Raleigh County magistrate race a mess

A magistrate's race in Raleigh County is awash with acrimony – and one of the candidates has said that, if elected, he will not take the position. (Register-Herald file photo)

A magistrate's race in Raleigh County is awash with acrimony – and one of the candidates has said that, if elected, he will not take the position.

Accusations made by candidates in the Raleigh County Division 2 magisterial race include nepotism, domestic violence cover-ups, illegal revenge porn, impersonating a federal marshal, impersonating a private investigator, destruction of campaign signs, harassment of the city's downtrodden, revenge lawsuits, unfair candidate filing practices, lying about high school sports achievements and one dead cat, stuffed inside a mailbox — with a Post-It note attached.

The Raleigh County Division 2 magisterial race has four official candidates: incumbent Steve Massie, Stephanie French, Brian Moore and Gary Vaughan.

Massie and French appear on the ballot. Moore and Vaughan are write-in candidates. All are seeking the magistrate, or "lay judge," seat, to hear minor offenses and arraignments. The job pays $57,500 annually.

Resigned, denied wrongdoing

In March, Massie resigned from the position, in the wake of being suspended without pay for an unknown charge and after facing seven findings of ethics violations in October by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Judicial Commission. 

Massie denied wrongdoing and said the charges were politically motivated and amounted to religious persecution.

He said he resigned because the state code for magistrate conduct did not permit him to serve veterans and others in his church without restrictions.

Massie's woes are not the only ones to plague the District 2 race. 

Work history

The granddaughter of a former Raleigh County sheriff, French said she supports equality for LGBTQ and has helped promote and organize car cruises for Beckley Events, as secretary-treasurer of Shade Tree Car Club. 

In South Carolina, she said she worked in hospice settings and with Leeza's Care Connection, a nonprofit that helps families cope with chronic illness. She said that she studied forensic pathology at a South Carolina university, eventually becoming a deputy coroner before returning to West Virginia.

French said she has been under attack from other candidates since she first announced that she would run for the District 2 seat.

In January, French alleged, she found her pet cat stuffed inside her mailbox, with its neck apparently broken. She said that a Post-it note was stuck to the dead cat. The note read "Steve Massie rules," she alleged.

She added that she did not believe Massie was responsible for the dead cat.

In late April or early May, she said, someone fed antifreeze to her dog, nearly killing it. 

She said she did not file police reports for the cat or the dog.

In May, French said, she filed a police report when 50 of her campaign signs had been defaced, some with sexually harassing drawings and messages. 

Some voters have contacted The Register-Herald to report that French had misrepresented herself as having once been an M.D. and a federal marshal.

French told The Register-Herald in May that she has never been a doctor or a federal marshal. She said that she did work as a deputy coroner in South Carolina.

Gary Watts, Richland County coroner, told The Register-Herald on Friday that French had worked for his office from April 2018 until September 2018 but did not clear her probationary period.

"She was let go, because there were some inconsistencies," he said.

Watts stated that when French turned in her equipment that had been issued from his office, she did not return a badge issued by his office.

"She said she had lost her badge," he said. 

He said that French does not have legal authority to carry a badge or a gun from Richlands Coroner's Office.

French told The Register-Herald that she is not an M.D. and that her educational background is in forensic pathology. 

Troubled marriage

Prior to her stint in the coroner's office, French was married to Clyde Thomas, the fire district assistant chief of operations in Irmo, S.C. 

French has faced criticism on social media – and what she says is harassment – for a domestic violence report she made against Thomas.

In December 2014, while married to Thomas, French called 911 to report that Thomas was drunk and that she had locked herself in a room away from him. Police reported that Thomas was drunk when they arrived at the residence. They charged him with third-degree domestic violence, according to media reports, after determining he was the primary aggressor in the argument.

One week after calling 911, French told reporters that she had terminal cancer. She said that her cancer medication had caused her to have a seizure in the locked bathroom. She said she "came to" while Thomas was yelling and that she had called 911 because she was disoriented and did not understand that he was trying to help her.

Irmo media later published the 911 call in which Thomas can be heard cursing. French, who sounded sober on the audio, was telling dispatchers that he was drunk. She can be heard ordering him not to come into the locked room.

The couple later obtained an attorney in an unsuccessful effort to have Thomas' job reinstated. Thomas later resigned.

In May, French told The Register-Herald that Thomas forced her to recall her initial allegation and that Thomas' lawyer gave her a statement to make to the public.

"I was a strong enough woman to get out, and I did divorce that man," said French. "I wish there could be other women that could be able to do that."

