The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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May 19, 2013

Murder in a rural county

Part 1: Mystery shrouds Wyoming deaths, missing persons

PINEVILLE — High on a hill, in woods overlooking a multi-family cemetery, a hunter set about readying a tree stand for the fall season when he spied a human skull.

Before long, other body parts were discovered, scattered across the forest, all belonging to Rachel Michelle Toler, missing for months.

This was in October 2011.

Seven months later, within the same general vicinity, the body of Chester Stewart, weighted down with two cinderblocks bound with rope, lay at the bottom of a homemade swimming pool filled with 9 feet of water at an abandoned house, about a quarter of a mile from his home in Matheny.

To the two confirmed deaths, add the bizarre disappearances of Brian David Cook and Sherry Myers, still unaccounted for, and a puzzling case continues to befuddle law enforcement officers in a county with a reputation for rampant drug abuse.

Sheriff Randall Aliff, now in his fourth and final term, is determined to resolve the mystery, one for which he has good reason to feel is ominously linked to the shadowy world of the drug culture.

Not a day passes that he doesn’t think about the four victims and his resolve to bring a measure of closure to their families. At times, the sheriff says he awakens at 1:30 a.m., studying those and other crimes, and ways of getting pushers off the streets of the small towns in his jurisdiction.

“We’ve done an extensive investigation into this,” he says of the two murders and two missing persons cases. “We’ve done drug roundups, arrested drug dealers, hoping to get information that way. At this time, information is just very small forthcoming.”

Aliff must sort through myriad theories.

Did the victims fall prey to a violent trafficker, angry over nonpayment of a drug debt? Was it a spur-of-the-moment slaying by a user looking for something to steal so drugs could be purchased? Or could the bloodshed simply be the work of a psycho?

“Normally, Wyoming County is a good, quiet county,” Aliff said one day last week in his office.

Yet, as the drug scourge engulfs the entire nation, not even a rural community has been spared. Drugs are as much a menace there as in the big cities across the nation.

“Just call it the way the world is this day and time,” he said, sighing.

Assuming the missing persons met a similar fate as Toler and Stewart, the sheriff is convinced the case engulfs more than one person, and that those responsible for the bloodshed remain in Wyoming County to this day.

“I would have to think the same person is probably going to be involved in three of the people, but there is one death I can’t say for sure,” the sheriff said.

For obvious reasons, Aliff is reluctant to share all he knows about the matter, but he theorizes that since Toler, Stewart and Myers were acquaintances and lived in the same general area, the they are connected in death and disappearance.

“You hear a lot of suspicions,” he said.

“People will say, ‘You’ve got to arrest so and so.’ You’ve got to have a case to arrest somebody. When you arrest them, you better have cause. You’ve got to prove it. You jump too soon, and that case gets dismissed, and possibly you couldn’t recharge someone if you did get something.”

Aliff’s deputies recovered much forensic evidence at both murder scenes, and the sheriff is awaiting a report from the Smithsonian Institution on post-mortems to learn the cause of death.

“If we could get one lucky break, we’d really wrap this thing up,” he said.

No tip is dismissed. In a futile search for the body of Myers, the sheriff enlisted the aid of a local firm’s extractor and dug up several old wells in Matheny, all to no avail.

“Anything we receive, we follow up on,” he said. “We follow on everything we hear.”

Considered separate but related in the sense that drugs likely precipitated them were the fatal shootings of two men — Eskar Lee Hurley and Steven Ray Lawrence, 35, of Simon. Hurley’s body was discovered near the dam overlook at R.D. Bailey Lake in June of last year. State Police looking into Lawrence’s demise say the victim was discovered in mid-December along Coal Mountain Road near Long Branch Hollow.

“Both were shot,” Aliff said. “I would have to speculate those were drug-related, but were not related to other deaths in Matheny.”

Aliff is open to anonymous tips and says he is willing to work with state and federal agencies to provide protection for anyone willing to step up and help solve the cases.

“I feel like there are some people that do know,” he said.

“Surely, I do. But I think they’re afraid to talk. I could protect them if they would come forward. Absolutely. If I couldn’t, I would find an agency that would help me. I’m not as big as the FBI or somebody like that. But we work with the FBI and the ATF. I would try to provide some kind of agency to get some kind of protection for those people.”

Anyone with information is welcome to call Aliff or his deputies, preferably between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., at 304-732-8000.

“I would love, before ending my career, to solve these things,” says Aliff, who first pinned on a badge as a patrolman in Pineville. “We want to solve every crime. I don’t care how petty or how major.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

Coming Monday, Part Two: A Mother's Lament

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