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- November 14, 1988
- Vol. 30
- No. 20
Almost Heaven? This Corrupt Corner of West Virginia Was More Like the Other Place
Coal is still king in southern West Virginia, but unemployment is its too-constant consort. Mingo County is so economically blighted, says a local mayor, "that this is where President Kennedy invented poverty." And though the mine owners no longer pay wages in scrip for the company store, much of Mingo continues to operate on the near-feudal model of a company town, where a few men and women control every aspect of local life.
When the coal industry fell on hard times in Mingo County in the mid-'70s, the mantle of power was picked up by members of the Preece clan. Until recently, Wilburn T. "Wig" Preece and his wife, Mary Virginia, known as Cooney, lived in Kermit, a small town near the Kentucky border. Married in 1946, they are 62 years old and have raised 13 children, most of whom have acquired such nicknames as Bull, Powder, Ball, Slick and Red Ed. Assisted by this extended family, Wig and Cooney ran Mingo County as their personal fiefdom for more than two decades until last year, when eight Preeces and assorted in-laws and confederates went to jail on charges including drug dealing, jury tampering and obstruction of justice. The massive investigation that put them there is still unfolding, and it has revealed a web of corruption so pervasive that Assistant U.S. Attorney for the southern district of West Virginia Joseph F. Savage Jr. says, "I never saw any place that was as bad as this."
Linda Gail Preece Sartin, 35, is the oldest unindicted Preece. She lives with her husband, Riley, and their three kids in a modern brick home full of brass chandeliers and thick wall-to-wall carpeting. Pictures of Wig and Cooney as young adults hang on the wall. Linda, a pretty blond who runs a beauty parlor and exercise salon across the road from her house, is a Christian who always disapproved of her family's activities. Wig and Cooney and the others used to chide her for her religion. Now they depend on her—Linda has taken in two of her sister Brenda's children while Brenda and her common-law husband, Carey Lee Hatfield, serve prison terms.
"My parents were not kingpins," says Linda, despite evidence to the contrary. "They were small-town drug dealers. Mom never dealt cocaine, for instance. She knew it was bad for you. If honest people had been running the county, we wouldn't have to have done [what we did]." In fact, Wig Preece was one of the county's chief powerbrokers—though people say it was Cooney who ruled the family. (Once, long ago, when she suspected Wig of cheating on her, Cooney demonstrated that she was not to be trifled with by shooting her husband in the hand.) As a tavern owner in the early '70s, Wig developed a reputation for getting out the vote with five dollars here or a pint of rotgut there. Many local officeholders were beholden to Preece—among them Larry Hamrick, who, as former president of the school board and executive director of the Economic Opportunity Commission, controlled 2,400 jobs in a county that has fewer than 9,000 available for a population of 38,000. "The perception," says one local authority, "was that if you didn't cooperate with Wig, you'd get no social security, no job, no nothing."
Something of a Renaissance man, Wig also served as chief of the volunteer fire department during a period when Kermit was a hotbed of arson. In a single year, this small town of 705 reported 100 business and residential fires, generating millions of dollars in insurance claims. Wig knew which fires to put out and which to let blaze. "He was an excellent fire chief," says a neighbor, "as long as the house didn't need to burn."
But the Preeces didn't truly dominate the local economy until the late '70s, when the arrest of Tomahawk Preece (so named after being born in the backseat of a taxi in Tomahawk, Ky.)for selling marijuana opened his parents' eyes to the profitability of drugs. Within a few years, Wig and Cooney were running the biggest drug operation in southern West Virginia. Some of the drugs were sold from the family's parlor, but the major portion of the business was run from a rented trailer in the center of town. When their supply of marijuana, PCP and pills was depleted, the Preeces sometimes put a sign on the trailer, which was near both the police station and city hall: "Out of drugs, back in 15 minutes." Chief of Police Dave Ramey was married to Wig and Cooney's daughter Debbie and didn't care to make trouble for his in-laws. And if anyone in the Preeces' extended family were to be collared by a state policeman—as they were 54 times over a 10-year period, for traffic violations, misdemeanors and felonies—the Preeces knew other ways to influence the justice system. When Brenda went to trial on a charge of selling PCP to an undercover police officer, she and her parents arranged for the jury foreman's daughter to get a teaching job. (Brenda was eventually acquitted, and the foreman was later convicted of conspiracy.)
State officials estimate that between 1984 and '86 the Preeces' drug operation was bringing in about $1 million a year; suddenly Kermit was saturated with Cadillacs and Corvettes, Nautilus equipment, speedboats and diamond rings. Debbie and Dave Ramey were living so well on Dave's $800-a-month police salary that locals began calling them J.R. and Sue Ellen.
Everyone knew where the money was coming from. Wally Warden, editor of the county's only paper, the Williamson Daily News, says that in a two-and-a-half-year period he printed about 350 articles exposing the Preece clan. "Nobody cared—including the Preeces," he says. "There was never any hope that anything would ever change. The Preeces ran an arson ring, for God's sake. Who would be fool enough to speak up?"
