Thursday, March 13, 2008

Holy Mothman, Batman! The Charleston Gazette reports controversial news from Mason County!

This article originally appeared in the March 13 edition of the Charleston Gazette, and is reprinted with permission.

Apologize, Mason sheriff says
Remarks about subpoena error went too far, he says

by Gary Harki, staff writer

Mason County Sheriff Scott Simms believes state Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis Jr. owes the entire county an apology because of comments he made about an arson investigation.

Kimberly Sue Blake, a volunteer firefighter and daughter of the county's 911 director, was charged with two counts of first-degree arson in January. She and two other firefighters allegedly started a fire at a Mason building.

But charges against Blake were dismissed after an assistant state fire marshal, Jason Baltic, didn't show up at her hearing. A subpoena for Baltic was issued, but never served.

According to the sheriff, Lewis told WSAZ-TV that the issue with the subpoena was "typical of Mason County." The sheriff believes Lewis meant that the sheriff's office was doing a political favor for the county's 911 director, Chuck Blake, by not serving the subpoena.

"That was definitely his intention," Simms said. "People in positions of power and responsibility need to be responsible when they open their mouth.

The sheriff said his main problem was that Lewis impugned the entire county.

"Anybody who has got a problem with me or wants to call me names or make implications that I'm corrupt, that's fine," Simms said.

"I'm an elected official and I asked for it. ... [But] when a man of his position makes a statement like that about a county, then he is talking about all the people of Mason County and that's wrong and he owes the people of Mason County an apology."

Lewis was out of town until Tuesday, and could not be reached for comment, according to a deputy state fire marshal.

The subpoena was not served because of an honest mistake, Simms said. He said 99 percent of the department's annual 4,500 subpoenas are served in Mason County, and its computer system doesn't record whether subpoenas outside the county have been served.

"It has to be dealt with by hand. That's where the mistake took place," the sheriff said. "After the hearing, when I became aware that the fire marshal hadn't been notified I undertook an internal investigation to understand how that happened.

"I know how it happened. And I am taking measures to fix that so it doesn't happen again."

However, Brent Kapp, one of the other firefighters charged with arson, did have a preliminary hearing and his charges were not dismissed. Simms said he didn't know for sure, but he assumed someone from the fire marshal's office was at Kapp's hearing.

He could not say why that subpoena was apparently served, but the subpoena for Kimberly Blake's hearing was not.

The third firefighter charged, Jamar Cuthberson, waived his right to a preliminary hearing, according to court documents and Mason County Prosecuting Attorney Damon Morgan Jr.

Cuthberson and Kapp are out on bail and their cases are awaiting action by a Mason County grand jury, Morgan said.

Baltic, the assistant fire marshal, said he believes that what happened was a simple mistake.

"I guess you could say in the process there was an oversight," he said. "I didn't receive a subpoena. I wasn't there."

Charges against Blake will still be presented before the grand jury, Morgan said.

"Frankly, in cases in general where a defendant is released on bond, a preliminary hearing never benefits the state unless they are a flight risk," Morgan said.

"It only benefits the defendant because they get to hear the state's case."

Simms said his department has always worked well with Lewis' office and that they will continue that good working relationship.

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