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Puzzling highway death part of West Virginia police probe

Mar 21, 2023, 12:55 PM

FILE - West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivers his annual State of the State address in the House C...

FILE - West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivers his annual State of the State address in the House Chambers at the state capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on Jan. 11, 2023. Justice signed a bill Monday, March 13, 2023, that makes interfering with a police officer and causing their death a felony punishable by up to life in prison. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Chris Jackson, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A man who died after struggling with law enforcement on a West Virginia interstate was hit by a trooper’s Taser, a police official said Tuesday in disclosing new details of one of a series of incidents that prompted Gov. Jim Justice to order a sweeping investigation of State Police.

State Police Capt. Eric Burnett in Charles Town confirmed a Taser was used on Edmond Exline, 45, of Hagerstown, Maryland, who died at a hospital after the Feb. 12 incident near Martinsburg.

A State Police news release cited by news outlets at the time said Exline was walking along the interstate when he got in a “struggle” with troopers, became unresponsive and later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

“He ran into traffic and wouldn’t listen to any commands from the trooper,” Burnett said Tuesday. “That’s something I probably don’t want to get into right now. I don’t want to get too far into this because we’re still doing a full investigation into it and I don’t want to taint anything.”

Exline’s cause of death hasn’t been released. It’s unclear whether he was having a medical or other type of episode, and Burnett said his office has not received the results of an autopsy and blood analysis. Three troopers remain on paid administrative leave as investigations continue, he said.

The Republican governor on Monday called the death alarming and cited that and two separate incidents involving State Police in announcing the investigation. The same day, Justice accepted the resignation of State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill.

Justice said he watched the police video of the Exline encounter and that it was “very, very concerning.”

Still unanswered was why Exline was on the interstate, including whether he had been in a vehicle.

“I guess the best thing for me to say is I don’t want to cast judgment on this guy,” Burnett said. “The best thing for someone to do once it comes out, and it’s going to come out, is to view the video and people can make their own determination as to how he was acting. I don’t want to speculate on anything.”

State Police on Tuesday denied a request by The Associated Press to review the video, citing the ongoing investigation.

Justice announced the investigation of State Police on Monday. He said after appointing Jack Chambers, deputy director of the Capitol police, as the interim State Police superintendent in place of Cahill that Exline’s death would be part of the overall review.

Troopers from the same Eastern Panhandle county where Exline died were involved in a November 2018 incident that Justice previously said “cast a dark shadow” on law enforcement.

A police dashcam video showed an officer kicking and punching a handcuffed teenage boy on the ground and kneeling on his shoulder during a traffic stop. State Police said the teen was involved in a crash with a sheriff’s cruiser before a pursuit ensued, his vehicle crashing again before he was apprehended. Two troopers were fired before one of them won his job back. Two sheriff’s deputies also were fired and later reinstated.

The governor said that besides Exline’s death, Chambers also will look into allegations that a State Police employee hid a video camera in the women’s locker room at a State Police facility in Kanawha County and that money was stolen by a trooper from a man at a casino in a Charleston suburb.

“We need to clean up our own houses when we have a problem,” Justice said. “It’s a bad day. It’s been a bad day ever since people started coming out with allegations. And the more we dug, the worse it stunk.”

Justice did not specify when the lockerroom situation occurred but indicated it was several years ago, perhaps before Cahill took over, and that the employee involved has since died.

Justice said three troopers eventually found a thumb drive “and from that they found the video.” At least one of the troopers “jerked the thumb drive out, threw it to the floor and started stomping on it,” destroying the evidence.

Justice acknowledged that “maybe we won’t be able to recover much information. Maybe many troopers are long gone. Maybe there’s no way to recover evidence. But we ought to try, because we’re better than this.”

In the casino incident, a man was playing a video machine with a trooper close by, Justice said. As the man got up to go to the restroom, an envelope with him fell out of his seat. The trooper picked up the envelope and kept the money inside.

The governor said State Police should have immediately begun a investigation, but “we didn’t do that.” The governor did not specify whether the trooper was disciplined.

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Puzzling highway death part of West Virginia police probe