Cops in this town keep making ridiculous arrests. What are they trying to cover up?

When a small town police department came under fire for a series of questionable arrests, PAR dug deeper into the finances of Milton, West Virginia. What we uncovered reveals how economic inequality fuels bad policing, and how prioritization of  law enforcement over other communal needs is often at the root of bad public policy.

Pre-Production: Stephen Janis
Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Janis, Dwayne Gladden


Transcript

Taya Graham:          Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead we examine the system that makes bad policing possible. And today we will do so by digging deeper behind the scenes of a town and its police department which has been at the center of several controversial arrests caught on video. We are following up because after we published our stories we received multiple calls and complaints about the Milton Police Department and the city itself. And what we uncovered illustrates exactly what we’re talking about when we promise to examine the system that makes bad policing possible.

But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at par@therealnews.com, and we might be able to investigate for you. And please like, share, and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. And of course you can always reach out to me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter. And of course, if you can, please hit the Patreon donate link pinned in the comments below, because we do have some extras there for the PAR family. Okay, we’ve gotten that out of the way.

Now, as you may recall, in our last show we showed you this video, the arrest of Caleb Dial by a Milton, West Virginia, police officer. As we revealed on the show, the report the officer filed depicted a completely different version of events than what was captured by a Ring camera outside the home where Caleb was arrested. In fact, the difference between what happened and the report was so stunning we felt compelled to dig deeper into the town of Milton and what is going on with policing over there. But before I get to that, I want to review once again the disturbing video that shows how the police officer conjured a completely different set of facts surrounding the arrest of Caleb than what was caught on camera.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Police Officer:           [inaudible] Turn around for me. [inaudible] officer safe. Okay?

Caleb Dial:                         Yeah, that’s fine.

Police Officer:                     You’re not under arrest.

Caleb Dial:                       I know.

Police Officer:                    You understand [inaudible].

Caleb Dial:                     I understand.

Police Officer:                  What’s going on?

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:                  “I observed the defendant struggling to stand. As I began to speak with the defendant, he became very agitated and kept on raising his voice at me. I asked him several times to calm down and then decided to detain him for officer safety.”

But since we aired this video, we have been overwhelmed by calls and emails from people who say they have had similar experiences with the Milton police. In fact, we received so many complaints we felt like we had to revisit this town once again and try to understand what’s going on there. We wanted to dig deeper, not just into a small West Virginia town, but how rural policing works in tandem with the government to extract wealth from those who can least afford it.

But before I get into those details, I want to update you on the first story that brought Milton police to our attention. It involves a young man named Cody Cecil. He was parked in a Milton, West Virginia, campground when police raided his home without showing a warrant. Let’s watch.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Cody Cecil:                  I need a warrant.

Officer:                            I know what you need.

Cody Cecil:                   See what I’m saying? Why isn’t that my Constitutional right?

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:                    Cody was arrested and is now facing five charges, among them possession with intent to distribute and transporting drugs across state lines. All because he had eight immature Delta-8 hemp plants in his RV. Cody was initially given a $100,000 bail. But after we started making phone calls and sending emails, it was mysteriously reduced to $20,000. And that’s when a friend of Cody’s and one of our viewers decided to go to West Virginia and bail him out. It was a harrowing experience, which he recounted to us via Zoom from West Virginia. Let’s listen.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Christopher Shellhammer:    The first obstacle was being sent to the wrong offices by security at the front. After we were finally directed to the proper office and handed them the bail order that we were working with, they noticed that the date, the return date for this order had already passed because he had a hearing a few days ago. So without changing the return date on that bail order, they could not allow me to post the bail.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:                    Cody was eventually released. And we’ll be talking to him later for the very first time since he was let go. But of course Cody’s ordeal is just the beginning of the story, not the end. Because as I said, after we published stories on the arrest of both Cody and Caleb, the complaints about Milton were overwhelming. Every day we receive new comments and concerns from viewers about what’s going on in the small West Virginia town. And before I get into our investigation regarding what we’ve uncovered, I’m going to share with you just some of the discussion we’ve had with people who have suffered because of this town’s emphasis on law enforcement. Just a note, many of these people did not want to go on camera out of fear of retribution. So we’re just going to play their audio so you can hear what they had to say or read relevant excerpts from their emails.

