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Officials seek clues into cause of crash


CHARLESTON — The cause of the helicopter crash that killed coal tycoon Chris Cline was still undetermined Friday, as authorities continued to investigate what led to the death of Cline and six others.

Cline, who worked his way out of West Virginia's underground mines to amass a fortune and become a major Republican donor, was killed in the crash that occurred out a string of islands he owned in the Bahamas.

Cline and his 22-year-old daughter, Kameron, were on board the aircraft with five others when it went down Thursday, a spokesman for his attorney Brian Glasser said Friday.

The death of the 60-year-old magnate led to eulogies from industry leaders, government officials and academics, who described Cline as a visionary who was generous with his $1.8 billion fortune.

"He was a very farsighted entrepreneur," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "Chris was just one of those folks who had the Midas touch."

The bodies of the four women and three men who died were recovered Thursday and taken to the Bahamian capital of Nassau to be officially identified, said Delvin Major, chief investigator for the Bahamas' Air Accident Investigation Department.

The Augusta AW139 helicopter was still in the water Friday, and based on preliminary information, she did not believe there had been a distress call before the helicopter went down.

A Royal Bahamas Police Force statement said authorities and locals found the site 2 miles off Big Grand Cay, a group of private islands Cline bought in 2014 for less than the $11.5 million asking price.

Bahamas real estate agent John Christie, who sold the land, said Big Grand Cay was developed by the late Robert Abplanalp, inventor of the modern aerosol spray valve and a friend of President Richard Nixon. The property became known as an escape for Nixon in the 1970s.

Big Grand Cay comprises about 213 acres distributed over about half a dozen narrow islands. At the time of its sale, the property's mansion sat on a bluff overlooking the ocean and had five bedrooms and four bathrooms.

Raney said Cline began toiling in the mines of southern West Virginia at a young age, rising through the ranks of his father's company quickly with a reserved demeanor and savvy business moves.

He formed his own energy development business, the Cline Group, which grew into one of the country's top coal producers.

When he thought mining in the Appalachian region was drying up, he started buying reserves in the Illinois Basin in what turned out to be a smart investment in high-sulfur coal, according to the website of Missouri-based Foresight Energy, a company he formed.

Cline sold most of his interest in Foresight for $1.4 billion and then dropped $150 million into a metallurgical coal mine in Nova Scotia, according to a 2017 Forbes article headlined "Chris Cline Could Be The Last Coal Tycoon Standing."

The piece captured his opulence: A mansion in West Virginia with a manmade lake big enough to waterski on and a pasture that included a white stallion stud name Fabio. A gun collection so deep that federal officials would take stock once a month. A 200-foot yacht called Mine Games.

His deep pockets eventually opened to politics: He donated heavily to President Donald Trump and other Republicans. Cline gave the president's inaugural committee $1 million in 2017 and shared thousands more with conservative groups as well as committees representing GOP bigs such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, according to federal records.

He also gave to academia, bestowing at least $8.5 million on Marshall University in West Virginia.

Cline, in his Forbes profile, defended coal and waved off some of the scientific evidence of climate change when he wasn't posing for photos in front of tall pyramids of the black stuff.

"People deserve the cheapest energy they can get," he said. "Tell the poor in India and China that they don't deserve to have reliable, affordable electricity."

And to that effect, he also spoke about solar panels, wind turbines and Tesla batteries on Big Grand Cay, saying, "Where it makes sense, I'm absolutely for it."

Vet students gain valuable experience in Proctorville

PROCTORVILLE, Ohio — If you have taken your pets to the Proctorville Animal Clinic during the past three summers, it's possible your beloved pup or kitten has been cared for by an Ohio State University veterinary medicine student.

For the past three years, the Stanton Summer Externship at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine has placed rising second-year veterinary students at the Proctorville Animal Clinic, the Ashland Veterinary Clinic and four other clinics in Ohio and West Virginia. The clinics are chosen because they serve clientele from a broad socioeconomic background.

"The majority of our graduates go into small-animal practice," said Rustin Moore, dean of the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine. "One of our goals, although we already are graduating great veterinarians, is we always try to do more and try to increase their competence and confidence upon graduation.

"One of our mantras within the 'spectrum of care' is, 'No matter the person, pet or place, there is always an option.' Sometimes people might want to be referred to a specialist, but oftentimes they can't afford to or aren't close enough to one, so having veterinarians who are trained across a broad spectrum is a really important goal for us."

Eight of the 24 vet students in the Stanton program currently are working with Dr. Mike Dyer in Proctorville, while eight other students are working in Ashland. The students get hands-on experience, including performing spay/neuter surgeries, that vet students normally would not get until their fourth year.

"I worked with vets before while I was teaching that weren't confident with spay and neutering, so this is a great chance to get better at it," said student Sami Decanay, who has performed more than 30 spay/neuter surgeries this summer already. "Back in Hawaii, I worked in this clinic that would hire a lot of people straight out of vet school. They were so scared and would call another doctor every time to check when they did stuff. I will have an edge, hopefully, when we finish."

Dyer said the program is a win-win-win. The clinic wins, because it has extra hands in surgeries and the students keep the practicing vets and vet techs sharp. The students win because they get experience other students don't get. The clients win, too.

"Our clients love that there is some student involvement," Dyer said. "If I have a student working on a dog, (the owner) will sometimes direct their questions to the student and tell them about their dog's problem. It's been a win-win situation for students, animals and clients, as well. They've embraced it more than we thought."

Dyer said when he was in vet school 25 years ago, students begged practices for experience like what the Stanton program provides.

