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Sweep of Hollows : Unraveling Corruption’s Traditions

Times Staff Writer

Corruption seems as natural to these parts as the thick seams of coal beneath the rugged mountains.

It runs so deep that few would flinch at a vote sold on election day for $5 and a half pint of rotgut, or at a state job created for a man suddenly blessed with a change of heart in the jury room.

Truth be told, many people in the narrow, isolated valleys of Mingo County cannot even begin to understand why 75 of their own have been arrested, among them the biggest names around.

“Nothing has been going on now that hasn’t been going on forever,” they say with dreary fatalism and mountaineer defiance. After all, this is another America and they do things differently here.

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‘Big Boss’ in Trouble

Certainly, few expected to see Johnie Owens go to jail. Not Johnie--not the big boss himself. Everyone knew he had wearied of the county sheriff’s job and simply sold it off to Eddie Hilbert, but so what?

And Larry Hamrick, who ran the county anti-poverty agency. Sure, he liked to help himself first and the poor second or not at all, but Larry was another of the bosses, and doesn’t some gravy come with the meat?

And Wig Preece--why send old Wig to jail now? For years, the Preeces dealt their drugs, open as the sky itself, from a trailer right beside City Hall. If supplies got low they hung up a sign: “Out of Drugs. Back in 15 minutes.”

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Yet arrested they all were, and on charges nobody quite knew how to fix. Taken away with them were leading citizens from the county prosecutor’s office, the county commission, the school board, the firehouse, the jail kitchen.

“Seems the only ones not indicted are the ones about to be,” says the county assessor, old timer Donald Evans.

‘Democracy Abolished’

Assistant U.S. Atty. Joe Savage, a 32-year-old Harvard man new to West Virginia, is amazed at what a joint state-federal investigation has turned up. “Mingo County operated like a fiefdom, where democracy was abolished,” he says.

And that seems so. Corruption had become as much a tradition here as moonshine. Each generation grew accustomed to it, just as they grew used to the coal dust that circled in the wind.

The Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River marks the border between southern West Virginia and Kentucky. Along the bank is Williamson, the Mingo County seat, and 20 miles downstream is Kermit.

With a population of 705, tiny Kermit is still bigger than most of the other towns and hollows, where the houses are only one-deep along the road and the steepness of the mountains starts at the back door.

Kermit has a school and stores and beer joints. The thirsty from the dry counties of Kentucky drive here across the wide bridge, looking for a good time.

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For years, they were accommodated by Wilburn T. Preece Sr., better known as Wig. Robust and pot-bellied, he was considered a cocky man with good nerve, fine qualities for a bootlegger who ran card games above his bars.

Wig Preece, now 60, could be a bully at times, but he was also someone to count on in a pinch. He’d roll right out of bed in the dead of night to rush a neighbor to the hospital or tow somebody’s car from a wreck.

Of course, he remembered these favors and expected others to do the same, especially at election time. In Mingo, one measure of a man is how many votes he controls, and the Preeces liked to boast that they were worth a solid 500.

Wig, his wife, Cooney, their 13 children and all the in-laws numbered plenty on their own. Then they carried another 75 or so with just the “float vote"--the winos who’d do their civic duty for a sip from the jug.

‘Help’ With Voting

Near the polling place, folks one after another would shake Wig’s ample hand. He’d tell them whom to see inside for help at the voting machine.

“Some, Dad paid cash, some the bottle and some did it just because Dad asked them to,” Tomahawk, one of Wig’s boys, says proudly.

Wig’s cooperation made him a friend to the bosses who fielded the county slate, men like Johnie Owens and Larry Hamrick. In turn, they did him favors as the need came up.

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Hode Hensley, Kermit’s police chief in the mid-1970s, learned the hard way about such favors. “I arrested Wig’s boy once, and the mother was sitting on the judge’s desk as I was getting told I had no case,” he says.

Malta Osborne, 80, taught most of the family in high school. “There was no law where the Preeces were concerned,” she says. “They ruled the roost.”

Most days, Wig--the town’s volunteer fire chief--whiled away the time at the fire station. He loved his pumper truck. He could always find a nozzle or hose that needed work.

Far and wide, his outfit was known not only for skill, but for versatility. They moved fast as foxes if a fire was an accident, slow as old mules if it was on purpose. Arson for insurance was a big source of local income.

Firemen Fast or Slow

In some years more than 100 buildings burned, and sometimes the firebugs and the firefighters bumped into each other coming and going. Wig’s daughter, Brenda, recalled: “I’d just torched one up, and, sure enough, there came Dad racing up the hollow in the truck. I about died!”

But if there was good money in arson, there was more in drugs. It was young Tomahawk, now 33, who let the family in on that.