For example, one of our viewers has simply stopped visiting Milton because he’s been pulled over so many times. And in fact, a single stop led to nearly 1000 dollars in tickets. Let’s listen.

[AUDIO CLIP BEGINS]

Speaker 1:                      We [inaudible] along and we were going down the road and they pulled us over. And they were just real rude and hateful. And they wouldn’t verbally tell why they pulled us over.

[AUDIO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:                     Now, I want to read an excerpt from an email that was sent to us by a viewer. It also recounts abuse at the hands of Milton County police. Let me read them to you on the screen. And again, we are protecting the identity of the person who sent it out of fear of retaliation.

“Thank you for covering the Milton Police Department. They have been corrupt for years and everyone knows it, but there’s nothing anyone could do.” And another. “I live in Milton. The whole government is corrupt. The mayor had the police hold people’s ID when they impound cars.”

And this email, which seems to hint at other problems in the town that, as we noted at the beginning of the show, point to broader problems that come with an overemphasis on law enforcement. “Also, another big issue in Milton is the water. There is always something wrong with the water, and after increases in taxation, nothing has improved. There is more to the water situation that needs to be investigated. I’ve heard that there’s a private investigation going on with the water.”

Which led us to dig even deeper into the finances of the town and why policing was so aggressive. The point is that all the information we received didn’t just reinforce the idea that Milton’s police department was problematic, but also pointed to other problems in the community that had been overlooked while the city built a new police department headquarters, pictured here. So to go through what we uncovered, I’m going to be joined by my reporting partner Stephen Janis to break this down. Stephen, thank you for joining me.

Stephen Janis:                    Thanks for having me, Taya. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham:                      So first I want you to review the information about the town’s finances that we uncovered in our initial investigation just for background. What did we learn and why does it matter?

Stephen Janis:                     Well we learned that there were two things going on. There was an increase in fines which was almost exponential, or was exponential, and then an increase in the size of the police budget. So fines went from a couple hundred thousand to almost 500,000 to 600,000 per year. And the police budget went from a couple hundred thousand to 1.2 million to a million dollars a year. So these two things rose in tandem and that’s what we found.

Taya Graham:                       So the next thing I want to discuss with you is a public information request you sent to the city. What was the information you were seeking and what has the response been?

Stephen Janis:                  Yes, I sent a three part information request. Number one and number two was a breakdown in fines, whether they’re court costs, whether they’re related to towing vehicles, so we could just get a sense of what these fines were for, what kind of tickets they’re writing, how many tickets they’re writing. Very specific breakdown.

The other thing I asked about was what kind of contract they had with A-1 Wrecking, which is a towing company which the city prefers to use or has been using in the past. Which, according to media reports that we looked at, the mayor actually owned at one point. So both of those things, I wanted to get as much detail as possible so that we could report back to you to give you breakdowns saying what fines were levied and how much money is going to this company.

Taya Graham:                    Now we also have been looking into the problem with the water system. You have been digging into EPA records. What have you found? And what have you learned about the city of Milton and its alleged water issues?

Stephen Janis:                    Well, there’s several things going on. There are multiple citations, EPA violations that have been cited over the past couple years due to a water compliance report that’s been compiled by a nonprofit organization. They’re also, since 2019 they haven’t filed a community water report on the quality of water. And so those two things raise big concerns. We also found out that they have filed an application request to obtain money from the American Recovery Act to pay for an overhaul of the water system, about 7.9 million dollars. Which raises another question as to why or what they did with the money that they got from raising the rates for people. In other words, why did they raise the rates if they’re now seeking money from the federal government to pay for the entire overhaul of the water system? We don’t know if that grant’s been approved. We have asked, but it does raise a lot of questions about the water system.

Taya Graham:                 And what, if anything, are they doing about it?

Stephen Janis:                    Well, I think this is the equivalent of a municipal hail Mary pass. That they’re trying to get all the money that they didn’t spend on improving the water system from the rate increase to do the water system overhaul from the American Recovery Act. So really I think, in a sense, it raises great questions about what happened to the money from the raised rates.

Taya Graham:                   Now there is more you uncovered when you were looking into the financing behind the new hotel in town. They were giving a $10 million tax break called a TIF. Can you explain what a TIF is and how it works? And what would your concerns be as a resident about this TIF?

