HUNTINGTON — While first lady Melania Trump appeared to be impressed with Huntington's response to the opioid epidemic, what she was most concerned about during her trip to town Monday was how addiction is affecting the children of West Virginia.
The first lady, joined by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, heard from state and local leaders during a roundtable discussion on opioids at the Cabell Huntington Health Department. During the discussion, Trump asked questions about how programs such as the Quick Response Team handle children and if there were prevention efforts in schools. She also met with a local mother and her 5-month-old son who were clients of Lily's Place and made a stop in Ritter Park to view the American flag display representing the West Virginian children in foster care.
Cathy Slemp, state health officer, said while the state has prevention programs in schools, the one area where West Virginia is lacking is addiction treatment for youth. She said she also wants to see schools be able to better identify at-risk students and connect them with services earlier.
"It's an area we are working on, but we aren't there yet," Slemp said. "We know with exposure to adverse childhood effects and trauma, we are setting up the next generation of victims of this epidemic."
Connie Priddy, QRT program coordinator, said, surprisingly, the QRT has not had a lot of interaction with children when they make house visits despite many first responders witnessing children being on the scene of overdose calls.
Trump also learned about the Handle With Care program, which was first started in Kanawha County in 2013 and has now been adopted in every West
Virginia county and 27 states. The program alerts schools to law enforcement activity at the students' home, reminding educators to handle that child with care as he or she processes the trauma of a parent being arrested, for example.
Chad Napier, now with the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, was a Charleston police officer when Handle With Care first started. He said once you learn the child's story, you really can invest in them.
Napier said the first lady could help expand Handle With Care to all 50 states.
"One caring adult can make a big impact on a child," Napier said.
Slemp said a new initiative in the northern part of the state, the Martinsburg Initiative, takes the idea "one caring adult can make an impact" and runs with it. The school system is working to identify children with adverse childhood effects, or ACES, which studies show increase the risk of addiction, and provide them with holistic services, including connecting them with an adult.
"If a child has interests in planes, then they connect them with a retired pilot," Slemp said.
Connection and empathy were touted as one of the main reasons Huntington and Cabell County's programs have worked.
After the roundtable. Trump sat down for a more intimate discussion with Lily's Place Executive Director Rebecca Crowder, recovery coach Alicia Bowman, first responder wellness program coordinator Amy Berner, Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader and Megan Pawley, a Lily's Place client.
Pawley said Lily's Place saved her and her son's lives.
"Without Lily's Place, I wouldn't have gotten into Project Hope and I don't know if I would have kept my son," she said. "He's doing so good now and hitting all his milestones. Pm really excited for the future."
Trump's visit coincided with her campaign, Be Best, which focuses on major issues facing children today, including opioids.
"The opioid crisis is a critical issue that has impacted many in our country," Trump said. "I want to thank you all for the work you are doing. Our administration continues to work hard to fight against opioid addiction."
She said she was there to give her support.
While Trump stopped at Rit-ter Park and then flew home to Washington, DHS Secretary McAleenan continued to tour Huntington with Sens. Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin and U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, visiting Cabell County Drug Court and the Marshall University Forensic Science Center.
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CHARLESTON — Despite innumerable delays, organizers of a fall excursion train to replace the now-defunct New River Train insist that the train will run this October, with announcements pending shortly.
"We're in a really weird spot right now. There's nothing we can say publicly, except that the train is happening," Lou Capwell, with Rail Excursion Management Co. (Railexco), said Monday.
That comes nearly seven weeks after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., first stated in a tweet that an announcement would be "coming soon" on the resumption of fall excursion trains between Huntington and Hinton.
In February, the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, which had operated the New River Train along that route for 52 years, announced the train would not run in 2019, blaming higher costs and more restrictive policies for operation of private cars and excursion trains imposed by Amtrak, the national passenger rail service, effective in 2018.
The New River Train operated its four round-trip excursions from Huntington to Hinton that year, but the society reported operating losses of $180,000 because of Amtrak's higher charges and policy changes.
Shortly before that announcement, the society closed its offices in Huntington and laid off its two employees.
A week after Manchin's initial announcement, Railexco put out an
embargoed news release indicating an early June announcement for the new excursion train, to be called the Autumn Colors Express. The release indicated the train would continue the tradition of taking passengers in vintage railcars from Huntington to Railroad Days festivities in downtown Hinton, and back.
