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Sheriff Smith criticizes suits

February 15, 2002

Sheriff Smith criticizes suits



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith on Thursday referred to two lawsuits that have been filed against his department over officer conduct as "lies," and asked the Berkeley County Commission for help.

Smith said the lawsuits regarding the alleged beating of Hedgesville, W.Va., man Todd Rankin alleges that deputies in the sheriff's department planned a "murder."

"Someone's got to make a stand on this. There has to be something wrong here," Smith told the commissioners.

The commissioners agreed to consult with county attorney Norwood Bentley to determine what kind of response the commissioners can make.

The commissioners want to see if they can counter-sue or pursue what's called a "Rule 11" action, under which a judge reviews a suit to determine if it has merit, Commission President Howard Strauss said.

Lawsuits can be thrown out if they are found to be meritless, said Strauss.

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"If it's a lie, we want to stop the lies. And I think it is," Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart said. Martinsburg, W.Va., attorney Laura Rose, who filed the lawsuits in federal court, said if the commissioners decide to spend any money on the suits, they should find out why Smith is so "resolute" in his defense of the deputies' actions.

Rose said the commissioners can pursue a Rule 11 review of the lawsuits, but they must realize that defendants in such a case can be penalized for having a frivolous defense.

"I know every lie that has been told and it hasn't come from my clients," Rose said Thursday afternoon.

Rose filed the lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Martinsburg over a series of events involving Rankin and his parents, Wilma and Paul Rankin, also of Hedgesville.

Todd Rankin suffered a collapsed lung and a broken rib on Jan. 17, 2000, and Rose alleged that deputies inflicted the injuries after they stopped Paul Rankin Jr.'s truck as he drove his brother home.

Three deputies - Sgt. Johnny Vanorsdale, Cpl. Ron Gardner and Deputy Christopher McCulley - were indicted for the alleged beating of Rankin in January last year.

Two court-appointed investigators later concluded that Rankin was probably hurt in a fight earlier in the day and in June, Circuit Court Judge Christopher Wilkes granted a special prosecutor's request to drop the charges.

A month ago, Rose filed the first lawsuit on behalf of Todd Rankin, claiming deputies "assaulted, beat and kicked" Rankin during the Jan. 7, 2000, traffic stop.

The suit claims former Sheriff Ronald Jones was requested by a member of the state Legislative Committee on Special Investigations to conduct an investigation into Rankin's injuries, but a report was never filed.

The second lawsuit, filed Tuesday, alleges that three other deputies, along with West Virginia State Police troopers, conspired with other members of the sheriff's department in an attempt to kill Rankin at his house on Feb. 12. The suit alleges the three deputies who went to Rankin's house were aware of the prior incident in which Rankin alleged he was beaten by the three other deputies.

The officers realized "those deputies might be pursued if Todd Rankin sought medical attention and he survived to testify against them," the suit alleges.

The suit alleges deputies K.C. Bohrer, Mark Spessert and Daniel Steerman approached the Rankin home in a hostile manner in an attempt to frighten Rankin so he would attempt to run.

Both lawsuits name the sheriff's department, Jones, the Berkeley County Commission, the Berkeley County Prosecutor's office and Pamela Games-Neely as defendants.

The first lawsuit also names McCulley, Gardner, Vanorsdale and special prosecutor Lynn Nelson and the second lawsuit also names Bohrer, Spessert and Steerman.

The suits do not seek a specific amount of money.

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