cast for the film include film and stage veteran Joyce Van Patten as Polly, the lead character inspired by Kane; Ally Walker, as town gossip and hair dresser Judy; Ashley Jones, as local artist Ginny; and Ellen Crawford, as Polly's friend Betsy. Writer and producer J.T. Arbogast portrays Polly's grandson Jack.
Included in the cast were locals Mike Holstine, Dwayne Kinnison, Homer Hunter and members of the band, Stony Bottom Bluegrass Boys, led by Hunter.
The film is curently in post-production.
Last February, actor and director James Franco and Rabbit Bandini Productions were in Hillsboro filming the new movie “Child of God.”
The movie is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by author Cormac McCarthy. The book tells the grim story of a young man, ostracized from society, who slips into a life of crime and sexual depravity while living in a cave in Tennessee.
Producer Vince Jolivette said tax credits are what brought the crew to West Virginia, but it was the old-time feel of the architecture in Hillsboro that cinched it for them when deciding on possible shooting locations.
Franco said the story takes place in Sevier County, Tennessee, but when one of the producers scouted that area, she found it no longer resembled the 1950s setting of the story.
According to Rabbit Bandini Production's Facebook page, “Child of God” is scheduled to premier early this year in Venice, Italy.
Hillsboro is a far cry from Hollywood, but Franco said he has enjoyed his stay in Pocahontas County.
“Great food, very nice people... horrible Internet,” joked Franco. “It's been great though, I love it here.”
Filmed almost a year ago now, movie blogs say the plan was to screen the project at festivals this year ahead of a 2013 release, but those screenings have not happened.
Those same industry websites report the film is still being put together in post-production, speculating that the likeliest reason for the delay is simply that the subject matter makes it an extremely difficult film to sell.
6. Cass hydroelectric proposal
A hydroelectric power proposal for a small stream near Cass caused quite a buzz last spring, until state and federal agencies weighed in, effectively killing the project.
Fatos and Luljeta Fidani, of St. Pete Beach, Florida filed a Preliminary Application Document on March 13 with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, describing the Cass Hydro Energy Project on Deer Creek.
The proposed location was 200 feet south of West Virginia Route 66, 0.8 miles southeast of Cass, on U.S. Forest Service land.
The output of the project would have been small. While the FERC defines small energy projects as those generating up to five megawatts per hour, the Cass project was estimated to generate a modest 0.3 megawatts. But the Fidanis believed it could have been a model of small-scale, clean energy production for others to follow.
"We strongly believe that the very roots of a strong energy independent nation are its own people," said Fatos Fidani. "Cass Hydro Energy Project, as small as it is, is a big step to the benefit of our national interest, as any dollar of energy spent here is one less dollar to foreign governments holding us 'energy hostage.'"
The U.S. Forest service raised strong objections to the project's impact on Deer Creek's aquatic life and water flow, saying that the initial proposal grossly underestimated the impacts on the two resources.
The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources described the aquatic information in the preliminary application "completely unacceptable," noting that Deer Creek is trout stream and "contains WV listed Species of Concern."
The Fidanis submitted a revised application on April 30, however, it was met negatively by the FERC.
"Unfortunately, the FERC response was way too discouraging for one to continue the licensing process," said Fidani. "[In July and August], I traveled to my native Albania with a plan 'B.' Hydro-energy is booming there, but there is also a lot of competition."
In the mean time, Fidani, a contractor by trade, is working to raise more money for that "plan B."
"I am selling my house," he said, "and I may have to build and sell a couple more houses (at a profit) before I get near a river again."
7. Sheets Garage closure
From humble beginnings as a one-bay garage all the way through five auto franchises and two locations, Sheets Garage in Green Bank had seen it all. After surviving the Great Depression and the recent recession, despite all efforts to stay open, Sheets Garage, Inc. or Sheets GMC as it was most recently known, closed its doors December 14.