Stephen Janis:                 Well, a TIF is what’s known as a tax increment finance. And a really shorthand way of explaining it is it means that money is captured from increased assessed value of property and put back into the property. So in other words, if you put an addition on your house and your house went up in value, the new taxes in your house would go to you to make that addition. So it’s really a way of allowing a developer to use the taxes he or she would pay to pay for their property. And that’s what’s happening with the hotel.

The thing that’s really weird about it is I can’t find any documentation on the deal. Generally speaking TIFs have reports, [but for] analysis, things that looked at whether or not this TIF is justified. Because they’re supposed to go in blighted areas. So what we can’t find out is anything on the deal, how much money has been allotted to certain aspects of the deal and how the deal’s being financed. I can’t even really find the bond reports. So I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to officials in the West Virginia Development Corporation and other places to try to find the information. We’re going to keep working on it. Raises a lot of concerns, but we’re going to keep on it.

Taya Graham:                   So in part of your research, you also uncover something really startling which is a deal that was done in Cabell County. The same county which contains Milton, where Cody Cecil was arrested for the possession of cannabis plants. What did you find out?

Stephen Janis:                  Well, the county signed a huge development deal with the Trulieve Corporation to grow marijuana and to manufacture medical marijuana in the same county where Cody was essentially arrested. And this is really interesting because, here’s this big deal. They’re pouring a lot of money into a huge corporation, which is one of the biggest medical marijuana providers in the country. And meanwhile, we learned that when the police raided Cody’s trailer they took his checkbook, his business cards, all of his growing supplies, materials, books on growing marijuana. I mean he was like a budding – No pun intended – Weed entrepreneur who was going around the country sort of speaking the gospel of keeping weed in small businesses. And here they are, they arrest him. They confiscate almost everything of value that has to do with his business. At the same time, that same county is giving money to a huge corporation. It just shows you how this country works and how the political economy of policing keeps the poor poor and makes the rich richer.

Taya Graham:                   Okay. Wait. So I’m supposed to believe that the county made a deal to open a legal pot grow and yet they arrested Cody for having plants. What does this tell you about the political economy of policing?

Stephen Janis:                    Yeah. Yeah. Taya, it’s really kind of stunning, but it also is really an example of what goes on in this country. You have small entrepreneurs like Cody who are sitting in jail, who are now facing multiple charges, distribution. But right down the road the government’s literally financing people to do the same exact thing. I mean, how crazy is that? And I think how unfortunate that is, that a small business owner who wants to try to make it in the weed business is being incarcerated and charged as a drug dealer. When, down the road, a major corporation with major Wall Street backing is getting financing from the government to do the exact same thing. It shows how hypocritical this country is and how schizophrenic we are when it comes to marijuana and other things.

Taya Graham:                      And now I am finally joined by Cody Cecil to talk about his arrest and the difficulties his friends and family have had in trying to bail him out, and their on the ground experience of Milton. Cody, thank you so much for joining me. And also I want to welcome your friend Christopher Shellhammer, who was essential in helping bail you out.

Cody Cecil:                        Oh, thank you. Thank you. I’m actually super glad to see you.

Taya Graham:                       So first, Cody, just tell me how you feel. I mean, your mom reached out to us. And hundreds of thousands of people watched what happened to you and they reached out on your behalf. And then also many residents alleged misconduct by the Milton Police Department. How do you feel right now?

Cody Cecil:                               A little shell shocked to be honest because the police brutality is just, it was shocking to begin with. So I was completely unaware and caught off guard. And I felt as if it just was done completely horribly wrong. It wasn’t, just didn’t seem American. And I just didn’t understand why. It’s just, I’m glad that everyone’s been able to help and I’m very appreciative of it. And I wanted to give a thank you to you and everybody here, and everything that’s been going on. And I’m just glad that it can finally get out, that the horrible stuff that’s been going on, and it was able to be caught on camera and I was just fortunate enough to do so.

Taya Graham:                     What were the conditions like in the jail?

Cody Cecil:                           Yeah, the jails were shitty. Absolutely horrible. So I mean, but it’s just another broken system in America. I’ve been to jail in Detroit, so it’s quite the same, but at the same time it’s… The system shouldn’t be that way. It’s not any type of punishment. It’s just re-institutionalizing people and herding them along for the next paycheck. It’s all monetized. So that’s what it’s turned into. Another government official is just reaching in and collecting their dollar for keeping people cattled together.

