‘The Mayor’s Nightstick’: Loner Cop Tears His Department Apart

‘The Mayor’s Nightstick’: Loner Cop Tears His Department Apart 1

In August 2020, after a summer of rage over police violence, 11 of the 15 members of the police department in Westover, West Virginia, turned on one of their own.

In a letter hand-delivered to the mayor, Cranston “Dave” Johnson, and later shared with the media, the cops boldly declared the city was in danger. “The safety and perception of this City, it’s staff, and it’s [sic] Officers for years, has been threatened and tarnished due to the actions of a singular Officer, Lieutenant Aaron Dalton,” it stated.

Dalton, who joined the Westover Police Department in 2013 after being asked to resign from the nearby Fairmont Police Department in the midst of a racial-profiling lawsuit, was accused of horrific acts. Among other things, his fellow cops wrote that Dalton, who is white, routinely violated the civil rights of citizens, threatened to kill other officers, destroyed evidence, and used “racial profanity” to “incite” residents of color.

“His disregard of, or nonexistent respect for the Badge,” the letter stated, “cannot go on any longer without action.”

According to his fellow cops, the letter was written and distributed because of what many believed to be a lack of accountability that only emboldened the rogue in their midst. “Reports pertaining to Aaron Dalton’s misconduct have been made multiple times and action has not been taken,” they claimed.

The letter did not point fingers at anyone in particular. But interviews with current and former city leaders and residents and a review of a state investigation into alleged misconduct by Dalton suggest he was personally close with the mayor, fueling a perception the cop was protected by him.

Dave Johnson would sell out his mother if it benefited him.

Councilman Ralph Mullins

The sordid affair, which includes claims of an attempted cash payoff to one of Dalton’s alleged victims, points to longstanding issues that arise in removing officers from a department. Except in this instance, it was members of the department themselves calling for an officer’s ouster, and a local politician who was accused of shielding him.

Rick Panico, the former chief of police of the Westover Police Department, who resigned shortly after the letter was drafted, told The Daily Beast that sometime around early 2020, Dalton—after having been involved in two incidents of alleged excessive force in 2019 that resulted in federal lawsuits against the city—was transferred to a more administrative role. It was there, Panico claimed, that Dalton and Mayor Johnson first got to know each other and where, he and others allege, Johnson began to take a liking to the cop.

“He became the mayor’s nightstick,” Panico told The Daily Beast, adding that he attempted to start the process of getting Dalton fired shortly after the letter went public in August 2020.

Aaron Dalton

Facebook

Ralph Mullins, a councilman in the city who has called for independent investigations into Johnson and been outspoken about the lack of discipline for Dalton, agreed, saying there was “no doubt” in his mind that the mayor was protecting the officer.

“Dave Johnson would sell out his mother if it benefited him,” he said. “But for whatever reason, he is protecting and has protected Aaron Dalton come hell or highwater. And there’s got to be a reason for that.”

Johnson did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Dalton also did not respond to requests for comment.

Westover City Attorney Tim Stranko pushed back on any claims that Johnson prevented Dalton’s removal from the police department, noting that according to state code, the mayor cannot fire individual officers. Instead, a disciplinary hearing must be convened by a police chief following an investigation. Sure enough, a hearing for Dalton is scheduled in January 2022.

Nonetheless, since August 2020, Dalton has been on paid administrative leave from the police department—a fact that has frustrated some in the city aware of his alleged misconduct. To make matters worse in the eyes of critics, this past April, Stranko and an attorney representing Dalton engaged in talks about a possible $80,000 settlement for Dalton to go away, according to emails obtained by The Daily Beast.

The settlement talks were followed by the release on YouTube in September of a closed-door conversation in September 2020 between City Attorney Stranko, then-Chief Panico, Westover Police Lieutenant John Morgan and Westover City Councilman Steve Andryzcik. The conversation came shortly after the release of the letter signed by members of the department slamming Dalton.

He’s been on vacation for two years on taxpayer dollars and that’s enough.

Frank Huy

During the conversation, Panico is heard saying there are “two police departments,” one which he runs and “the one the mayor has” with Dalton. Stranko is then heard saying he was unaware of the situation but that the officers’ letter represents a “huge risk” to the city. “Why couldn’t we have solved these things by conversation and by working together?” he asks.

Andryzcik, meanwhile, claims on the audio recording that it was “horseshit” that the council did Mayor Johnson’s bidding and helped hide issues with Dalton. “If we’re not informed, we can’t do anything,” he said, conceding that Dalton was a “cancer.”

In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Andryzcik declined to comment on Dalton’s current status, but maintained that the city council has no say in police matters. He also pledged his support of Johnson and said he did not believe the mayor was personally managing the cop. Instead, he said, the mayor wanted more code enforcement to happen in regard to run-down cars and used Dalton to get that work done after it was clear Panico and the officer had a “major clash.”