When Kenny Burner, a West Virginia state policeman, was transferred to Mingo County in 1980, he says, "I felt like I'd died and gone to hell." Several times state troopers arrested various Preeces only to see them walk free. The only real threat to the family's power came from the Preeces' own missteps. Cooney had a habit of storing her marijuana in trash bags outside, and sometimes she was forgetful. Once, when the garbagemen hauled it off, one of the Preeces called Chief Ramey, who supplied a police backup when Brenda and another member of the family ran down the truck and forced the haulers to go back to Ramey's house, pick through the garbage and give back the missing pot. Another time, when her aunt appeared to be muscling in on her customers, Brenda turned the older woman in to Sergeant Burner, who arrested the aunt for a bathtub full of marijuana, among other drugs. That case is still pending. "We just had to keep doing our job and wait until something broke," Burner says of his relationship with the Preeces. "We were frustrated, but we kept trying."
Meanwhile, state officials were being inundated with complaints about the Preece clan. Finally, in 1984, a huge undercover effort involving both state and federal agencies was launched. Veteran IRS criminal investigator John Weaver was brought in to examine financial records, and FBI agent Calvin Knott organized undercover surveillance of the Preeces' drug trailer. West Virginia state trooper Marty Allen went undercover to buy drugs from the family. Sobered by the experience, and fearing reprisals, he sent his wife out of the area. "The family is low-life scum," says Allen, "and Cooney is an evil woman."
Charleston-based U.S. Attorney Mike Carey put Joe Savage, 32, in charge of the task force. Savage, a Harvard-educated Massachusetts native, had come to West Virginia so that his wife could fulfill the terms of her medical-school scholarship by serving in a doctor-deficient area. He knew little about Mingo County before arriving there in 1985. What he learned made him feel as if he had stepped through the looking glass. "Things happened backwards," says Savage. "The police chief and sheriff weren't doing the arresting, they were selling the drugs. The school board president wasn't teaching children ethics, he was bribing the jurors."
For 18 months Savage's task force gathered evidence. The Preece clan often dealt in merchandise, not cash, so their customers worked the area's shopping malls, stealing microwaves, stereos and televisions, which they traded for drugs. FBI agents were provided with various appliances so they could make the tape-recorded deals they needed for evidence. At one point, Wig Preece, increasingly greedy, told the agents he wanted a new boat for the fire department. He even specified the model and told them how to steal it.
Finally, on May 30, 1986, the task force was ready to move. At 1 p.m., a squadron of unmarked cars, backed up by a helicopter, sped single file into Kermit, then fanned out to arrest seven Preeces and 13 other individuals. "We had enough troops to wipe out the Sandinistas," says John Weaver.
The operation went smoothly. At Wig and Cooney's place, the agents found $54,010 in cash under a bed. (Another $40,000 had been set aside to buy a Mercedes that day for Stella Preece's high school graduation. But when the Preeces arrived at the dealership, Stella didn't like the color, so the family returned home with the cash.)
All 20 of the suspects rounded up in this first sweep eventually pleaded guilty, though police chief Ramey and his wife, Debbie, later changed their minds and stood trial. (They were convicted of drug conspiracy, tax evasion and 28 other felony counts. Dave was sentenced to 15 years prison; Debbie to 10.) Moreover, in 1987 the Preeces led the task force to other county officials who had condoned their activities and profited from them. Larry Hamrick was convicted of political corruption and influence peddling and sentenced to 12 years. One of Hamrick's previous claims to fame was that he had once strangled a pit bull with his bare hands. (He didn't mean to kill the dog, he later explained, but once your hands are around a pit bull's neck, you don't let go.) Now he was accused of putting those same hands around the neck of one of his employees while warning her not to testify against him.
So far, 69 people have been indicted—and 69 convicted—including police, politicians, school board members, bus drivers and employees of Mingo County's Head Start program and Office of Elderly Affairs. Investigators are now looking into charges of vote fraud and accusations of huge illegal cash contributions in both the 1982 and 1984 county elections. Johnie Owens, a power in the local Democratic organization, has already been convicted of tax evasion and selling the county sheriff's job to Eddie Hilbert for about $100,000. Owens is serving 14 years; Hilbert is doing seven years for misusing the sheriff's office. "This case is the best thing that could happen to West Virginia," says Savage. "We reclaimed part of America. The area will never be as bad again."
Others aren't as sure. Certainly the investigation has restored some semblance of democracy to Mingo County. Twenty-six-year-old Tim Crum, elected mayor of Kermit last May in what most observers agree was the first clean election in Mingo's history, says, "There's no way I could have won my office a few years ago."
But some insiders fear that corruption has become such a habit in Mingo County that the cleanup may just substitute one set of power brokers for another. "Look at Kermit now," says a local law enforcement official. "The Republicans are in for the first time. And they're just trying to do what the Democrats did for so long. Who can blame them?"
Linda Preece couldn't agree more. Her embittered mother—who phones daily from prison, where she is serving a 16-year term—insists that "my husband and I were used by the politicians." After all, Cooney notes, she and Wig had been paying off the proper authorities since 1957. Her father, Linda says, is a broken man who weeps at the end of each of her prison visits. Linda herself begins to cry after she finishes another talk with her mother. Sitting among her high-tech toning machines—"they tone your body without your having to exercise," she explains—the Preeces' matriarch pro tem maintains that her parents were just ordinary working folk looking for a way to make ends meet. "If people knew what Mingo County was truly like, they'd understand," she says, pulling herself together with a sigh. "If they ever did a movie of all this, it would just have to be a comedy."
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