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Attorney: Work release officer must pay women $240K for sex abuse

A former West Virginia correctional officer will have to pay a total of $240,000 to three women who say he sexually abused them while they were inmates at a now-closed work release center, according to the women’s lawyer.

The exact amount that James Widen agreed to pay to settle the women’s lawsuits was not disclosed in court records, and the case against him was closed on Dec. 13 in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia.

Three women, Alesha C., Tania C. and April Y., each sued Widen, other correctional officers and the state Division of Corrections in 2018. They said Widen, of Milton, sexually abused and made sexually exploitative comments about the women while they were in his charge as inmates at the Work Release Center in Huntington.

All defendants besides Widen had been dropped by the time the case settled, according to court records.

April Y. will receive $100,000 in the settlement, and Alesha C. will receive $90,000, said their attorney, Mike Woelfel. Tania C. will receive $50,000 in the settlement, Woelfel said. He said it was in his clients’ best interest to settle the case, rather than force them to testify during a trial.

Alesha C. told the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Wednesday that she had reported the abuse to a higher-ranking officer at the work release center, but it was swept under the rug. She said she kept reporting it at higher levels, until someone listened to her.

She said she decided to report the abuse after she heard Widen was up for a job at a juvenile correctional facility.

“I think women should definitely have a voice and be able to stand up because a lot of women don’t,” she said. “It took me a while, actually.”

In July 2018, a Cabell County grand jury indicted Widen on two counts of imposition of sexual acts on people incarcerated or under supervision.

Widen’s criminal case is pending before Cabell Circuit Judge Chris Chiles, with the next hearing scheduled for February, according to court records. Widen is out of jail on bond.

In their lawsuits, the women said there was a practice and pattern of “sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation visited upon women at the hands of correctional staff with deliberate indifference” at the Huntington center, which closed in 2017.

Widen, the officer in charge of the women while they were inmates, would make sexually suggestive comments and ask them to engage in sexual favors before ultimately forcing them to have sex with him, according to the lawsuits.

In her lawsuit, Tonia C. said Widen would order her to the women’s restroom, the attic or the basement laundry room of the center and force her to have sex with him. She also said he would enter her dorm, fondle her and force her to perform oral sex on him, and he abused her in a state vehicle at a park-and-ride and in the parking lot of a church.

Alesha C. and April Y. also said in their lawsuits that Widen ordered them to them to the basement laundry room and forced them to have sex with him.

Woelfel said he has represented more than 100 women in court who have been sexually abused and assaulted as inmates, and he said sexual misconduct in the correction system is grossly underreported.

“They’re told ‘nobody’s going to believe you,’ ” Woelfel said. “They can put posters on the wall and say to call this number, but there’s a stigma that goes with that in the prison population.”

The Huntington Work Release Center closed in 2017, and the Division of Corrections has been absorbed into a new state agency, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Woelfel, a state senator from Cabell County, said the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation has taken substantial steps to address sexual misconduct of its officers, but there was more work still to be done.

“I see material change since [Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeff Sandy] has taken over for the good,” Woelfel said.

7 injured in New Year’s shooting on 4th Avenue, downtown Huntington

HUNTINGTON — At least seven people were taken to hospitals Wednesday after a shooting in the downtown area just 90 minutes into the new year.

The incident took place at 1:25 a.m. Wednesday in the 1100 block of 4th Avenue, outside a bar. According to Cabell County 911, multiple shots were reported by callers.

Although the initial calls directed officers to the Union Pub and Grill, 1125 4th Ave., officers discovered the shots fired had taken place at Kulture, a bar at 1113 4th Ave. Several individuals were found shot inside Kulture and outside the bar, according to a news release.

Witnesses said the incident started inside Kulture and continued outside the bar, and initial information suggests that this stemmed from a dispute between individuals and was not a random act.

Marshall University student Kaleb Toler said he was taking a phone call outside of the Union Pub and Grill when the shooting occurred.

“I was in between the two bars and heard the gunshots,” Toler said. “Out of instinct, I ducked behind a car. I looked all around the street to make sure I didn’t see anyone on the ground. I probably heard between 12 and 15 gunshots.”

Toler said when the shots ceased, he re-entered the Union, where crowds were struggling to evacuate through the back exit.

The opening of the bar was approved by the Huntington Board of Zoning Appeals in July 2019 after owner Charon Reese said she wanted a private space for adults 25 and older to enjoy a relaxed and low-key atmosphere.

“I don’t want the rap music banging in my ears. I just want to have a calm location,” Reese said in July. “Everyone who I know and who I come in contact with all agree there’s nowhere for us to be.”

Reese, 40, said the idea to open the bar came from her personal struggle in finding places for her band to play in the area.

“It’s a Huntington-based band. However, I am the youngest member,” Reese said. “We never have anywhere to go. There are always kids there, and they are always naked and twerking. I wanted to have somewhere comfortable to go for people 25 and older.”

