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Former West Virginia judge dies

February 25, 1998|By CLYDE FORD and BRENDAN KIRBYs

Pierre Etienne Dostert

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Pierre Etienne Dostert was a man of many facets: Church organist, editor and former circuit judge.

On Tuesday, Dostert died at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson, W.Va., after a long illness. He was 64.

The cause of death was not reported.

A colorful and controversial Jefferson County Circuit Court judge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dostert's exploits were legendary in the local legal community.

On April 27, 1984, Dostert became the first judge in state history to be found in contempt of the West Virginia Supreme Court.

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But he was perhaps best known for his role in what became known as the 'copter caper.

That saga began on March 25, 1979, when a helicopter carrying a Richmond, Va., couple landed illegally near a home in Bolivar, W.Va.

Police, initially turned away by the residents of the home, called the judge.

A pajama-clad - and by some accounts armed - Dostert accompanied police to the house to arrest Detlev Preissler, his son, Erik and a pilot, for allowing the helicopter to land on the Preissler lawn.

Detlev Preissler asked to see a search warrant. Dostert, his handgun pointed at Preissler's chest, declared, "I'm the law and this is my warrant," according to newspaper accounts at the time.

Dostert denied making the statement and said that while he had a gun he never drew it. He also said he was dressed at the time.

Dostert was found innocent of trespassing charges stemming from the 'copter caper, but pleaded no contest to a battery charge. He was fined $100 and three remaining charges were dropped.

In June 1980, the West Virginia Supreme Court suspended Dostert from the bench for six months for violating judicial ethics for carrying a gun without a proper permit.

"As Frank Sinatra said, he did it his way," said Philip Stryker, who later was to become Dostert's publishing company partner.

"He was a unique and interesting person," said attorney Braun Hamstead, who was once jailed by Dostert for disobeying an order from the judge.

"I never got a sense our conflicts were personal," said Hamstead, who as county prosecutor once was jailed for 3 1/2 hours by Dostert. "It was just part of the way he was, the way he did things."

"He was kind of ... let's put it this way ... opinionated," said Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Thompson, an assistant prosecutor back when Braun Hamstead was briefly jailed by Dostert.

"He was a very opinionated person, but I think he was very honest and straight-forward," said Stryker, president of Stryker-Post Publications in Bolivar.

While on the bench, Dostert had several run-ins with the state's high court.

In 1983, the court removed him as judge in a case involving the paddling death of a 23-month-old boy in the Stonegate religious commune.

An Ohio County judge, appointed by the Supreme Court to recommend whether he should remain, said Dostert's conduct toward the commune and the defendant warranted his removal.

Dostert was still battling the state Supreme Court in 1984 when he was found in contempt of the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The contempt charge came after Dostert ordered a Jefferson County inmate to be turned over to Florida authorities in 1982 despite a state Supreme Court order blocking the extradition.

His tumultuous time on the bench came to an end after Dostert lost a re-election bid in 1984.

Dostert, of Bolivar, then went into the publishing business with Stryker. He was vice president of the company and was editor of its The Word Today series.

Stryker said Dostert was a musician, who played the organ at a number of area churches.

Dostert also became a volunteer medic with the Friendship Fire Co. and had been president of the company at one time, said Friendship Fire Chief Steve Hough.

The former judge stopped serving in the early 1990s at the fire company after he had a liver transplant, Hough said.

"He was a very straight shooter," Stryker said. "Some people liked him. Some people didn't like him. He never wanted to tread the middle road. He felt his decisions were right."

"He was a smart man, very intelligent," said Jefferson County Clerk of Court John Ott. "The only thing I can say is sometimes he allowed his enthusiasm to overrule good judgment. He had a photographic memory, but his judgment sometimes got in the way of good common sense."

"He was a good judge," said Jefferson County Sheriff's Lt. Ken Mills. "He just couldn't keep his mouth shut."

In 1983, Dostert banned the public, members of the news media and attorneys from the Jefferson County Circuit Court clerk's vault, which contained public records.

A Mineral County, W.Va., judge later partially overturned Dostert's decision.

The ruling was part of a simmering feud between Dostert and Clerk Rosa Lynch. The previous year, he suggested she resign if she could not follow his orders banning her from discussing cases with the media.

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