Regarding the brain tumor, French said she does not have terminal cancer. The diagnosis was wrong. She did not identify her doctor.

She was on oral chemotherapy at the time she made the 911 call, she says, adding that she was later properly diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma and does not have the tumor now.

French said she also survived ovarian cancer, which has a relatively high fatality rate, and that doctors had removed three lymph nodes.

"I can no longer have children, which is something that is extremely hard to bear, at times," said French. "Cancer, surgeries and treatments have also caused other health issues, which I will just have to live with, but God blessed me by taking care of me, and I am truly thankful for that."

Citing privacy concerns, French did not share medical records or identify her oncologist. She said she did not take photos of herself while she was ill.

Small wonder

French also addressed allegations that she had provided false information to the Woodrow Wilson High School student body about her sports achievements in 1997 as a high school senior.

A feature on French appeared in the Woodrow Wilson High School student newspaper in October 1997. Written by a high school journalist, the article reported that French, a senior, had transferred to Woodrow from Shady Spring High School, where she had been a powerlifter who had "led Shady's powerlifting team to victory at 12 Coalfield Conferences, three state tournaments, three junior national championships, three national championships and three world tournaments."

"French said that when her team competed in the world tournaments, the team won 'Best All Around,' and she won first place in the world," the article stated. "When competing in Germany, she was even tested for steroid use because of her small size and large ability." 

On Thursday, Raleigh County teacher Wendy Peters contradicted the report that French had gone to Europe as a powerlifter while at SSHS.

"She may have been on the powerlifting team, I'm not even sure," said Peters on Thursday. "But I know she was not in the group of us that went to Europe.

"There were three of us that went to Russia," Peters added. "We didn't have anyone from the team go to Germany.

"I don't know how else to put it. It's just not true." 

When asked to respond to Peters' statement on Thursday, French replied, "Wendy is correct. I did not go."

She said she was never interviewed for the story and did not know how the reporter had gotten the information. She said that the story was written after she had already graduated early from WWHS.

The student reporter, Andrew Noyes, now of San Francisco, is currently listed on Facebook and Linked In as head of communications for JUST, a sustainable, healthy food company.

After high school and college, he worked as a journalist before venturing into marketing and public relations for companies that include Facebook and Uber.

"I have very little recollection of articles I wrote in high school, more than 20 years ago," Noyes said on Thursday. "What I can tell you, unequivocally, is that if I quoted someone, that individual was the source of the information."

Coach John Lilly, who coached girls' powerlifting at Shady Spring High School from 1991 to 2000, verified that French had been on the powerlifting team. 

"I start blasting"

French is not the only candidate with questionable tales. Gary Vaughan's attorney alleges that he is the target of a lawsuit filed by a competing bondsman and an attorney who had attacked him on social media.

Vaughan is a combat veteran of eight years, a member of the 101st Airborne and agent of First Action Bail Bonds.

He sends packages to troops in the Middle East and is also a local artist, and, as his attorney, John Mize of Beckley, admits, is known as a local provocateur on social media.

Vaughan has made posts on Facebook that suggested a downtown feeding ministry, The Carpenter's Corner, has poisoned the low-income people it serves. He has publicly called those who used the service "sh*tbags." In the comments sections, he said he could volunteer to poison them.

On another post, he posed with firearms and posted, "People run for office in Beckley...I start blasting" — posts that Mize said are not to be taken literally.

"Gary has been known to make provocative statements on social media that, sometimes, feature language that may seem off-color," Mize said.

"These social media posts are not always intended to be taken in a literal sense, but occasionally use satire to garner attention and foster public debate," said Mize. "Gary believes that real change requires that every voice be heard, and his social media content often achieves exactly that."

Prior to entering the race, Vaughan made a post on his personal Facebook page in which he said that he had a sex tape of a candidate and stated that he was looking for a venue to publish it.

It is illegal in West Virginia to film or publish private images of a person without consent, Mize noted.

Vaughan's post did not mention a specific candidate, and he did not release private images. A few men on Facebook assumed the post was about a female candidate, however, and responded by posting aggressively misogynistic statements.

French said a male mayoral candidate – whom she did not identify – later told her that Vaughan had made the post about her. Although she has never made a sex tape, she said, she felt threatened as a candidate and opted to seek legal advice.

Mize reported that a Charleston attorney wrote a letter to Vaughan, on behalf of French, to address the incident. 