“There was no parallel department running,” Andryzcik said. “It was a matter of this officer was doing what the mayor asked with our ordinances. Following up, which is the police department’s job.”

Frank Huy, a resident of the city who has been vocal about Dalton and what he alleges to be larger corruption in the city involving the mayor, said he believes the offer of settlement to Dalton following all the drama and his long period of paid leave was a slap in the face to residents.

“I don’t think the citizens deserve to pay Dalton one cent,” Huy told The Daily Beast. “He’s been on vacation for two years on taxpayer dollars and that’s enough. He’s gotten more than he should have gotten.”

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Stranko told The Daily Beast the $80,000 offer in April was the mayor “pitching trying to settle this” but that it didn’t represent a formal offer. Nonetheless, he said, conversations about settlements have gone south since then, and the city and Dalton are awaiting the January 2022 hearing. “I think Lt. Dalton is resolute in asserting his innocence and he wants his day in court, so that’s where we’re going,” he said.

Stranko added that the suggestion Dalton ever did the mayor’s bidding while on the force was “ludicrous.” He defended Johnson, arguing the mayor’s pushback to Panico’s frequent complaints about Dalton had nothing to do with his affection toward the cop. Stranko went on to say that in the past, the longtime mayor had seen through firing processes in which the city was forced to shell out thousands to problem officers after attempts to fire them did not follow proper procedures or have enough documented evidence.

Likewise, the city attorney argued, Mayor Johnson believed Panico’s case for firing Dalton at the time was not very strong, and that it could open the city up for litigation. “The mayor wasn’t protecting Dalton, the mayor was protecting the city,” he said.

Panico reacted incredulously to Stranko’s comments.

“What does it take to fire a cop?” he said. “How many times does a citizen have to have his civil rights violated before we have to take action?”

Justin Byrd, a 35-year old Black man, was among the first to complain about Dalton’s policing during the officer’s previous gig working for the Fairmont Police Department. According to a lawsuit filed by Byrd, in March 2011, Dalton and other officers arrived at the scene of a minor accident between Byrd and a white woman, and singled him out because of his race.

In an interview, Byrd told The Daily Beast the woman’s car struck his own from behind, and that he initially intended to deal with the matter without the cops. But Byrd said he called the police so a report could be written.

According to the lawsuit, however, instead of inquiring about the accident, Dalton interrogated Byrd and asked if he had guns or drugs in his car. Then, without Byrd’s permission, the suit alleged, Dalton and other officers searched Byrd’s car and later brought in a K9, which he claimed scratched up his car and damaged his computer. Nothing was found, according to the suit, and Byrd was not charged with any crimes.

Byrd’s suit’s central contention was that Dalton and other officers racially profiled him during the encounter. In response to the suit, Dalton argued through attorneys that he acted “reasonably and in good faith.” The case was settled in August 2013, according to court filings.

Byrd told The Daily Beast that although there were at least three officers present at the incident, he specifically remembered Dalton, who he said was “being as nasty as can be,” despite the fact that Byrd was hit in the car crash. “I was like ‘Hey, what about the accident? Aren’t you going to ask me if I’m alright? I was just hit from behind.”

Byrd said he also felt that Dalton’s actions, in light of his allegedly ignoring the white woman Byrd said hit him, made him feel like he was being treated in a “racist type of way.” Following the incident, he moved to Florida and hadn’t kept up with Dalton’s whereabouts. When he learned about subsequent incidents of alleged misconduct the officer was involved in after changing departments, however, Byrd said he wasn’t surprised.

“Doesn’t shock me one bit.”

According to a copy of Dalton’s application to the Westover Police Department reviewed by The Daily Beast, the officer was “asked to resign” from the Fairmont Police Department in 2013 due to “personal differences” with the police chief at the time, Kelley Moran.

Moran did not respond to a request for comment. The City of Fairmont also did not respond to a request for comment. The Fairmont Police Department declined to comment.

Panico was interim chief of police in Westover in 2013 when Dalton was hired. He said that although Dalton told him he was under investigation by the FBI for an undisclosed reason, the officer was still certified, and the chief could never get any information from his previous department about the nature of any alleged misconduct. So the then-chief took a chance on hiring him.

“The FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” a spokeswoman for the agency told The Daily Beast.

According to an April 2021 memo from Stranko, the Westover City Attorney, that outlined Dalton’s disciplinary file in Westover, the officer had just one citizen complaint for being “rude and aggressive” to residents in 2017. But attention on him in the city magnified when he was involved with two high-profile incidents that led to federal lawsuits and huge black eyes for the small city.

The first centered on an encounter on New Year’s Day 2019 with Andre Howton, a 56-year-old Black man. According to a federal suit filed by Howton, he called the police to help him with a woman in his home who he claimed was attempting to use drugs. Officers Zachary Fecsko and Dalton arrived at his home in the early morning hours.

