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Berkeley County family files wrongful death suit against W.Va. state police

Civil action filed by widow, daughters of suicide victim also claims remains not handled appropriately by police, medical examiner

August 19, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthewu@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The family of a Berkeley County man whose remains were found at a shale pit in November 2012 after he threatened to commit suicide several months earlier has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the West Virginia State Police.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Berkeley County Circuit Court on behalf of Walter N. Hughes’ widow, Victoria Hughes, and their three daughters, Kristal M. Hughes, Kristina Arntz and Kristie Canfield, according to court records.

In addition to the wrongful death claim, the lawsuit claims that state police and the West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner are liable for mishandling the man’s remains after they were found at the shale pit.

West Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Michael Baylous said Friday he had not been made aware of the claims contained in the lawsuit and declined to comment.

“We are not at liberty to discuss open civil lawsuits,” Baylous said.

County Medical Examiner Curtis Keller, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit as an appointee of the state chief medical examiner, was unaware of the allegations.

“I’m not commenting, either,” Keller said.

The civil action claims that state troopers failed to take appropriate action to protect Hughes from himself or others, and failed to take him into custody for his own protection. The lawsuit claims that state troopers and the medical examiner’s office, through Keller’s involvement, are liable for negligent and reckless misconduct in mishandling Hughes’ remains.

The lawsuit is asking the court for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

The lawsuit claims that on April 13, more than six months before the discovery of human remains at the shale pit, Walter Hughes pointed a gun at his chest in front of one of his daughters and threatened to kill himself, the day after his wife moved into a hotel in Winchester, Va.

Less than a week before she moved out, Hughes’ wife discovered her husband was having an extramarital affair, according to the lawsuit.

The suicidal incident was reported to authorities, but the lawsuit claims three state  troopers who responded to investigate indicated that Hughes appeared “fine to them” and suggested that one of his daughters take their father out to dinner, while another retrieve the handgun at the house.

The lawsuit claims the troopers told a boyfriend of one of Hughes’ daughters that there was nothing they could do after they were told Hughes kept the handgun in his pocket.

After nightfall, state police again were called to do a welfare check at Hughes’ residence, where the three troopers who responded found a suicide note, an $82,000 cashier’s check, jewelry and a cellphone belonging to the man on a table in the home. Hughes was not found.

On Nov. 29, Hughes’ wife learned through a friend that the human remains were found in a shale pit not far from the family residence, the lawsuit said.

A state trooper told the family later that day that a gun, a breath mint case, khaki shorts and a jacket also were found with the remains, which were later positively identified as those of Hughes, the lawsuit said.

The next day, a portion of Hughes’ remains were discovered by family members at the shale pit when they decided to go there to leave flowers, the lawsuit said.

“When the family arrived at the (shale) pit they were shocked and horrified to discover Walter Hughes’ human remains including an entire arm bone, a pelvic bone, spine vertebra, rib bones, finger bones and part of their father’s jaw bone as well as his bottom dentures still remained at the site,” attorney Harry P. Waddell wrote in a seven-page lawsuit.

On Dec. 3, one of Hughes’ daughters who traveled from Germany and decided to visit the site, discovered that one of her father’s thigh bones was still at the shale pit site, the lawsuit said.

The discovery was reported to police, the lawsuit said.

A shell casing also was found at the site after the remains were first discovered, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit names three troopers and lists four others as John Does 1-4.

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