Taya Graham:                   How much was paid to get you out of jail? I mean, how difficult was it to post bail? What were the obstacles?

Cody Cecil:                       My people on my team’s been working on trying to help me and get me out for the last two weeks. And they were down here once before. It took X amount of hours and time and money to drive out of here and take their time to do that. Then they got turned around then because they had to get a different type of bond. It was just all the runaround. Then they were down here for the last two days having to get hotels and stay. And finally later on this evening I was released.

Christopher Shellhammer:     The actual bond amount was a $20,000 bond, which we paid 10% of plus fees. And then you also need to factor in the cost of the travel down here, the hotels, food. [crosstalk]

Cody Cecil:                       Everything. And this is for two weeks, they came down the last time.

Taya Graham:                        What charges are you facing now?

Cody Cecil:                           It’s too much of a list. And when you go into the jail, they don’t –

Christopher Shellhammer:    Yeah. They stacked them up pretty good.

Cody Cecil:                    Yeah. And then when you go into the jails they don’t even get you any paperwork to go back with.

Taya Graham:                        How important did you think it was to film the officers and how did you know it was so important to record them?

Cody Cecil:                        I just felt like it was the right thing to do. If they’re supposed to be able to do their job then I should be able to protect myself and do mine. And that was my due diligence to do so.

Taya Graham:                  So Cody, this might surprise you, but we found a legal pot growing operation in West Virginia in Cabell County, the same county that has Milton. The county just approved support for a 100-acre marijuana growth facility. How does that make you feel, to know that they are approving a major dispenser to grow while you’re locked up for your plants?

Cody Cecil:                      This is the question that I’ve been wanting to talk about. This is welcome to the monopolization of America’s first big green industry that we could have had. But people are letting it walk away. This is the fight that I’m out here fighting for in the Cannabis Freedom Act. This is a plant that should be for the people, and given to the people, and monetized by the people. But it’s something that the government’s stripping from us in front of our faces, and I’m not going to stand around and let it happen. And I’ve been traveling and proclaiming my act in this and people didn’t quite understand until now, I guess.

Taya Graham:                   And just on a personal note, what I think we see with Cody Cecil and Caleb Dial and the many others that reached out to us privately, is that the politicians of Milton have bent to the will of the wealthy. City hall has been renovated, the police have a new headquarters and doubled their budget, but many of the people of Milton have told me that they themselves feel like they’re being run out of town. While a grand luxury hotel and a golf course is being built, people in Milton don’t have safe, clean drinking water. And while the police department has tripled and the amount of court fees and fines that they bring in have doubled, we’re told that the elderly in the community are losing their houses. This is what happens when law enforcement represents the will of the elites, and their wants are prioritized over the needs of the people.

Now, this is usually the part of the show where I try to tie together all the elements of the story we have just told and then tease out the parts that are most relevant to the overarching issues with American policing. Meaning, I like to examine what a specific story tells us about law enforcement that might not be readily apparent and how that fits into the larger context. I guess you could call it my own attempt at a post reporting analysis. But today I’m going to do something a little different. I’m not going to talk about policing at all. I’m going to focus on an institution that I think has more to do with what we see in Milton than aberrant police powers and an ineffectual city council. I’m going to talk about journalism, or the lack of it. Because I think the story has more to do with the consequences of not having independent journalists than just a bunch of overeager or bad cops.

I mean, what we see in cities like Milton and other communities we cover across the country is a single common denominator: a singular lack of independent journalists to hold people in power accountable. Now it’s worth noting there are many heroic cop watchers and auditors who are trying to fill the gap. People armed with cell phones and cameras and YouTube channels who do the hard work that journalists used to do. But to be fair, cop watchers can’t be everywhere. And sometimes a cell phone video isn’t enough to battle City Hall which has plenty of tools at its disposal to make the work of citizen journalists nearly impossible. That’s why I think the lack of journalists is so critical to what’s happening in Milton. Consider the link I’m showing you on the screen. It’s a link to a story posted by a local television station, West Virginia WCHS, or Fox 11, on the false and possibly illegal arrest of Caleb Dial.