He was arrested for selling pot in 1978. In the course of getting him probation, Cooney Preece opened her eyes to how dope had weaned many of the young from the bottle.

Wig’s husky wife had worked hard in the family’s bars and whipped a cue ball at the head of many an ornery drunk, but in her later years she was getting to be something of a homebody.

To Cooney, drugs seemed a good business because people could come fetch them right at the front door, though--manners prevailing--never after dark.

Pharmaceuticals Sold, Too

Soon, the Preece home was known throughout a 50-mile radius as the place to go for pot, LSD and PCP. Cooney carried a line of prescription drugs as well: Valium, Talwin, Placidil and Tylenol with codeine.

After a while, things got so busy she began to dread all that walking back and forth across the living room. In 1985, she hired a man for $100 a week and set him up with a couch and table in a trailer.

That this trailer was beside the red-brick City Hall was a problem only because the drug traffic was heavy and the road narrow.

Policemen may have milled about the town offices, but they rarely stepped next door. When one did, customers tensed up at the sight of the uniform.

“Don’t worry, he’s family,” they were assured.

True enough, the Kermit police chief was David Ramey, Wig and Cooney’s son-in-law. He and his wife, Debbie, shared so nicely in the family drug profits that they were known as J. R. and Sue Ellen, like the characters on “Dallas.”

Actually, all the Preeces lived comfortably. They drove across the pocked country roads in Cadillacs and Mercedes. They bought speedboats and diamond necklaces and put Nautilus gyms and tanning parlors in their homes.

Kids Had ‘the Best’

“Mom wanted her kids to have the best,” Debbie Ramey says gratefully. “If I asked her for money, she’d go get $1,000 from her purse.”

There were troubles, too, as there always are. Wig did not like pot stored in the house, and Cooney, now 60, too often hid it outside in the trash. A few times the garbage men hauled some away and it was a mess to go dig it out.

Then there were the few hot shots from the state police. One of them, Sgt. Don Bush, says he arrested the Preeces three times in a single week.

“If there was one honest man in the courthouse there would have been a conviction,” Bush says, “but it was always ‘case dismissed.’ ”

Well, not always. In 1979, Wig was sentenced to probation on a drug charge. Three years later, he got caught again and had to have the old probation replaced with a new probation.

This annoyed the family. Each arrest not only cost money to fix, but left them beholden to the men who set up the deal.

One Relative Jailed

In 1985, Brenda actually had to go on trial for selling PCP. The family phoned Larry Hamrick, who had some of his anti-poverty staff work on it, but they could only get a hung jury.

In the retrial, Hamrick--also president of the school board--was more determined. He gave the jury foreman’s daughter a job teaching reading at the school over in Nolan. There were other payoffs, too.

Brenda Preece well remembers her brush with justice in the Mingo County Courthouse. “In the hallway you could see the people waiting to get their money,” she says. “They were waiting in line.”

FBI Special Agent Calvin Knott says the Preeces made $1 million a year in the drug trade, though the family insists that’s much too high and does not take into account their costs, to say nothing of the aggravation.

Plenty of times, they wanted to give it all up. There were rip-offs and quarrels, and the continuing nuisance of the law.

One summer afternoon in 1985, Wig noticed a green boxcar sitting on the Norfolk Southern tracks, right across from the trailer. Its door was cracked open.

Had he peeked inside, he’d have found three sweat-soaked investigators with a long-lens camera. During two days, they photographed more than 600 people going into the trailer as if it were a carry-out pharmacy.

About a year later, Wig, Cooney and six of their children were arrested on federal drug and tax charges. As usual, they phoned Larry Hamrick.

“He wouldn’t even return their calls,” an angry Linda Gail Sartin, one of the Preece daughters, says. “All of a sudden, they were dirt.”

Up Against ‘the Feds’

Having the feds snooping about was a shock, and nobody in Mingo was so big not to be a little scared. With the feds no one knew where to spread the grease to make things right.

From then on, something very peculiar hung in the air. If Mingo County’s crooked ways were about to straighten out, it was more than news. It was history.

This is the land of notorious feuding, dating back to 1882, when Big Ellison Hatfield was shot in the back by Phamer McCoy. It was named “Bloody Mingo,” when union miners and company guards gunned each other down in the 1920s.

But in state politics, the county is best known for rigged elections in which the dead somehow vote from beneath their tombstones. “In Mingo, vote fraud is as old as the memory of man,” Secretary of State Ken Hechler says.

The corruption dates back at least to the early 1900s, when coal miners lived in company towns and were forced to buy company food with company scrip and to vote for company candidates on the company slate.

Even after the companies were no longer so mighty, political bossism lived on.