Unlike the New River Train, which operated on consecutive weekends in late October, plans were announced to operate the Autumn Colors Express on three consecutive roundtrips on Oct. 25, 26 and 27, to save the costs of storing railcars in Huntington railyards during the interim week.
A few days later, Railexco management, citing a "slight delay," asked that any articles or social media announcements be embargoed until further notice.
Capwell said Railexco officials have spent the meantime working out details of the excursions with state and local government entities, Amtrak, the CSX railroad, and liability insurers.
As in the past, Amtrak would be contracted to provide locomotives, engineers and conductors for the trains.
"It's taken us time. It's a complicated process," said Capwell, who said they are closing in on final agreements with all entities.
He noted that Railexco staff have also been operating rail excursions and charters during the negotiations, including rail charters to Vermont currently ongoing, and next week's 70th anniversary run of three original 1949 Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Limited luxury streamliner cars from New York to Pittsburgh and back.
Katey McCutcheon, press secretary for Manchin, confirmed that it is the senator's understanding that an operating agreement for the fall excursion train is close to being finalized.
Capwell lauded Manchin's efforts to resolve sticking points in order to close the deal.
"Sen. Manchin is the biggest cheerleader for the state of West Virginia," he said. "This is a priority for him."
Capwell said Railexco has also had great support from the state Division of Tourism, which he said is prepared to promote the train once arrangements are finalized.
"We have had the full support of the state of West Virginia," he said.
In the past, tourism officials have estimated the economic impact of the New River Train on the city of Huntington at $2.5 million annually, with most out-of-town passengers spending two nights in the city. It also has provided thousands of visitors to Hinton's Railroad Days, a major fundraiser for many of the town's civic and charitable organizations.
Plans for the Autumn Colors Express call for a train consist essentially similar to the New River Train, featuring 25 to 30 vintage railcars.
While in the past, tickets for October New River Train runs have gone on sale in January, Capwell said he believes there is enough time to effectively market the Autumn Colors Express over three months.
"We are confident we can sell tickets. We are confident it will be a success," he said Monday.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.
HUNTINGTON — A Huntington woman confessed to the 2017 stabbing death of her husband Monday, stating he was accidentally stabbed as part of sexual foreplay they often performed in their relationship.
Jennifer Lynn Via, 49, pleaded guilty before Cabell Circuit Judge Gregory Howard on Monday to voluntary manslaughter in the death of her husband, Thomas Via. He was stabbed in the back with a 14-inchlong decorative dagger Nov. 4, 2017, at their home in the 900 block of 28th Street in Huntington.
She had been charged with first-degree murder about 10 days after his death after detectives felt her story did not line up with evidence.
As part of her plea, Via admitted she had been the one to place the knife in her husband's back. The knife penetrated seven inches into his back, striking his heart and causing him to bleed to death internally.
Howard sentenced her to the maximum 15 years, but that sentence could be reduced to anywhere between three to 15 years at a hearing Aug. 19 after an investigation into her past personal and criminal history is completed.
On the night of her husband's death, Via called Cabell County 911 to stay he had been accidentally stabbed while horse-playing.
Former Huntington police detective Chris Sperry previously said Via had given family and law enforcement agents several stories of how her husband had died and attempted just days after his death to collect an $80,000 life insurance policy that had been increased weeks before the incident.
The varying stories included that he had slipped on water and fell into an old knife or screwdriver.
Huntington Detective Chris Sperry said Via said they had been mimicking a ninja superhero movie and she accidentally stabbed her husband as he stood up from a bent-over position while dumping water into a toilet.
At her plea hearing Monday, Via said the pair had been playing around with a dagger when the knife pierced him.
"My husband and I liked to fight and have sex and then make up, if that's the right way to say that," she said. "He wasn't supposed to get hurt, but it did happen."
Defense attorney Kerry Nessel said the situation had gotten out of hand, most likely due to alcohol.
"As strange as this is, they watched these Kung Fu movies and it led to, what I would tell a jury, foreplay, which was both of them getting pretty violent with each other while playing with weapons," he said. "That's what led to this."
Defense previously had argued Via was a battered woman, but detectives previously testified neighbors had seen Via as the aggressor in the relationship.
Defense attorney Abe Saad said Via was guilty of voluntary manslaughter because she had intent to use the knife, but not to cause actual harm to the victim.
Cabell prosecutor Sean "Corky" Hammers said otherwise.
"We would be arguing, just on the facts itself and the background, that it was no accident," he said.
Via is currently housed at Western Regional Jail in Barboursville.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.