Former Upper Big Branch mine security chief Hughie Elbert Stover Jr. was sentenced to serve three years in federal prison and was fined $20,000 for lying to federal investigators during the investigation of the April 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 men.
Stover, age 60, of Clear Fork, was convicted in October of lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy thousands of documents after the explosion.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin urged U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger to sentence Stover to serve 25 years in prison, while Stover's attorney, Bill Wilmoth, asked that his client be given no jail time at all.
"Obviously, we asked for a sentence greater than what was handed down by the court, but it's important to note that three years for a man who is 60 years old is a long time in jail," Goodwin said. "It's also important to note that this represents perhaps one of the longest sentences ever handed down in a mine safety case. We wanted to send a very clear message and will continue to send it that anyone who obstructs our investigation into this most critical of incidents, they're going to be met with the harshest prosecution."
Goodwin called three witnesses to testify before the sentence was delivered, including Gary May, former UBB mine superintendent.
Last week, May was charged with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, accused of disabling a methane monitor on a mining machine and falsifying safety records. He faces up to five years in prison.
During his testimony, May told the court that there was a practice of letting everyone know the inspectors were coming at UBB. Phrases like "we have company outside" was code that would be given over two radio channels. If someone said a "hailstorm" is coming, May says that meant that more than one inspector would be visiting.
May agreed that if they knew inspectors were coming, safety violations were corrected beforehand.
"I knew it was unlawful."
He said he did give advance notice of inspectors coming, but he was never told by Stover to do so. He says to his knowledge, Stover never called to give advance notice to anyone.
Other witnesses include Kevin Stricklin, a Mine Safety and Health Administration coal administrator, and Gina Jones, who lost her husband in the UBB disaster.
Stricklin says that the MSHA investigation concluded that advanced notice was a contributory factor leading to the explosion. He also described this explosion as the worst disaster and most important investigation in MSHA history, since its inception in 1977.
He says approximately 275 interviews were conducted by MSHA during an 18 month investigation. The importance of the investigation lies not only with providing an explanation to family members who lost loved ones, Stricklin said, but to also prevent future accidents.
"Records are an important part of our investigation," Stricklin said. He went on to say "dangerous conduct was hidden."
Undoubtedly, this conduct has had a devastating affect on the families of the 29 miners, including Gina Jones.
Jones was very emotional. She was asked if she believed it was important to find out what really happened, to which she answered yes.
She was asked to step down and Judge Berger reviewed the evidence.
"The evidence presented today confirms that prior notice was given," Berger said. She said that the FBI determined Stover had trained security to give notification about inspectors.
Stover was instructed by the FBI when they began their investigation to not throw away any documents. Stover instructed a subordinate to put over 50,000 pages of visitor logs, inspector logs and incident reports into trash bags and then in the trash compactor.
She reviewed his history, having grown up as a poor boy in Clear Creek. She said he described his step-father as physically and emotionally abusive. Stover joined the Marine Corps shortly after graduating high school. He was married once, with no children, and then married a second time to his current wife. They had one daughter, who is now grown, who now has children of her own.
She noted that Stover has no criminal activity in his background.
The attorneys then gave their closing statements.
Goodwin said, "This couldn't be further from an ordinary case." He discussed how Stover lied repeatedly to investigators and urged that the maximum sentence be given.
Wilmoth argued that if the 25-year sentence was given, Stover "will die in prison."
"That is not justice if that were to happen."
Stover gave a brief statement, apologizing to the court and offering his condolences to the victims' families.
Berger sentenced Stover to three years in a federal prison and two years supervised release. He was ordered to pay a fine of $20,000 immediately.
Stover is free on bond until the federal bureau of prisons instructs him where he will serve his sentence. Stover will self-report to that location in approximately six to eight weeks.
"We are considering an appeal," Wilmoth said shortly after the sentence was delivered.
Clay Mullins, who lost his brother Rex in the explosion, said he believes Stover received a very light sentence.
"I'm very disappointed in it," Mullins said. "But I'm anxious to see if we get some further indictments and how they follow through with those."
Mullins added, "This could have been prevented and should have been prevented."
(c) 2012 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)
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