Public spats between high-ranking officials. Anonymous letters and lawsuit threats. A cast of characters longer than a blockbuster movie and a laundry list of allegations that seems to grow every day.
The scandal that has rocked the West Virginia State Police is shocking, complicated and confusing.
But with more investigations vowed – including a federal probe and numerous civil lawsuits – it’s clear that the scope of the allegations are far-reaching and may impact the state for years to come.
Here’s what we know and what we don’t.
What is being investigated?
Sometime last year, an anonymous letter was sent to the office of Gov. Jim Justice, alleging over a dozen incidents of misconduct within the State Police. It detailed drunken fights, office affairs, misspent funds, overtime theft, sexual assaults, and how a trooper had installed a hidden camera in the women’s locker room at the State Police Training Academy.
The letter worked its way through the state government like a slow-burning fuse. In the last few weeks, it has exploded. After the letter was sent to legislators and described by media outlets in mid-February, the governor confirmed several acts of misconduct among troopers. State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill has resigned under pressure from Justice. And State Police have arrested a trooper on domestic violence charges, which his attorney says are retaliation for speaking out.
Yet despite the revelations, critical elements of the sprawling scandal remain unknown. Most of the allegations in the letter have neither been publicly substantiated nor disproven. And Justice has not released the results of an initial investigation he said was completed over a week ago, despite vowing to be “one-thousand percent transparent.”
Meanwhile, Cahill has vigorously defended himself, saying he is “a fall guy” who was kept in the dark about the entire inquiry until Justice pressured him to resign.
Justice has spoken publicly and released the most information about three incidents:
- An alleged theft by a state police trooper at the Mardi Gras Casino in Cross Lanes in 2021
- Alleged video taping inside the women’s locker room at the State Police Academy in Institute.
- The death of a man during an encounter with state police on Interstate 81 in the Eastern Panhandle in February.
What happened at the casino?
Justice has provided the most information about an alleged theft of roughly $750 by a veteran state police officer at the Mardi Gras Casino.
A video released of the 2021 incident shows the man, who has not been identified, picking up an envelope off the chair of the slot machine.
The officer ultimately returned the money and hasn’t been charged with a crime. He resigned last month after the incident was brought to light.
Justice said that the officer should have been fired and accused Cahill, the superintendent at the time, of botching the investigation. Cahill has said he did not have the ability to fire the officer.
How did a camera get in the women’s locker room at the State Police Academy? Where are the lawsuits?
When Justice spoke to the media on March 20, he described how a state trooper had installed a camera in the women’s locker room at the State Police Training Academy in Institute. Justice said that when troopers discovered evidence of women being taped, they destroyed it.
Justice did not name the trooper in question, but said he was deceased. It’s also unclear when the taping began, when it stopped, whether there is any additional footage or whether any other troopers were involved.
Cahill told MetroNews that he was aware of only one woman who had been filmed and that she didn’t want there to be any further investigation.
As of last month, almost 70 women had notified the State Police that they intend to sue, represented by Wheeling-based attorney Teresa Toriseva.
Toriseva told the West Virginia Record that the lawsuits will allege “abuses of power and misconduct toward women,” including “rampant sexual misconduct.” In the first lawsuit filed last month, an unnamed woman alleges she was videotaped by a hidden camera in the women’s locker room at the State Police Academy.
Two current West Virginia police officers Megan Talkington and Brenda Lesnett, spoke to CNN on June 29 about their allegations, saying they were “shocked” “appalled” at the misconduct described by the anonymous letter and calling for “reform from top to bottom.”
In addition, two women represented by Charleston attorney Dante DiTrapano have accused a state trooper who was stationed in southern West Virginia of rape.
A letter sent in March by DiTrapano alleged that Officer Michael Miller drugged and kidnapped a woman at American Legion Post 19 in Logan. Earlier this year, the first lawsuit was filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court; it named Miller as well as another trooper, the State Police and the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, as well as Post 19. The letter stated that the FBI has information on Miller’s alleged actions.
How did a man die on I-81 after a struggle with police?
The death of Edmond Exline has also become part of the ongoing investigation. Exline died late Feb. 12 after a struggle with state troopers on I-81 near the Maryland border.
Details are sparse. The State Police have released little information. Even Exline’s family is still in the dark about what happened.
Sarah Hartman-Exline, Edmond Exline’s sister-in-law, said Maryland state troopers knocked on their door in Hagerstown, M.D, at about 2:30 a.m. They then informed her and her husband that Exline was dead.
She said she and her husband made more than 100 phone calls to the West Virginia State Police to gather details about Exline’s death. A trooper eventually told her that Exline, 45, was encountered by officers after a 911 caller reported an intoxicated man walking on the highway.
Exline’s family said he suffered from schizophrenia, which often caused him to act erratically.
Hartman-Exline said the trooper told her that a Taser was used on Exline, that numerous officers were involved, and that there was a five-minute window where the troopers didn’t respond to the dispatcher.
Both Justice and Cahill have watched the video and described it as unsettling.
“The audio concerned me right off the bat, the commands, the screaming,” Cahill said.
On March 2, Governor Justice’s Chief of Staff, Brian Abraham, sent a memo to Cahill asking for a trove of information, including text messages and emails from Cahill and 12 other members of the State Police. The request appears to be related to Exline’s death, as the date range begins the morning after the incident.
Justice said that prosecutors reviewing the case had asked him not to release the video but that he intends to do so in the future.
Meanwhile, Exline’s family is still mourning his death.
Brian Exline, Edmond’s brother, said his brother left behind one adult child. He described his brother as a genius with his hands, who “could literally take apart anything and put it back together.”
That included a 1962 Buick Skylark Convertible Edmond rebuilt with their father when the boys were young.
Who is Cpl. Joseph Comer, the West Virginia State Police officer behind the letter?
The author of the five-page letter, sent last year to state lawmakers, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Governor Jim Justice, was revealed to be West Virginia State Police Cpl. Joseph Comer. After he sent the letter, Comer was arrested on domestic battery and strangulation charges in March.
What other State Police scandals have there been?
This is not the first scandal for the West Virginia State Police, which has been plagued by misconduct allegations over the decades.
One of the most notable cases of misconduct was the work of former forensic technician Fred Zain, estimated to have falsified evidence in 182 cases during the 80s and 90s. He was set to be retried on fraud charges related to testimony he gave in a criminal trial when he died from cancer in 2002.
In 1999, State Trooper Gary Messenger II was sentenced to seven years in prison for beating a McDowell County man who had complained about a party where state troopers were firing their guns at an American Legion hall in Welch.
Justice also confirmed in a press conference last week that the FBI is investigating allegations that a state trooper raped a woman in December 2021.
What happens next?
Justice has said that he directed interim State Police Superintendent Jack Chambers to investigate all allegations of wrongdoing alongside an investigation by the state Department of Homeland Security.
A special prosecutor from Grant County is investigating Exline’s death – and Justice has said that federal investigators are also involved in some elements of the State Police probe, although their focus is unclear.
There is no public timetable for any of the investigations, but Justice has indicated that investigators have continued to find evidence of wrongdoing.
“The more we dug, the more it stunk,” he said.
This story has been updated with new information on July 7, 2023. Tyler Dedrick contributed to this story.