By Lyra Bordelon
The future of policing in Alderson remains uncertain after an explosive meeting of Town Council, in which Chief Jeremy Bennet called for the removal of Mayor Travis Copenhaver, calling him a ‘bully’ and citing his alleged actions around a 2017 shooting that left an off-duty officer paralyzed. After losing officers to both Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs, and Bennet restricted to administrative duty following his orders with the National Guard, the only remaining officer, Patrolman Sheldon Simmons, announced he was looking for and planning on taking a position elsewhere.
The meeting was held outside, attempting to follow social distancing guidelines to accommodate the over 30 visitors to the Town Council on Thursday, July 10. Many of the guests were there to ask what the city would be doing to get the police department back in shape and defend Bennet.
According to Bennet, he was notified by a memo earlier this week that he would be removed as police chief, with Simmons temporarily taking over the position while Bennet was deployed. Bennet pointed to the major budget issues Council discussed in the June meeting and issues with Copenhaver as why the department might soon not have a single active officer. Many of the guests sought to fight to keep the chief in place.
Several speakers emphasized, with many councilmembers agreeing both Thursday and in previous meetings, that the four-man police department was the best Alderson had in decades. Two teachers and several community members spoke in favor of Bennet and the officers, including Simmons, Patrolman Gaige Ratliff, and Patrolman First Class Rigoberto Rodriguez, saying they were very involved with both local Alderson students and the community at large.
“The only I’ve got to say about the police department is we had four outstanding officers,” said Roger Bennett. “They’ll stop, shoot basketball with the kids, bring them ice cream, and I think we have to look at the common denominator [in why they left] and, from conversations that I’ve had with them, it was you. … They’re exact words were ‘You can’t treat people like that and expect them to stay.’”
In addition, law enforcement voiced support for Bennet, such as Bob Johnson and Mac Brackenridge.
“I came down here to support Jeremy,” said Brackenridge. “He’s a great leader, a great chief. He turned this police department around at one time. I was one of the first certified officers in 14, 15 years to be blessed with being hired on down here. I love the town, still love the town. The council never did anything to me. … But I think that there’s a lot of negative outlook on police right now. I’m still involved in the police community in this state and there’s not an officer in this county, let alone the surrounding counties, that would touch this department right now. And it’s because of the … higher up administration, not Jeremy. And that’s sad.”
A major source of contention revolves around an October 2017 shooting that paralyzed Brackenridge and events Bennet alleges followed. According to court testimony given by a state trooper who responded to the initial incident, five men, including Copenhaver and Brackenridge, had been riding in a side-by-side, “drinking some beers,” when they had an altercation with Fredrick Tolliver. After the incident, the group went out for recreational shooting. On the way back home, the group then pulled into Tolliver’s driveway “to mess with him after [the earlier] incident,” and Tolliver opened fire on the side-by-side. Then an off-duty Alderson police officer, Brackenrich was paralyzed as a result of his injuries.
“You know what this all stems back to?” Bennet said to Copenhaver. “The Monday after Mac got shot, you had a meeting in here [City Hall]. A mandatory meeting to tell your side of the story. I left because I knew it was all B.S. … Once I got here, you said ‘let’s go for a little ride’ in which you took me, while I was on duty, in your personal vehicle, took me outside of the city to your in-laws to retrieve items for your children. Then we went to your house and at your house, and I can prove this if anyone wants to hear it, you went to your bedroom and returned with [a] jacket. Inside that jacket was a bloody phone. You handed it to me and told me I needed to dispose this for you. I said ‘what is this?’ You said it was Mac’s phone. You asked me to take it up the hill, throw it over the hill, call the state police and say I found it. From the time that I refused to do your dirty work, you’ve told me multiple times you don’t trust me and sooner or later I’m gone from here. That’s what this all comes down to is you’re retaliating against me.”
Tolliver was not indicted for his role in the shooting, with a 2018 Summers County Grand Jury indicting Copenhaver, Timothy D. Smith, Shannon C. Earhart, Lloyd W. “Billy” Lightner Jr., on three counts; conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, giving false information to a member of the department of public safety, and obstructing. A plea deal was struck between the Summers County Special Prosecutor Jennifer Crane and Copenhaver in September 2019, allowing for a pretrial diversion, a program in which first-time criminal offenders perform community service, obtain drug or alcohol treatment, make restitution, or other alternatives. If the defendant completes the program, the charges are dismissed. According to the agreement, the state would drop the three-count indictment after six months if Copenhaver completes 75 hours of community service and does not violate any laws. Before the agreement was finalized, Town Council asked Copenhaver to step away from his role as municipal judge on paid administrative leave while he was under indictment and the case was still pending
Copenhaver, when asked to comment further, stated he did not have additional comment on the issue.