"As a bail bondsman and 50-year resident of Beckley, Gary is fortunate to have his finger on the pulse of the Beckley community," said Mize. "Gary made the social media post regarding information he had learned about candidates in an effort to educate the public.

"As the post relates to a 'sex tape,' Gary never provided any details regarding the alleged sex tape.

"He never once mentioned a gender, let alone any name of who allegedly appeared in the sex tape," added Mize. "Now that Gary is a candidate, himself, he has not once released any negative information about any other candidate.

"Now that Gary is running for magistrate, he has his eyes set on a different position that would elevate his opportunities to create a positive change in the Beckley community," said Mize. "If Gary is elected to represent the citizens of Beckley as magistrate, he would no longer need the social media platform he utilizes from his role as bail bondsman."

Facing a lawsuit

Mize alleged on Thursday that Vaughan has been targeted with a frivolous lawsuit, filed by attorney Christina Kostenko on behalf of a competing bail bondsman, J.P. Stevens of 00 Bonds.

In the suit, Stevens asks that Vaughan's bail bondsman status be revoked by Raleigh Circuit Court.

The suit alleges that Vaughan owes $25,000 in child support in Fayette County, that he has falsely presented himself as a licensed investigator and has attempted to use his status as an investigator to intimidate French. The suit cites Vaughan's Facebook posts and alleges that he also posts on Facebook pictures of his clientele "that are of a harassing, vulgar and inappropriate nature, which reflects his poor character" and states, "Since his employment as a bail bondsman, respondent has repeatedly engaged in tumultuous, insulting and threatening, bullying behavior that is in clear violation of the moral qualities required by West Virginia code."

Stevens alleges in the suit that Vaughan's petition to be a bail bondsman was denied in Kanawha County after he was allegedly arrested for felony embezzlement and obtaining by false pretenses in Wyoming County in 2009. The suit notes the Wyoming prosecutor's office later dropped the embezzlement charge, without prejudice.

Kostenko did not present evidence in the lawsuit that Vaughan has ever been convicted of any criminal charge, and Mize said Friday that Vaughan does not have a criminal record.

Mize alleged that Kostenko has a personal vendetta against Vaughan and that she had bullied Vaughan on Facebook by suggesting he was secretly in a romantic relationship with another man.

On Friday, Mize filed a motion asking Raleigh Circuit Court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that it is not the appropriate authority to decide the case.

A criminal investigation in 2012 alleged that, while working for Sophia Police Department as an officer, Stevens had sexually assaulted a female prisoner while driving her to Southern Regional Jail. The report said the assault permanently and seriously injured the victim.

Stevens admitted to West Virginia State Police, "I did it." However, criminal charges were never filed. Stevens and the victim reached an agreement in a civil case in 2014, and Stevens has continued working as a bail bondsman. 

Charge of nepotism

For the past several weeks, write-in candidate Moore has personally managed to stay out of the foibles that have plagued the other three candidates.

Moore has brushed back a marginal attack — because of his relationship to Raleigh Circuit Clerk Danny Moore, a former Raleigh sheriff who is his father.

The clerk's office oversees voting and ballot collection and counting for the county.

French, whose name appears on the ballot, and Vaughan, the other write-in candidate, have both stated that Moore's relationship to his father could unfairly influence the ballot and race — a charge that Daniel Moore has denied.

Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff for the West Virginia Secretary of State's Office, said that Moore is not violating state law.

"There's nothing that would permit him, as an elected official, from endorsing anyone," said Queen. "That's more of a question for the West Virginia Ethics Commission, but he's not violating any election laws by doing that."

On May 23, Daniel Moore made a Facebook post in which he said that French had also opposed his campaigning for his son.

"My son’s opponent in the upcoming Division 2 magistrate race, Miss French, hired a lawyer in Charleston to write letters of complaint against me," Daniel Moore posted. "Trying to get me fired.

"She had tried to suppress my freedom of speech as wrote in our Constitution," the post reads. "She doesn’t want me to talk to you. 

"Well, she failed," he wrote, and then urged voters to vote for Brian.

Daniel Moore said he will not be counting votes on election night or at any other time, in an effort to reassure voters that they may trust the election outcome in the District 2 magistrate race.

Queen said such a move is common among county clerks during an election year.

There's a chance, however, that the District 2 magistrate race won't really be over when it's over.

Massie has stated that he will not accept the position if he collects the most votes.

In that case, Raleigh Circuit Chief Judge Andrew Dimlich said, the chief judge would appoint a person to serve as magistrate in District 2. By law, the judge may appoint someone who did not run as a candidate in the District 2 race. 

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