Election-Day Romps

Democrats swarm over Republicans here like fleas on a dog. The county Democratic chairman decides the slate, and almost always his choices go on to become the people’s.

Many times, elections have turned into nothing more than rowdy parties with a lot of hard drinking and hand-pumping at the polls. It was a payday for any poor man willing to pull the right lever--and more than quick cash was at stake.

School jobs and road work were big plums for the loyal. In return, the boss counted on a regular kickback from each paycheck, money that went into the political machine’s so-called flower fund.

From time to time, the people got fed up with this, but bucking the system made no more sense than trying to run water uphill. Besides, most often the bosses seemed decent fellows.

“They’d help get you coal for the winter, get you a job, get you a loan,” says Ted Warden, a dock foreman. “You had a problem, you’d just have to call to get it straightened out.”

One good person to call was Johnie Owens--or he could be found any day eating his noontime steak at the Moose Lodge in Williamson.

A Self-Made Boss

The son of a coal miner, Johnie left school after the seventh grade and worked his way up through the system, up to being right hand to the bosses.

In 1978, Johnie himself won the party chairmanship and, later on, the sheriff’s job. A balding man with a hound dog’s sad face, he reckons he controlled 2,000 votes “just by being liked.” And he was liked.

Johnie, now 60, didn’t gamble or lie down drunk in the street. If he had a weakness, it was the ladies, though by some standards he was a devoted husband and father. He kept one family over in Ragland, another 12 miles away in Borderland.

“I’ve been with one woman 42 years, the other 34--got grandchildren by both,” he says, commending himself.

As boss, Johnie was sizably more blunt than those before him. To him it was better to forget the windup and just throw the pitch.

Speech Touched on Fraud

In 1984, when Ken Hechler was running for secretary of state, he came around to give a silver-tongued speech about vote fraud. Johnie jumped up like he’d been stuck with a hot poker and told him to get off his high horse.

“For years, every politician--governors, all of them--have been throwing greenbacks through here like leaves on the trees, and I hate it when they pretend they’re different from the rest,” Johnie says.

Whatever bad blood that scene might have caused, it was Ken Hechler who ordered a look at a fishy election in the nearby town of Gilbert.

That started a special state prosecutor sifting through all manner of misdeeds, and too many questions had the name Johnie Owens in the answers.

Last year, Johnie was convicted of trying to fix the first-degree murder trial of Noah Musick, who had shotgunned his own cousin and left him on the river bank dressed in nothing but his socks.

As it happened, Noah’s father offered $10,000 for help. Johnie wasn’t sure what he could do, but he did know that $10,000 was $5,000 too little for trying.

Some Money Refunded

In the end, it all went crazy. Noah was found guilty--second-degree, not first--and Johnie gave back part of the money.

Then the Musicks snitched about the attempted fix and Johnie was in big trouble. He worried that the state would lock him away in its hellhole of a prison in Moundsville, doubled up with who knows who in a 4-by-8 cell.

Federal prison time would be easier time, Johnie knew. So he tried to make a deal with Joe Savage, that smart young prosecutor from Harvard.

Savage had been on to him anyway, and all he needed was a few more details to nail things down like carpet to the floor. Johnie told him how he’d sold the sheriff’s job for $100,000.

So the story goes, Johnie couldn’t even figure out why he wanted to be sheriff in the first place. It only paid $17,000, and that was nothing next to what he’d been earning as a security man for Kermit Coal.

Sold Sheriff’s Office

He let it be known he wanted out. Then along came slow-moving, soft-in-the-middle Eddie Hilbert, who had piled up a fortune in the mine repair business. He made an offer so big Johnie forgot that it was customary to bargain.

“I probably cheated myself out of $50,000 just because I was ashamed to ask him for more,” Johnie says.

Money being money, the shame soon went away. Johnie slyly worked things with the county commission so he could stay on as a special deputy for $17,001 and go back to his security job as well.

It was some deal, even if a part of it always nagged at him. “I suppose selling the sheriff’s job was wrong,” Johnie admits.

It bothered him to see a badge pinned to that Eddie Hilbert. The man didn’t do much more than sit around all day with a bag of peanuts.

People made fun of the new sheriff, enough to get Eddie upset. To prove them wrong, he dreamed up a clever plan to improve his public image.

He ordered a deputy to buy some marijuana. Then he called a press conference and stood in triumph over what he’d “confiscated.”

Another time, his men happened upon a suitcase full of pot. They stored it in the evidence locker.

Then Eddie Hilbert, sheriff of Mingo County, made another shrewd command decision, this time for disposing of the contraband.

He sold it to the Preeces.

In the politics business, it often happens that even your best buddy comes crawling up your pants leg, hoisting himself with a hand in your pocket.

