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MU expels student accused of rapes

HUNTINGTON — Marshall University announced Wednesday it has expelled a student accused in a 2016 on-campus rape case after he appeared in court Wednesday to waive an initial hearing involving a possible probation revocation after two more women accused him of sexual assaults.

Joseph Chase Hardin, 22, was jailed last week on a probation hold related to his 2017 misdemeanor plea to battery. The reasons for the hold were allegations he had committed two additional rapes and consumed alcohol, both of which are against the rules of his probation.

His first court hearing was before Cabell Circuit Judge Gregory Howard on Wednesday, at which point his attorney Kerry Nessel said his client wanted to waive the preliminary revocation hearing. The case will now return to Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson's courtroom, where he will face final sentencing. He faces up to a year in jail for the misdemeanor battery charge. A date for that hearing has not been set.

Because of the number of people who attended Wednesday's hearing, the case was heard in a larger courtroom. The most recent alleged victims and their friends attended the hearing, along with some family and friends of Hardin's first victim.

The new alleged victims of Hardin declined to speak.

Madison Summers, a friend of the woman Hardin was accused

of attacking in 2016, said she felt vindication in the courtroom Wednesday for her friend, who felt she needed to flee from campus to avoid seeing her attacker.

"She is the strongest woman I know, but to still go through something like this is very traumatic," she said. "She had to move. Marshall was her dream school. We did everything together, and I lost out on four years with her."

Hardin was named this month in a felony indictment charging him with four counts of second-degree sexual assault related to fall 2018 incidents involving two women, who are also students at the university. Marshall has said those alleged attacks did not occur on campus.

He will be arraigned on those charges later this month. He faces 10 to 25 years on each of those counts.

Despite the 2016 case occurring on Marshall University's campus, Hardin had not been expelled and was enrolled for the fall 2019 semester until Wednesday, when the school released a statement announcing his expulsion after the new allegations.

"We have taken, and will continue to take, aggressive steps to make sure the entire Marshall community is safe," President Jerome Gilbert said. "I have zero tolerance for inappropriate, illegal behavior, and pledge that we will always treat sexual misconduct and violence with the utmost gravity. The safety of our students is our first obligation."

Gilbert said pursuant to the university's Student Conduct Disciplinary Procedures, the decision is final.

In the original case, the defendant was indicted in 2016 on a single count of second-degree sexual assault after a female student, who has since left the university, implicated him. The university had issued a campus-wide alert at 6:20 p.m. Feb. 1, 2016, that a student reported she was assaulted that afternoon in a room at an on-campus residence hall.

Hardin entered a Kennedy plea to misdemeanor battery in 2017 and was ordered to serve three years' probation in that case. A Kennedy plea allows a conviction without the defendant admitting guilt or explaining his role in a crime.

Keith Gonzales, the original victim's grandfather, drove from out of state to attend the hearing for his granddaughter. He said he felt it was important to show unity among the groups.

"It was rewarding to see him in prison orange, finally," he said. "I just wished my family could have been here."

Gonzales said he hopes the new alleged victims can get the justice that he believed his granddaughter did not receive.

"To have that happen the first time with my granddaughter and see how it played out and know that she didn't get the justice she deserved and now see this (is powerful)," he said. "My prayer is justice will be served and that other women this has happened to speak up."

A lawsuit filed by the alleged 2016 victim is pending against the university in federal court. The lawsuit alleges Marshall violated Title IX standards by allowing the attacker to remain a student, which forced the victim to leave the university.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at via Twitter @HesslerHD.

Wellness program unveiled for city's first responders

HUNTINGTON — First responders get into their professions to help others but are sometimes without the tools to help themselves, said Lt. Steve McCormick of the Huntington Fire Department.

Things they see on a daily basis take a toll on their mental health, and as a result, first responders are 10 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person.

McCormick was on hand Wednesday as the city of Huntington unveiled a new program that will give first responders ways to improve their ability to cope during and after high-stress situations.

