New Barbour sheriff takes oath

PHILIPPI – Including the newly appointed sheriff, seven law enforcement officers and four tax deputies were all sworn in Friday as part of what one official said was an effort by the Barbour County Sheriff’s Department to regain the public’s trust.

The renewal of the Sheriff Department employees’ oaths to serve the county is something that Sheriff Philip Ferguson said he’s been wanting to do for a long time.

“It’s showing the citizens of the county that we’re here to mend and ready to go forward,” Ferguson said. The Barbour County Commission appointed Ferguson sheriff on March 15, following former sheriff John Hawkins’ guilty plea to a federal mail fraud charge in February.

Barbour County Circuit Court Judge Alan Moats, who swore in the 11 Sheriff’s Department employees Friday, said he has worked with Ferguson for nearly 18 years.

“Phil has really been a good guy to work with,” Moats said. “My observations are that he’s a good person; he has a great demeanor; he’s friendly; he’s fun to joke around with… At the same time, he’s serious about what he does. He is well-respected. He’s always been a hard worker.

“What has been going on in the Sheriff’s Department over the recent time period, I know has not been pleasant for him, nor for the tax deputies or anybody else working in the office, but I have great confidence that Sheriff Ferguson is going to correct all of that and restore the Sheriff’s Department to the position that we’ve always known it to be,” Moats said.

Prior to his appointment, Ferguson served as a bailiff for Moats, Family Court Judge Beth Longo and Magistrates Kathy McBee and Tina Mouser. He started his career 22 years ago when Ron Mouser was serving as sheriff. He became Mouser’s chief deputy and continued to serve when John Cutright, the current assessor, served as the sheriff.

Ferguson said he has worked as a prevention resource officer and has built a good relationship with students and teachers. He said he also has experience in hostage situations, shoot-outs and domestic altercations.

Ferguson said the county currently has problems with domestic incidents, breaking-and-entering cases, scams, drugs and much more.

“I believe I have a confident and trustworthy staff that will be needed to help in these jobs,” Ferguson said. “If we all work together, things will get done.”

Also newly sworn in are Chief Deputy Brett Carpenter, Sgt. Todd Deffett, Sgt. Brad Miller, and deputies Joe Casey, Mark Senderak and Ricky Hathaway. Tax deputies who were sworn in include Shirley Lake, Billie Hunt, Whitney Cale and Chief Tax Deputy Ron Schoonover.

“It’s a sign of progress,” Schoonover said about the inclusion of the entire Sheriff Department staff in the swearing-in ceremony.

Ferguson said it might take some time to rebuild the Sheriff Department’s reputation within the community, but the process has already started with those residents who have approached him and offered their support.

“I want to have a good working relationship with the state police and city police departments,” Ferguson said. “This is a must.”

Ferguson said he understands that his duties and responsibilities as sheriff extend beyond law enforcement. He said he is responsible for handling large amounts of money from estates, taxes, conservators, licenses, concealed weapons and other accounts.

Ferguson said he wants to “let the people know that they can gain the trust back in the Sheriff’s Department.”

“I am not afraid to stand up for what is right,” Ferguson said. “I am hired to protect the citizens and their rights and to do what is right.”

Ferguson also served a temporary term as interim sheriff after Hawkins resigned as part of a plea agreement in a federal court case on Feb. 20. Hawkins pleaded guilty to a felony count of mail fraud in federal court in Elkins. The plea prevents him from working in law enforcement.

Hawkins’ plea followed an incident in which he staged a motor vehicle accident, ultimately filing a false insurance claim with the assistance of one of his law enforcement officers, whose name has not been released.

Hawkins has since been released pending sentencing. A presentence investigation is underway. The sentencing date has not yet been set.

However, that federal charge is not the only legal issue Hawkins is facing. In July 2013, 20-year-old Brittany Mae Keene, of Moatsville, filed a 15-count lawsuit in federal court for the Northern District of West Virginia, alleging Hawkins sexually assaulted her and then threatened to kill her if she told anyone. The suit accuses Hawkins of sexually assaulting five other unnamed females, referenced as Females No. 1-5.

The allegations were made public in the summer of 2012, and they were repeatedly denied by Hawkins.

Shortly after Keene’s lawsuit was filed, Barbour County private investigator Franklin D. Streets filed a lawsuit in Barbour County Circuit Court a week later against Hawkins. It accuses Hawkins of libel and defamation in relation to Streets’ investigation of the Keene case.

The West Virginia State Auditor’s office also returned findings in a September 2013 audit showing the misappropriation of funds from the concealed weapons fund of the Barbour County Sheriff’s Office, although no charges on the matter were filed.

According to the audit, those funds were used in the purchase of flowers, alcohol and gift cards for employees of the Sheriff’s Department.

Another audit has been requested by the Barbour County Commission following Hawkins’ resignation and is currently underway.