“There were multiple things that were brought up multiple times throughout this meeting tonight that have been dealt with previously,” Copenhaver said. “Otherwise I can’t substantiate, I can’t deny, and I will be very honest. … There’s so much on my plate that without facts in front of me, there are things I can’t remember. As far as that night, I have no comment. Obviously, that seems to be the basis for a lot of the personal struggle between the chief and I.”
Bennet also cited a previous instance of losing his authority as chief while deployed.
“Everytime I go on military leave, I have an issue,” Bennet said. “September 11, 2017, you removed me as chief of police, and you took control of the police department because I was on military leave because I refused to give you access to the evidence room. You threatened to serve a search warrant on my house, go kick the door in on my wife to get the evidence room key. … Even though you’re the municipal judge, you don’t have access to the evidence room, nor should you have access.”
Bennett and many in the crowd called for Copenhaver’s removal through either a petition from residents of Alderson or a vote from the Town Council.
“The whole year and a half that you were gone after you were indicted, we tried to reach out for a judge multiple times and never had one,” Bennet said. “You continued to remain as a paid employee. Here I am, gone on military leave, and I’m removed as chief. … What do I do now? Twice I’ve tried to file a grievance. … Look at the bigger picture other than just me, I think everyone here could come forward and tell you what he’s done [or said] about them.”
Many audience members also stated they had received bullying text messages from Copenhaver, laced with profanities and inappropriate photo-edits of political challengers. Copenhaver stated he could not “validate anything you have” when alleged messages were read.
Copenhaver spoke to the Mountain Messenger after the meeting, explaining that during the past several years, throughout floods and city financial troubles, he has had to make unpopular decisions.
“Council tonight upheld that if there is an issue they’re happy to meet with him,” Copenhaver said. “The personal stuff with me, the bandwagon seems to be that everybody here in attendance, about 25 people, thought that I should fall on the sword and resign. It is what it is. … There is no way to win any direction you turn.”
Acknowledging the memo, Copenhaver told the Mountain Messenger that Bennet would remain chief.
“I and council agreed there needed to be someone in charge with boots on the ground,” Copenhaver said. “Our officer that was left decided he did not wish to do that so. Chief Bennett is still in charge of his operations, in fact I’m going to rescind the memo since this meeting tonight so he’s still in charge. Beyond that, we’ve not defunded the police department. … There’s no question, he’s not been removed.”
Simmons confirmed he did not want the position during the council meeting.
“I’ve only been in the town a year and a half,” explained Simmons. “Do I know everything? No. Absolutely not, I won’t know everything in ten years. I don’t want to be a chief. We did have a discussion and my decision was I didn’t want it.”
In order to solve the pressing police crisis, Copenhaver nominated Councilmember Doris Kesley to head a special meeting, bringing together the council, police department, and other parties in order to get a comprehensive look at all of the issues facing the department, the town, and make the best possible plan forward in June. However, despite a phone call between Kesley and Bennet, the meeting has not yet taken place.
“The meeting has not happened due to the fact of the flood that hit the Old Victorian Inn as well as other places in town, a lot of extra work, plus the fact that my husband is now in hospice care,” explained Kesley. “We’ve had several week-long hospitalizations in the past month and now we’re making other decisions. That has taken priority and I apologize to those that are waiting.”
Shortly after the June meeting, the town began advertising for full-time officers, offering a $5,000 sign on bonus for West Virginia Law Enforcement Certificated officers. Although reluctant to consider part-time officers in the past due to scheduling troubles, Copenhaver confirmed the town is now looking for part time officers.
Responding to the criticisms of his administration of the police department, Copenhaver said he expected to lose the three officers soon.
“The story that I got early on was that the guys wanted to go places that they could go to a bigger department [and] further their careers as young officers. The reality is they are at the end of their contracts. We have officers sign contracts and they stay a certain period of time and we know at the end of that … you’re going to lose those people.”
Copenhaver emphasized that anyone who is in danger should call 911, citing mutual aid agreements the town has with the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies and emphasized that the Alderson Police Department did not run 24/7 even when it had a four-man team.