The program, known as Compass, will provide training, classes and a state-of-the-art wellness center to help first responders improve their mental health.

Compass is funded with $1 million the city won in October 2018 from the Bloomberg Philanthropies' U.S. Mayors Challenge. The yearlong competition encouraged city leaders to propose "bold, inventive" ideas to confront their city's toughest problems.

Huntington focused its proposal on combating "compassion fatigue," feelings of depleted empathy in the face of overwhelming overdose calls.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said the proposal stemmed from the city's realization that police, firefighters and EMS workers were dealing with a level of stress that others could not comprehend.

During the height of the opioid crisis, they would revive the same people repeatedly and witnessed many of them die without getting treatment. This included people they grew up with or knew in the community. Not being able to help the situation affected their mental health, he said.

"You can only imagine the level of stress that places upon the first responders, because they are different than the rest of us," Williams said. "They chose their professions to go and be able to fix something."

The name Compass was chosen because the city wanted the program to be another tool to improve their lives at work and at home, said Lt. Phil Watkins of the Huntington Police Department.

"Police officers have their tools, such as their handcuffs, their firearms, things of that nature. Firefighters have their axes and their hose," Watkins said. "Now HPD and HFD will have another tool they can add to their repertoire, a compass to navigate wellness."

The program establishes a website and an app that allows first responders to register for classes and connect to resources if they are having a difficult time coping. A wellness center is also being designed by Edward Tucker Architects to be built on the fifth floor of the Huntington Police Department building.

The designs were made with input from first responders and includes an exercise room, a nutrition center, a lounge and studios for yoga and meditation.

Williams said one of the missions of the program is to create something that can be replicated throughout the country. The program could be used for other first responders, emergency room workers and clergy. During a trip to a leadership conference at the White House on Tuesday, Williams said he talked about how Huntington could set standards for how larger cities deal with the opioid epidemic.

"One of the points I was trying to make was small cities the size of Huntington can identify sooner what works, quicker what doesn't work and faster how to fix it," he said.

Dr. Lyn O'Connell, associate director of community services at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and Marshall Health, said the program was designed with input from the first responders and what they wanted to get out of it.

"We need to acknowledge that the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety are higher in first responding communities than in the general population, and we know any loss is too great a loss within our community," she said.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

Citizens rescue cats trapped in hot vehicle

HUNTINGTON — A group of concerned citizens saved the lives of seven cats that were trapped in a hot car parked on Prospect Street in Guyandotte on Tuesday evening in an incident that demonstrates why the state's laws on animal cruelty should be toughened, an animal control officer said.

Jon Rutherford, animal control officer with the Huntington Cabell Wayne Animal Shelter, said the temperature in the vehicle was over 100 degrees. Two adult cats and a weeks-old kitten were found dead in the vehicle, he said, and two other cats escaped as community members found a way to unlock the car prior to Rutherford's arrival in an attempt to cool down the vehicle.

Rutherford said along with the deceased animals, the car was filled with feces. While the animals had food, it was also covered in feces and mold. There was no water. He said the cats were living in the car for about a week, being driven from place to place by the owner.

"The smell was horrendous," he said.

Rutherford cited a woman for 12 counts of animal cruelty, a misdemeanor crime in West Virginia carrying a sentence of a fine of no less than $300 and no more than $2,000, or up to six months in jail. She is expected in court later this month, Rutherford said.

He said because there was food in the car, state law does not consider what the woman did as "torture," though he pointed out it would if the subjects involved were people. State code defines torture of an animal as "an action taken for the primary purpose of inflicting pain."

"I really hope people get aggravated about it, because that's the only way our legislators are going to change the laws," Rutherford said, adding that the lax laws are part of why there are so many instances of animal cruelty in the state.

The seven rescued cats are residing at the shelter, which has a brand-new in-house veterinary technician as medical director to help nurse them to full health.

The Huntington Police Department responded to the scene Tuesday to assist Rutherford.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.