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A town sees red over police vandalism

Site of planned museum trashed beyond belief in paintball games

Sunday, June 20, 1999

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

WESTON, W.Va. -- As his eyes adjusted to the gloom inside the massive stone castle on the edge of his town, Lewis County Commission President Robert Conley gulped hard and gaped at the mess left behind by the clash of invading armies.

 
  Lewis County Sheriff R.A. Rinehart shows one of the paint-splattered doors in Ward B of the old Weston State Hospital. (Bob Shaw, Clarksburg Exponent Telegram)

Smears of oily paint marred the walls and ceilings on all four floors of the 500,000-square-foot historic landmark. Gobs of paint oozed from window frames and dripped from broken light fixtures and hand-carved walnut woodwork.

Paint pooled on tile floors, staining the shoes and threatening the balance of anyone who tried to walk on them. Even an irreplaceable mural in the building's auditorium was stained with pigment.

"It just looked like a battleground. It absolutely stunned me," Conley said of his June 6 trip through the Weston State Hospital, a former psychiatric hospital that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Three weeks ago, a tipster telephoned Conley to blow the whistle on a league of weekend warriors who'd illegally commandeered the hospital.

The weapons: guns loaded with pellets of paint that explode on impact to spatter those who've been shot. The culprits: at least 20 off-duty police officers and employees of local law enforcement agencies.

Until he entered the hospital that morning, Conley couldn't believe the tipster's claims about the amount of damage - -- or the identities of those who'd done it. What he found sent him looking for the sheriff.

"It couldn't have been worse if they'd taken drums of paint and upset them everywhere," Conley said. "What kind of human beings would do this? That so-called police did this is unthinkable."

The conduct of these men in blue left the people of Weston seeing red -- and green and white and splotches of pink -- after local newspapers published photographs of the damage. Making folks even madder was the timing of the vandalism.

Just two weeks earlier, West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood stood in a banquet hall crammed with Weston's business and civic leaders to pledge his support for a proposal to convert the vacant state-owned hospital into a Civil War museum.

The plan is backed by officials and residents of this tidy, history-drenched town about 135 miles south of Pittsburgh who had feared that the hospital and surrounding grounds would become an eyesore if allowed to remain idle much longer.

Now, because the paint damage is so extensive, the building cannot be toured by would-be developers. Neither the state nor Lewis County have the time or money to clean it.

Just a mess

As Lewis County Sheriff Robert Rinehart wraps up his investigation of the vandalism, sentiment is running high among Weston's 5,000 residents that those who caused the damage should be arrested and required to scrub the building back into shape.

"It's just such a shame, not only that it happened but that it was law enforcement people who did it," Weston Chamber of Commerce Coordinator Linda Locke said last week. "If my son and his friends did something like this, I am sure they'd be locked up, and rightfully so. People I've talked to about this want the ones who did this to be held accountable."

No charges or internal disciplinary penalties have been filed against any of the suspected participants in the paintball battles.

But that could change this week after Rinehart presents a report detailing the results of his investigation to Joseph Wagoner, the county's prosecuting attorney.

The officers talked their way past a security guard at the hospital, so they cannot be charged with burglary or breaking in, Rinehart said. The most likely charge would be destruction of property, a misdemeanor that carries a fine.

Rinehart said no employees of his department were involved in the paintball battles May 22 and 29. He wouldn't identify the participants, but said they were employed by several other law enforcement agencies in the area.

Rinehart did not deny reports that at least one participant was an officer of Weston's Police Department.

"Some of them were here on one occasion, and some were here for both. From talking to some of them, I understand they had teams that shot at each other and each team used a different color so they could tell who'd shot who."

Most of the participants are contrite and willing to help clean up the mess, Rinehart said, but how they'll manage that is uncertain. The paint is water-soluble, but no one can guess how many mops, buckets, gallons of water or hours will be needed for such a huge job.

The participants got into the hospital after telling a security guard that they intended to conduct a training exercise inside.

"And you can always trust a policeman, right?" Rinehart said. "To be fair, I have some sympathy for the ones from outside our county because they may have been led down the garden path and told they did have permission. But that wasn't the case."

Once inside, the combatants fanned out throughout the four-story building, hiding in rooms and using former nurses' stations as forts. They bombarded each other and everything in sight with thousands of gobs of paint, leaving behind so much that Rinehart said it remained moist and sticky last week. Estimates vary widely, but most place the cost of damage at $10,000 to $30,000.

All the while, they whooped and hollered so loudly that they frightened children playing T-ball and soccer on the hospital lawn, which is used as a community park.

Once Rinehart tracked down the security guard, the identities of those involved weren't hard to trace. The guard, Jim Garrison, just shook his head last week when asked about the incidents.

"The whole thing has been awful," he said, as he patrolled the perimeter of the hospital's wrought-iron fence. "It's a mess, just a mess in there, and I just don't want to hear about it anymore."

Neither do a lot of people in Weston.

As publicity about the paintball incidents spread around the state, residents got tired of hearing questions and jokes directed at their town.

Heard the one about why Weston is getting rid of its parking meters? The cops are going to shoot paint at the tires of parking violators instead.

Folks who stop for a bite at the Sweet Briar Cafe or chat with friends on the sidewalk outside Apple Annie's Gifts and Collectibles stiffen and roll their eyes when the topic is raised.

"To be honest, people are upset that it was police here. Talking as a police officer, so am I. It's a black eye for all of us," said Rinehart, a retired state trooper who is serving his first term as sheriff. "I've always felt that police should be held to a higher standard. Something bad happened here, and it burns."

Nor is Weston happy about the disrespect shown to the hospital, which is separated from its business district by an iron footbridge across the West Fork River. Generations of families from five counties worked there until 1994, when it closed and its patients were moved to the new William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital above it.

Many others want to preserve the old hospital because of its architecture and its ties to local, state and national history. The largest structure built from handcut stone in the United States, the hospital's sprawling beige walls, soaring white spires and ornate stone turrets provide an stately backdrop for a town crammed with boutiques, antique shops, eateries and well-tended Colonial and Victorian homes.

Construction of the hospital began in 1860, when Weston was still part of the state of Virginia. Union troops camped on its grounds in 1862, and it changed states and countries in 1863 after a large chunk of Virginia seceded from the Confederacy to become the new Union state of West Virginia.

The hospital also lies barely two miles from Jackson's Mill, a state-owned park and conference center on the site of the boyhood home of legendary Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Its ties to the Civil War make it a perfect spot for a museum, local officials said.

Robin Poling, an administrator with the Lewis County Economic Development Authority, said the museum plan had been in the works for about six months. Engineering and feasibility studies commissioned by the community attracted the governor's support.

Underwood sent the plan on to U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the powerful Democrat from West Virginia, who persuaded National Park Service representatives to tour the hospital in late April. The park service now is drafting a report about possible uses for the building.

"Things are very preliminary, and of course the big hurdle will be to obtain funding," Poling said. "But we have been very hopeful about this project, that it would help us to preserve a landmark building and to gain jobs and new investment for our community. That's why [the paintball incidents] hurt so much."

As tired as they are of publicity about the paintball incidents, both Poling and the Chamber of Commerce's Locke said they hoped that it might eventually provide a shot in the arm for the museum project.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that this could turn out to be a wonderful thing for Weston," said Locke, referring to the jobs and increased trade for local businesses that a new use for the old hospital would generate.

"As more and more people learn this building has been sitting empty, they may come up with ideas and money to help us make it productive again. As bad as this was, we're hoping that eventually it will bring us something good."



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