Body-camera footage of the incident shows Howton complaining about the woman, telling the officers, “I just want her out of my house.” As the officers escort the woman out, Howton repeatedly calls her a “crackhead” from his front door. At one point, Fecsko confronts Howton and says, “If you’re in your own house, you can do that stuff. If you’re going to come out here and yell, you’re going to see a different person—you understand me?”

‘The Mayor’s Nightstick’: Loner Cop Tears His Department Apart 2

Andre Howton

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia

As Fecsko turns to leave, Howton calls the woman a crackhead once more, prompting Fecsko to yell, “Get your ass out here boy” and pull Howton from the doorway and throw him to the ground. The video shows Fecsko punching Howton repeatedly while Dalton throws another man at the scene to the ground and yells, “Spray that motherfucker. Spray him.” As Howton is cuffed, Dalton yells, “You asked for that, Andre. You earned it.”

As he’s on the ground in cuffs, Howton yells, “I didn’t touch you!” and says he is glad for Dalton’s camera, which was turned on during the exchange. Howton was charged with Disturbing the Peace, Disorderly Conduct, Obstruction, and Battery on an Officer—charges which were all later dropped, according to his suit.

Howton did not respond to a request for comment. Fecsko also did not respond to a request for comment.

In a motion to dismiss the case filed by attorneys representing Dalton and Fecsko, the pair argued that Howton had become “hostile” during the interaction and “battered” Fecsko. Although Howton claimed his use of the word “crackhead” was free speech, the officers claimed they were “fighting words.”

In recent months, the ongoing case has included allegations that Mayor Johnson allegedly explored “bribing” Howton with cash in a paper bag, according to a February filing by Howton’s attorneys for a subpoena of Brian Walden. Walden, a local landowner who was once Howton’s landlord, allegedly called Howton’s attorneys in January offering to provide them with a recording of Johnson offering a $50,000 bribe to Howton during a meeting between Walden and Johnson, according to a motion filed in court.

According to the report, [ex-Chief] Panico told investigators that when he first assigned a lieutenant to conduct an internal investigation into Cox’s missing phone, [Mayor] Johnson asked him, “Why can’t you just make this go away?”

The idea was apparently that Howton’s ex-landlord would serve as a sort of middleman. However, according to a motion filed in court, Walden has thus far failed to produce the recordings, as he allegedly “fears retaliation” from Johnson.

Walden did not respond to a request for comment. Walden’s attorney, George Armistead, told The Daily Beast his client was under a court order not to speak about the issue and declined to comment further.

Attorneys representing Dalton and Feckso argued that the alleged statement involved “exploring settlement” with Howton and said the attempt to produce the alleged recording was only an effort to “further bias” the officers and “sensationalize” the case.

But Dalton made waves in the city again just months after Howton’s arrest with the August 2019 arrest of William Cox, a 52-year-old white man.

According to a lawsuit filed by Cox, Dalton and Westover Police Department Officer Justice Carver confronted him after driving past his vehicle in their patrol car one morning, and noticing him videotaping the officers with his phone. The suit claims the officers pulled up to Cox and asked why he was recording. After Cox allegedly asserted his right to continue, the officers got out of their car and “violently attacked” Cox, according to the suit, “subjecting him to a merciless onslaught of punches, kicks, and pepper spray when he was defenseless, and posing no threats.”

Cox was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing an officer, and battery, but all his charges were later dropped. Neither Cox nor Carver responded to requests for comment.

‘The Mayor’s Nightstick’: Loner Cop Tears His Department Apart 3

Westover Mayor Dave Johnson

westoverwv.org

In a police report obtained by The Daily Beast, Carter said he stopped to speak to Cox because he believed he needed “assistance.” He said as soon as the officers appeared, Cox shouted at Dalton to “turn his body camera on!” Carver said Cox later cursed at the officers repeatedly and allegedly disobeyed a disorderly conduct warning. Carver claimed that when he stepped out of the car and asked Cox to put his hands behind his back, Cox punched him in the face and he hit back to “defend himself.”

Carver said Dalton then “tackled” Cox to the ground.

In his own police report, Dalton said he’d arrested Cox on a previous occasion, and since then, Cox would scream “fuck you” to him and do other “provoking” things. He said that in addition to tackling Cox, he hit him three times in the upper leg because Carver was in danger at one point during a scuffle on the ground.

These reports, however, came into question after a nearby surveillance video was released and did not appear to show Cox throwing any initial blows, as Carver claimed. The incident became further colored by the fact that Cox’s phone, which recorded the interaction, went missing shortly after he was arrested.

According to filings from the City of Westover in Cox’s suit, his cellphone was taken into evidence in August 2019, but the city was unable to locate it again until this past August.

