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Police abuses alleged in West Virginia

June 24, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Eastern Panhandle state troopers make sport of targeting junky old cars for pursuit and use force to teach drivers who run from them a lesson, a former state trooper stationed in Berkeley County, W.Va., told a Martinsburg lawyer, according to court documents.

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"You look for some crusty, old...car out on (W.Va.) 45 or Tabler Station...It's a game," former trooper Michael A. Durst Jr. said, according to a 33-page statement filed Monday as a court exhibit accompanying a civil lawsuit in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit, filed by Mary E. Parsons against West Virginia State Police and six individual officers, alleges state troopers beat up her car and the Glengary, W.Va., man who had borrowed it following a high-speed chase in the early hours of Sept. 27, according to court records.

In a separate civil suit filed in May, the man, James D. Minghini Jr., 26, claimed that eight state police troopers, "individually and acting together as a mob," brutally and severely beat his head and body and severely damaged the car he was driving.

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The chase began after troopers spotted Minghini running off the side of the road and tried to pull him over. Minghini got out and ran after his car spun out of control. He was captured less than a mile from his mother's home.

Minghini's mother, Phyllis June Minghini, and his sister, Crystal Gay Minghini, also are plaintiffs in Minghini's civil suit. They claim mental and emotional distress from witnessing the alleged beating.

Both lawsuits claim the West Virginia State Police agency is "vicariously liable" for wrongdoing by its troopers.

The incident is under investigation, separate from the agency's internal investigation, for possible criminal offenses by the officers, Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Jean Games-Neely said Tuesday.

Games-Neely said her office was asked to launch a criminal investigation by Paul Taylor, who represents Minghini and Parsons in the civil cases, and by Minghini's criminal defense attorney, Kevin D. Miller.

Because there was sufficient information to justify an investigation, Games-Neely said she was required by law to forward the request to the West Virginia Department of Public Safety, which assigned a senior investigator to the case.

The nature of the alleged criminal offenses are confidential at this point, she said.

The investigator will have access to all evidence gathered in the civil cases as well as a videotape taken from one of the state police cars, Games-Neely said.

The ongoing criminal investigation and Durst's statement were at the center of defense attorneys' arguments made Tuesday in Berkeley County Circuit Court that depositions state troopers will give for Minghini's civil suit should be sealed.

If not granted that protection, state troopers could be forced to invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to testify to anything that could incriminate them, which could affect the criminal investigation, attorneys for the troopers and the West Virginia State Police said during a hearing in Judge Thomas Steptoe's office.

Steptoe voiced concerns that granting the motion to seal the depositions would constitute prior restraint in violation of First Amendment freedom of the press.

"I'm making information unavailable to the public if I do what you're asking me to do," Steptoe said.

He later ruled the depositions, three of them scheduled to taken on Thursday, will be open to the public.

Durst's statements were made May 4 during an informal interview by Mills, who said he attempted to interview all witnesses to Minghini's chase and arrest.

Durst was the only state trooper to agree to be interviewed, Mills said. The interview was tape recorded but not taken under oath.

In his statement, Durst admitted to joining the pursuit and assisting in "trashing" the car, but said he didn't participate in or witness the arrest.

When he arrived, Minghini was lying on his back on the ground handcuffed, moaning and bleeding from his face, Durst is quoted as saying.

Durst talked about a pattern of punishment for people who tried to flee from troopers.

"Something always gets tore up or something, it's just inevitable. I guess they have to prove a point: don't run from the law," he said in the statement.

Durst alleged that fellow officers later tried to cover up what really happened.

Martinsburg lawyer Michael D. Lorensen, who represents Durst against Minghini's civil claims, said he couldn't comment on the authenticity of the transcripts or his client's part in the incident.

Lorensen said he couldn't say under what circumstances Durst left the state police.

Gary Pullin, who represents the West Virginia State Police in the case, said there was no wrongdoing in the arrest of Minghini.

"I think the state police would dispute the statement that they would look for people in the Eastern Panhandle," Pullin said. "This is not at all how the state police conduct themselves."

Charleston, W.Va., attorney Jeff Phillips, who is representing Troopers Max M. Kingery, Jeffrey Phillips and Kevin Plumer, said he couldn't comment on the allegations and had instructed his clients not to comment.

Charleston attorney Charles Bailey, who is representing Troopers Carl A. Mahood, T.C. Kearns, E.D. Anderson, didn't return several telephone messages left at his office Tuesday afternoon and evening.

The Martinsburg barracks commander could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

All charges against Minghini, including driving under the influence, fleeing from police and reckless driving have since been dismissed, Miller said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.




related story: Police abuse claims denied by commander

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