As you can see, the story depicts Caleb as a criminal charged with felony escape. The photo is the same picture posted on the department’s Facebook page that we’ve already pointed out completely violates the Constitutional right of being presumed innocent before trial. But what’s even worse is that after the charges were dropped against Caleb, he contacted the station and asked them to take the story down, but they have not even taken the time to reply. In fact, we reached out to the newsroom and asked them to explain why they won’t respond to him, and guess what? We haven’t heard back either. Now I’m not going to give the station a hard time just because they reprinted a press release from a police department without getting comment from the subject of the story. I mean, it is part of the police propaganda mechanism we discuss so often and it’s also why people don’t trust mainstream media in general. But the facts in the press release were unfortunately true at the time, even though they were based upon a sworn statement from an officer that we have seen with our own eyes was nothing if not inaccurate.

What my real problem with this particular television station and mainstream media in general is how sometimes they simply ignore the communities they are supposed to serve. I mean, why didn’t someone at the station at least address Caleb’s concerns? Why wouldn’t they be interested in speaking to the subject of their breathless story that Caleb was a dangerous felon. I mean, don’t we always want to get both sides of the story? Which brings me back to my point about the media and what the lack of viable local journalists means for towns like Milton and beyond. Because along with our reporting on Milton’s penchant for collecting fines and perhaps lax management of its water supply, another interesting fact has emerged about its ambitions to build a luxury hotel. That’s because it turns out the beneficiary of the tax break to build the resort is none other than Jeff Hoops.

Hoops is not an unknown entity in West Virginia, but his background apparently didn’t receive a lot of attention during the vetting process to approve the deal. Hoops is best known for running Blackjewel Coal, a firm which declared bankruptcy after the West Virginia environmental authorities said it was too reckless to keep mining. But it’s also the company that has been accused of stiffing coal miners for back pay in Kentucky amid allegations reported by The Wall Street Journal that Hoops used shell companies to sign contracts with companies controlled by families and friends, which allowed him to extract millions from the now bankrupt firm. And now he is building a luxury resort with an Olympic size swimming pool, a 500-seat ballroom, a 400-seat steakhouse, and a golf course, right in Milton. And already has a second resort planned with an amphitheater that seats 3,500. That could cause a lot of change to a small town.

Now, the point is that what the city of Milton lacks is not people who care about their community or people who want to hold their government accountable. What they lack are dedicated journalists to bring them the information they need to make informed decisions. I mean, the outpouring of comments from the people of the city exemplifies a community that is both engaged and concerned. What they need are reporters who will amplify their voices and tell their stories and report the facts that will enable them to have a say in how they are governed. And let me say this to the people of Milton and all the other small towns that are off the radar of the mainstream media conglomerates. It’s a message that resonates from the core of my commitment as an independent journalist: we hear you. We are listening, and what you say to us matters. And we will do all that we can with the limited resources afforded to us to continue reporting your stories.

We will work as hard as possible to inform you and to provide you with context on what drives policy in your community, even if we are hundreds of miles away. The point is we respect your voice and we care about your concerns, and we will continue to do stories like these as long as you continue to need us to do them. Which is why I will end the show with a comment from a viewer who sent us this. “Thank you for taking the time to read this. And also thank you for covering West Virginia. That is a forgotten state.”

Well we have not, nor will we, forget the people of Milton, West Virginia, or any of the other people who need us.

I want to thank my guest Christopher Shellhammer, who went to bail out Cody, for his time and for keeping us up to date. Thank you, Christopher. And I also want to thank Cody Cecil for sharing his story with us. I know so many people are relieved that you have finally been released from jail, and we wish you the very best. And of course, I have to thank intrepid reporter Stephen Janis for his writing, research, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.

Stephen Janis:                   Thanks for having me, Taya. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham:                        And I want to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thanks, Noli Dee. And a very special thanks to our Patreons. We appreciate you. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate for you. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at par@therealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct.

You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter and Facebook. And please, like and comment. You know I read your comments and that I appreciate them. And we have a Patreon link pinned in the comments below. So if you feel inspired, please donate. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars. So anything you can spare is greatly appreciated. My name is Taya Graham and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns.

 
taya@therealnews.com
 
@tayasbaltimore

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.