The disappearance of the phone, along with the letter from officers in August 2020, led to Dalton being placed on administrative leave in August 2020 and, in September 2020, to an investigation by the West Virginia State Police as ordered by Monongalia County Prosecutor Perri Jo DeChristopher.

The report interviewed numerous members of the Westover Police Department and included officers speaking to Dalton’s history of alleged misconduct in the department, as well as his ties to the mayor.

According to the report, Panico told investigators that when he first assigned a lieutenant to conduct an internal investigation into Cox’s missing phone, Johnson asked him, “Why can’t you just make this go away?” Panico also claimed to investigators that Johnson had previously told him Dalton “works for the mayor,” and even asked him to “bury” an investigation into Dalton that involved him allegedly having sex with a woman on duty, according to the report.

Carver, meanwhile, testified to investigators that he did not have his body camera on during the encounter with Cox in 2019 because he knew “how Dalton would react,” speaking to the officer’s alleged history of telling others not to turn on their body camera in his presence.

Carver told investigators that after the arrest of Cox, he wanted to get a search warrant to download the contents of the phone, but that Dalton took the phone and threw it into the grass outside of the police department and said he would “take care of it.” According to the report, Carver last saw Dalton place the phone in a filing cabinet. He said Dalton had told him he was “fucking stupid” for wanting information from the phone.

Fecsko, meanwhile, told investigators that he was responsible for the storage of videos in the department and said that, after he’d received the surveillance footage of the Cox incident, he placed it in Dalton’s file, but noticed it was deleted every week for six months. He also testified that while most officers had large numbers of body-camera videos in their files, Dalton only had three. Like other officers, Fecsko testified that he was aware that Dalton had become “close” with Mayor Johnson during the past year.

Both Carver and Fecsko were among the other department officers who signed the August 2020 letter publicly calling out Dalton.

During his own interview with investigators from the State Police, Dalton said that after Cox was taken to the station during the 2019 arrest, Dalton spoke to the mayor, though he did not divulge the details of the conversation. Dalton did tell investigators that when Carver showed him the phone which was “stomped on” and had pepper spray on it, he told Carver he “might as well throw it in the garbage.” However, he denied taking the phone or hiding it.

In a Jan. 2021 interview with investigators, Mayor Johnson denied having any involvement with the police department, but said he was aware of an “ongoing dispute” between Panico and Dalton and that Panico “all of a sudden” wanted to fire the officer. Johnson admitted to investigators that Dalton had become “one of his favorite guys” in the police department because he was “like a bulldog” when it came to enforcing laws, particularly those relating to abandoned cars in the city that were a particular nuisance for him. However, he denied putting a stop to any investigations into Dalton.

In March, the county’s prosecutor, DeChristopher, concluded that although the investigation into Dalton showed probable cause to charge him with destruction of property, the statute of limitations on that charge—and any other crimes related to Cox’s arrest—had run out.

DeChristopher did not respond to a request for comment.

Joe Adams, the current police chief in Westover who took over the job in November 2020, amid the fallout from the officer’s letter, told The Daily Beast that, in May, he opened a new internal investigation into Dalton.

Among the complaints lodged against Dalton, according to a review of a memo outlining his discipline history, are allegations that he challenged Carver to a fight and threatened to have him fired by the mayor. This, in addition to the complaints laid out in the letter from department members to the mayor in August 2020.

Adams said the investigation was completed in October, but did not comment further on the findings. “It’s a pending personnel matter,” he told The Daily Beast.

Also in October, Johnson revealed that he would not run for another term as mayor in the upcoming election, leaving a seat he’s held in the city since 2008, according to a report from WBOY. He made the announcement during a city council meeting, and said that while his 14 years in office have been “productive,” he admitted that as of late, it “has gotten harder and harder to deal with the recent negativity which is counterproductive to our success.”

But Huy, the Westover resident who said he’s been a thorn in the side of city council members and Mayor Johnson, wouldn’t call the announcement a victory for reformers.

“Do I think things have changed? No,” Huy said.

He explained that just because Johnson says he’s stepping down, he won’t believe it until January 2022, when candidates have to declare their intentions to run again. “He’s still running for mayor in my mind. Just because he put out some letter saying I’m not going to run… he can change his mind.”

As the nearly three-year saga in the city barrels toward January, when decisions about Dalton and Johnson’s fates will seemingly be made, Adams, the current chief of police, said he was trying to keep his head down and desperately work to change the perception of his battered department.

Adams, who previously served as a State Police officer, said he’s already revamped use-of-force policies and instituted systems to have body cameras automatically turn on. He’s also in the process of trying to get grant funding for dash cameras. “Basically holding guys accountable,” he said.

“We’re working on things,” he said. “There’s a lot to untangle.”