Johnie had hardly been boss eight years before two friends pulled him down in 1986 with a slate of their own. One was Larry Hamrick, champion of the poor.

In truth, Johnie never trusted Larry. “He’s nothing but a gutter fighter and hated it when I made him tow the line,” Johnie says.

But there is no denying that Larry was a valuable ally. He was president of the school board and head of the Economic Opportunity Commission. That gave him say-so over 2,600 jobs--and half that again in IOUs.

Gratitude of the Poor

A lot of people figured they’d be eating dog food if it wasn’t for Larry Hamrick. His agency handed out help to the old and disabled. Many thought of the money as a gift from Larry’s own wallet.

There are 38,460 people in Mingo, but only 8,740 have jobs and 25% of those are in the mines. A third of the families collect food stamps.

To heat their homes, many go out with a five-gallon pail and chip coal from the mountainside or scavenge on the tracks for lumps of coal that have fallen from a train.

So Larry, 48, was an important person to be nice to. A tall, stocky man with a big ham of a face, he was an imposing figure. He’d once choked a pit bull to death with his bare hands.

That deed made him seem quite the he-man for a churchgoer and college graduate. His reputation was good clear to the capital. He was always being appointed to committees by the governor.

“He was a reverse Robin Hood, stealing from the poor to give to his rich political machine,” Savage says.

Public Funds Derailed

About $77,000 of public money got tucked aside. Ledger books show most of it was supposed to buy coal for the poor. People around Williamson think a good bit of it went to cover Larry’s poker losses over at the Legion Hall.

“I guess Larry figured he got so high up, he could mess up all he wanted and never get caught,” says Charlie Blevins, owner of the Red Robin Inn.

Such criticism is rare. Most are skittish talking about Larry. He was locked up after threatening witnesses, among them co-worker Sandra Colegrove.

“Don’t say anything on me or I’ll choke you to death,” is how he put it, embracing her neck with the same big hands that had silenced the pit bull.

For months now, one public official after another has pleaded guilty, then tattled and turned tail. It is like a game of tag that won’t end until everyone is “it.”

Investigators are struck by the confessions. They ask: What have you done wrong? And the answer is: Not much.

Then they ask: When has money changed hands for this and that? And the replies scatter like buckshot.

“It’s an isolated county; they’d been doing these things for years and never gave them a second thought,” says J. Bradley Russell of the state attorney general’s office.

In Mingo’s upheaval, right is now wrong and good is bad. The old ways have opened into new wounds, like the gouged earth of a strip mine.

Eight of the Preeces, not counting in-laws, have gone to prison on the drug and tax charges. Cooney got 16 years and Wig 10. His nerves have turned so shaky he often walks about with his wrists crossed as if he was handcuffed.

Sentences Meted Out

Just last Monday, Sheriff Eddie Hilbert entered a guilty plea. The same day, Larry Hamrick was sentenced to 12 years and Johnie Owens to 14.

“When are all the others going to get theirs?” Johnie wants to know. “People have been buying votes for years. They’d get their 10,000 votes out of Mingo, then pretend they didn’t know where they came from.”

In fact, both the state and federal people have opened the matter of vote fraud. Many more big shots are likely to slip into this sinkhole.

At least one coal company is being investigated. The companies, people here say, sometimes helped install friends in the courthouse, and that gave them a nice advantage whenever there was trouble with the unions.

Then there are the neighboring counties. Stories of wrongdoing fill these steep-walled valleys the way junked cars clutter the front yards.

Finally, there is Charleston, the state capital. Many statewide candidates have shopped for votes in Mingo, and now there is no way to return everything that was bought.

‘Change the Trough’

“You can’t leave any hogs at the trough,” says Dan O’Hanlon, the circuit judge who has heard some of the cases. “You’ve got to get rid of them all and then change the trough.”

But not all reform takes place with the sound of a gavel. It also comes at the polls. There is an election day May 10, and a record 70 candidates have filed to run.

“This is the first time there have been races where you don’t already know the winner,” says Wally Warden, editor of the Williamson Daily News.

That may be so, but many laugh off the idea that things will be any different. Corruption runs deep. There is always more below, like the coal.

They say that even if a bunch of nobodies gets elected, sooner or later one will emerge as a new political boss.

But others insist that the bullies have finally gotten their comeuppance, that Mingo County is done with dirty politics for good.

Why, just the other day, Bob Adams, the man from down the highway who fixes furnaces, was handing out his pamphlets for the county commission race.

He’d always wanted to run before. “But I figured I didn’t have the money to buy the votes,” he says.

And now? Well, now there is a freshness to the air. Something very unusual is expected to happen here next month.

People will step up to the voting booths alone and cast ballots for anyone they want.


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