“After 89 years of business, it’s tough to leave a business, but yet on the other hand, you have to make business decisions [based on] our economic environment we’re living in and we just have to be realistic about these things,” owner Charlie Sheets said. “We thought it would be the right move for us to get out of business while we were able to call our own shots.”
Sheets' father, Clarence, took the train from Cass to Kansas City to take a course in automotive technology, shortly after World War I. Clarence Sheets worked at the Ford Motor Garage in Elkins, where he worked on Model Ts. He stayed in Elkins for less than a year before he came home to Green Bank with his sights set on his own business.
8. 2012 Election
The 2012 election saw significant changes to the faces of the courthouse—and an eleventh-hour challenge to one race
Former county assessor Dolan Irvine defeated Lloyd Arbogast in the race to fill the county commission seat vacated by Martin Saffer.
Two employees of the assessor's office ran to fill that office vacated by Irvine. Tom Lane edged past Scott Triplett in the general election.
Sheriff David Jonese secured relection with a comfortable margin of nearly 20 percent of the vote over challenger Kenneth "Buster" Varner.
Voters selected Carrie Wilfong and Cynthia Broce-Kelley as the county's new magistrates.
Former Prosecuting Attorney Donna Price survived a three-way race in the May Democratic Primary, but she was defeated in November by Eugene Simmons, who ran as a non-affiliated candidate.
Simmons' candidacy—and the results of that election—were called into question in December with a petition to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals by Arbovale resident Cheryl McCullough. In her petition to the court, McCullough contended that the County Clerk and Secretary of State were wrong to grant Simmons petition to get on the ballot as a non-affiliated candidate, given that he never officially changed his Democrat affiliation.
While in recess, the Supreme Court denied McCullough's petition in a 3-2 decision, effectively upholding the results of the race for prosecutor.
9. Security camera footage on Facebook
Footage from the former county jail building made its way to Facebook during the election season, raising the concern—and hackles—of county commissioners at their first November meeting.
County Commissioner Martin Saffer summoned Sheriff David Jonese to the meeting to explain how the apparent security camera footage wound up on the social media website.
The footage in question was posted on October 28 to the Jonese for Sheriff Facebook page.
Jonese refused to say who posted the video and insisted that citizens "have no expectation of privacy" when they enter the jail or courthouse.
The brief video, which has no audio track, appears to show Prosecuting Attorney Donna Meadows Price speaking with two Sheriff's Department employees at a counter in the jail. As they talk, Jonese appears to come through a door behind the counter, and—seeing Price—quickly turns the other way, closing the door behind him. After the door is closed, Price raised her hand and extended her middle finger in the Sheriff's direction.
The video was removed from the page shortly after it came to the commission's attention
The tussle led the commission to vote unanimously to file an ethics complaint against the sheriff, citing concerns about misuse of taxpayer-financed equipment, and the political nature of the use of the footage.
10. Former prosecutor charged with misconduct
Around the first of the year, the Lawyer Disciplinary Board charged Pocahontas County's prosecuting attorney with violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct in a nearly 60-page document that outlined alleged failure of competence and diligence, alleged failure to expedite litigation and achieve fairness to opposing party and counsel, as well as failure to show impartiality and decorum, and alleged misconduct.
A sign of the strained relationship between the prosecutor and county law enforcement, the LDB relied on complaints from Circuit Judges James Rowe and Joseph Pomponio, the sheriff and other law enforcement officers, the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Child Youth and Advocacy Center. The complaint charged Price with several violations that spanned criminal, juvenile and abuse and neglect cases.
In a September meeting with the county commission, Price said the charges were "intentionally and maliciously brought," and were part of a larger conspiracy against her that had been ongoing since she took office in 2009.
"There’s been a continual barrage to push me to quit," Price told the commissioners.
Depending on the outcome of the disciplinary suit, Price could face sanctions that range from a private reprimand to the suspension of her law license.