The bar’s Facebook page promoted a New Year’s Eve party featuring live music from Detroit-based hip-hop artist Rocky Badd, private rooms with professional security and contests for “best twerker” and “sexiest dressed female.” The graphic included a photo of a woman holding a gun.

City officials are now aggressively investigating the establishment’s compliance with all of its required licenses and permits, according to Communications Director Bryan Chambers.

“Any incident of this nature in the downtown or in any of our neighborhoods is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Mayor Steve Williams said in a statement Wednesday morning. “We are waiting for law enforcement investigators to provide more complete information about this incident before we determine the next steps.”

No fatalities have been reported at this time, and the shooting remains under investigation by Huntington Police.

Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch  

Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch Isaac Thomspon, left, takes on Rhamel Hatcher during the 31st Annual Tri-State Original Toughman Contest on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in downtown Huntington.

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W.Va. parks chief retires after 35 years

“Gentleman. Professional. Kind. Teacher. Leader.”

Those were just some of the many words used to describe West Virginia Parks chief Sam England at his retirement party.

More than 60 friends, co-workers and well-wishers gathered on Monday at the Division of Natural Resources headquarters building in South Charleston to bid farewell to England, who had headed up the park system since 2014.

His retirement came as a surprise to many of them, but not to England, who said he’d been wondering for quite some time about the effect the travel-intensive position might be having on his wife, Carol, who had been holding down the fort at their Lewis County home since he took the job.

“I’ve been on the road for close to six years now,” he said. “My wife has always supported me in my travels, but after talking with her (about retirement), I figured out how much she wanted me to come home.”

England believes he’s leaving the park system in somewhat better shape than it was in when he became chief.

“When I came in, I had four goals,” he said. “One, to take care of a lot of deferred maintenance; two, to enhance park revenue; three, to increase our staff’s salaries; and four, to get our camping and cabin reservations online. We’ve been able to achieve all four of those things.”

A $60 million bond issue, implemented within the past two years, has helped overcome the deferred-maintenance problem.

“With that money, we’re fixing sewer systems, water lines, electrical lines, and updating our cabins,” England said. “To me, that’s more important than cutting ribbons on new developments.”

An uptick in tourism has helped the revenue situation.

“Getting our camping and cabin rentals online is bringing in more money,” he said. “Tourism has increased, and our marketing strategies have improved. We’re getting people to come to our parks, and to stay longer once they’re here.”

The bottom line, he added, is that visitors are bringing much-needed revenue into the system.

“At the end of fiscal year 2018, our revenues were up $1.6 million over the previous year. And then fiscal year 2019 finished $2 million up over 2018.”

England said the boost has helped state officials “find ways, working with the Division of Personnel, to compensate our hardworking staff.”

“There’s no way we could keep asking people with college degrees to come here and take park superintendents’ jobs at $25,000 a year,” he added. “We needed to be able to pay good, professional-level people.”

England said he appreciates the sacrifices parks employees make to keep the system running. He should; over the course of his 35-year career, all spent within the West Virginia system, England did a little bit of everything.

As a schoolboy growing up in Mullens, West Virginia, he worked on the golf-course maintenance crew at nearby Twin Falls State Park. While in college, he took seasonal jobs as a naturalist.

After graduating from West Virginia University, England immediately went to work as the full-time park naturalist at North Bend State Park.

After three years, he moved on to a succession of park-superintendent jobs: at the Moncove Lake Wildlife Management Area from 1986 to 1990; at Greenbrier State Forest from 1990 to 1998; and at Stonewall Jackson State Park from 1998 until he was named chief in 2014.

Along the way, England became the system’s “Swiss Army knife,” able and willing to take on any task he was asked to do.

When superintendents left at Cabwaylingo, Cass, Hawks Nest, Lost River and Chief Logan state parks, England filled the spots until permanent replacements were hired. He helped implement a system-wide computerized reservation system, and helped oversee the installation of wireless internet in all of the state’s resort parks.

When the Chief Logan Lodge and Conference Center was under construction, England and two co-workers spent almost a year there, getting the place ready for visitors.

He said working at all those jobs helped him to appreciate just how hard park staff need to work simply to keep the system going.

“There is no agency that has harder working staff than (parks) people,” he continued. “They own it; they work countless hours to do the right thing for visitors and for the system. Without fail, they manage things the best they can with resources available.”

England is retiring from the system’s day-to-day management, but he plans to stay involved at some level.

“I’m retiring, but I’m not quitting,” he said. “I don’t yet know how, but I do know that when you take this job, it becomes part of you. It’s a commitment. I’ve leaned on previous parks chiefs for advice and knowledge, and I suspect I’ll be doing something like that, too.

“I’m going to miss it, because it’s been a part of me so long. But at the same time, I’ll be getting to spend time with my wife, who has always supported me and has never complained.”