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Official convicted in W.Va. mine disaster that killed 29

The former head of security at a West Virginia mine is convicted of impeding the investigation into a 2010 explosion that killed 29 men.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The former head of security at a West Virginia mine was convicted Wednesday of impeding the investigation into a 2010 explosion that killed 29 men.

A federal jury in Beckley found 60-year-old Hughie Elbert Stover guilty of lying to investigators and disposing of thousands of security-related documents following the explosion. He was the first person criminally prosecuted in the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in decades.

The jury began deliberating Wednesday morning after hearing two days of testimony in which prosecutors painted Stover as an obstructionist and defense attorneys claimed he was a scapegoat.

He remains free pending a Feb. 29 sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday that Stover misled investigators following the disaster and then sought to throw out thousands of security-related records, perhaps to protect himself.

"There's too much at stake here," Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Ellis argued, while urging the eight men and four women on the jury to "send a message that this investigation ought to be allowed to go forward."

Stover's defense portrayed the former Marine and law enforcement officer as a victim of the government's zeal to blame someone for the deadly explosion.

"You wanted justice, and this is who they brought you," defense lawyer William Wilmoth said during his closing argument in the trial that began Monday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Blaire Malkin had earlier reminded jurors of testimony from others at the Raleigh County underground mine. These witnesses alleged that Stover instructed mine guards to send out alerts by radio whenever inspectors entered the property. Such a practice is illegal. One of the criminal charges alleges Stover denied in a November 2010 interview with investigators that there were any advance warnings at the mine.

"This so-called by-the-book guy had his own playbook and terminology," Malkin said.

The other count alleges that Stover sought to destroy the documents the following January, by ordering a subordinate to bag and then throw them into an on-site trash compactor. Ellis suggested to jurors Wednesday that those records would prove that Stover had lied about inspection tip-offs. The attempted disposal also violated repeated warning from the mine's then-owner, Massey Energy, to keep all records while the disaster remained under investigation. Massey officials told investigators of the trashed documents, which were recovered.

Wilmoth attributed Stover's November statements to confusion over evolving policies at the mine, run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. As for the document disposal, Stover had called that the "stupidest, worst mistake" of his life when he testified Tuesday in his defense.

Questioning criminal intent, Wilmoth said Stover could have burned, shredded or otherwise destroyed the records himself, instead of delegating the task of throwing them out to a subordinate during daylight hours and in front of a security camera. Prosecutors said the documents were dumped around 6 a.m., and after being placed in trash bags. Hauling them out in their cardboard storage boxes would have drawn notice, as would Stover performing the deed himself, prosecutors argued.