"Many veterinary practices turned us down," Dyer said. "They were too busy. This opportunity for them is golden as far as being able to come into a real-world practice and get to touch the animals, learn the language and the medical concepts. It's a tremendous opportunity. Twenty-five years ago, I was able to find some practices, but it was tough. And you had to hope they had a teaching mentality."

Moore said the Proctorville Animal Clinic's educational mindset is another reason OSU wanted to work with the clinic.

"On certain things, the (students) scrub in with (Dr. Dyer) and he lets them do some, then he walks away," Moore said. "He said that's when they learn the most. He's not leaving the building, but he's not right there hovering."

The Stanton program is funded by the Stanton Foundation, named for the late Frank Stanton, former CBS president. Thanks to another gift from the foundation, the College of Veterinary Medicine is building a one-of-a-kind and state-of-the-art primary care clinic that will provide a realistic practice environment for students. The foundation also helped open a new center where students can do simulation surgeries on realistic models and cadavers.

To learn more about the OSU veterinary program or the Stanton Externship, visit Moore said OSU's veterinary program is the closest program to the western half of West Virginia, with about an average five West Virginians enrolling in the program a year.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook@TaylorStuckHD.

Man admits to stabbing, sentenced to prison

HUNTINGTON — The main assailant in a complex Cabell County murder case was sentenced this week to serve the maximum of four decades in prison after admitting to stabbing a man to death in 2017.

Brian Michael "Mikey" Bragg, 31, pleaded guilty Wednesday to second-degree murder in the death of Michael Sutphin and entered a Kennedy plea to malicious wounding in the assault of Tara Gillispie, 33, Sutphin's girlfriend at the time of his death. A Kennedy plea means Bragg accepted the punishment for his actions, but did not have to admit his role in the crime.

Cabell Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell sentenced him to serve the maximum of 42 to 50 years in prison, 40 of which stem from the murder charge. He will have to serve at least 10 years before he is eligible to go before the parole board. The sentence could change at a reconsideration hearing set for Aug. 13.

Bragg admitted to the stabbing in a brief statement and told Farrell he had struggled with meth dependency issues at the time of the killing.

His co-defendants — Robert Lee Nance, 40, and Cheryl Dawn Nance, 34, both of Lesage, and Cynthia Bumgarner, 46, of Ona — have all pleaded guilty in the case and agreed to testify against Bragg had he gone to trial.

The events that led up to the killing started Dec. 28, 2017, with unrelated police activity when the Cabell County Sheriff's Department responded to a disturbance call in the 3000 block of Wilson Road in Barboursville after Gillispie said she had gotten in a fight with her ex-boyfriend, Sutphin.

The same day, in an unrelated event, Bragg's vehicle was involved in a hit-and-run crash, and Bragg reported his van stolen, although a man involved in that wreck identified Bragg as the driver of the van.

The next day, Dec. 29, at the Wilson Road home, Gillispie and Sutphin again allegedly had a fight before he left the home with Bragg. Gillispie later accused a family member of Bragg of restraining her and not allowing her to leave the home for three hours, which had enraged Sutphin. He later told Gillispie he had beaten the man and cut off his ponytail.

Sutphin and Gillispie returned to the Wilson Road home later in the day, where Bragg and Robert Nance entered the downstairs before Bragg threw a "spear-like rod" at Sutphin, striking him in the chest and killing him.

At this point, Gillispie reported she was held against her will by the defendants and was held for several days to give them time to cover up the murder.

The group placed Sutphin's body in Bragg's van, which had not been stolen, and split Sutphin's unused meth among themselves, Gillispie previously testified in court.

On Dec. 30, the group drove the van and a second vehicle to the Nances' home in the 7000 block of Big 7 Mile Road in Ona, where they met Bumgarner and Cheryl Nance, Robert Nance's wife.

Gillispie reported it was at this home where she was violently attacked by the group throughout the day before eventually waking up sitting on a shower curtain while wounded. She was eventually allowed to leave.

On Jan. 1, 2018, Bumgarner and Bragg met with one of Bumgarner's friends, who was told Bragg killed someone as they asked for her assistance in hiding the body. Suspecting the two were on drugs, the woman turned them away and called the local police department to report the strange conversation.

The next day, Jan. 2, 2018, Bragg walked into the Cabell County Courthouse to speak with sheriff 's deputies to confess. He was turned away when deputies felt he was too high to speak with them. He later met with troopers at the West Virginia State Police's Huntington detachment, where he confessed to the crime.

The same day, police found Bragg's van at the scene of a wreck on Barker Ridge Road in Cabell County after responding to a call about a suspicious vehicle. Inside they found Sutphin's frozen body, which was covered in debris. The crash had been staged by Bragg and Robert Nance to make his death look like an accident.

On Jan. 3, Gillispie checked into a local hospital with a stab wound to her leg, lacerations and numerous injuries to her face, head and body. She later spoke with police at the hospital.

Bragg and his co-defendants were charged with their involvement in the case over the next two days.

In the year-and-a-half since the killing, Robert Nance pleaded guilty to malicious wounding and being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to serve a prison sentence of three to 15 years.

Cheryl Nance had entered a deferred adjudication agreement in November 2018, and charges against her were dismissed earlier this year after she successfully finished the agreement.

Bumgarner pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder and entered a Kennedy plea to malicious wounding. She was sentenced to serve seven to 10 years. Defense attorney Tim Rosinsky represented Bragg in the case, while assistant prosecutor Joe Fincham represented the state.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at and via Twitter @HesslerHD.