Judge Finds Probable Cause In Alderson Mayor Criminal Case - The West Virginian
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Judge Finds Probable Cause In Alderson Mayor Criminal Case

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Alderson Mayor Travis Copenhaver’s criminal case will continue forward to a Greenbrier County Grand Jury after probable cause was found on Wednesday, Oct. 20.

Under Magistrate Judge Tim Stover, Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Via and Defense Attorney John Bryan argued for and against the case, asking if it should be considered by a grand jury, the primary method for charging an individual with felonies.

After the just under two-hour hearing, Stover agreed.

“My job today is to determine if there is probable cause,” said Stover. “… Mr. Copenhaver doesn’t own this house, so [it’s not a landlord/tenant situation]. Obviously, there’s no doubt weapons were taken, the gun and the bow. … The thing that really bothers me is the 12-year-old boy there. I took my kid fishing and shooting basketball or things like that], not out on a rampage. I find probable cause to send this case [to the Circuit Court].”

The smaller courtroom was at max capacity, with Alderson residents and reporters waiting outside before starting. Copenhaver, upon arriving at the Magistrate’s office, found the door locked and waited with the attendees. He was let in first to consult with his attorney. Stover, first considering COVID-19 precautions and space in the courtroom, then agreed to let in as many attendees as possible.

“Once we get in the courtroom, I expect everyone to be quiet and respectful to the witnesses and the proceedings,” Stover told the crowd. “If I feel like you’re out of line, I’ll ask you to leave the courtroom. You need masks too. If you don’t have one, we’ve got some.”

Six current or former Alderson residents attempted to attend the hearing, waiting outside before proceedings began. A handful, in addition to the press, were let inside the courtroom.

Copenhaver was charged with felony burglary, conspiracy, child neglect and misdemeanor assault. According to the criminal complaint, an Alderson resident called the police, stating their “landlord’s son wrecked the house he was renting” and “scared his girlfriend while she was at the residence alone the previous night.” The next day, June 18, an officer with the West Virginia State Police met with a man and a woman at an Alderson residence.

The hearing saw testimony from three individuals—West Virginia State Police Trooper First Class E.G. Beard and two victims, Charlie Baldwin and Janah Carson.

Baldwin testified he had lived in the rental for just over eight years, while Carson lived in Ronceverte. Prior to the incident, Baldwin was staying with Carson, recovering from a car injury. He returned to the home two days before the incident and discovered his power was off due to a missed bill. On June 17, he left the residence to play disc golf in an Alderson park for “three or four” hours before receiving a phone call from Carson.

Once on the phone, Baldwin found himself speaking to Lloyd ‘Billy’ Lightner Jr., who asked him where he was. Upon returning back to the home, Baldwin states he was confronted by Lightner, Copenhaver, and Copenhaver’s son.

Copenhaver allegedly told him he had “no right to be there” and that he “needed to get off the property.” Baldwin also testified he asked Lightner and Copenhaver to leave “several times” before calling 911.

“Charlie Baldwin describes how Travis Copenhaver [approached] him from the opposite of Lloyd ‘Billy’ Lightner and makes him ‘uncomfortable’ to the point he takes a few steps back,” reads the criminal complaint. “Baldwin stated that he then called 911 [at 22:31 hours].”

After the second 911 call was placed, the men left the residence. After the departure, Baldwin and Carson discovered the residence’s door was left slightly open and two weapons were missing—a Remington .270 rifle and Black Bear Compound bow.

Baldwin testified he stayed with Carson after the incident, saying “I was afraid to go inside” the residence after the break-in. “It was an uncomfortable feeling.”

Bryan examined an eviction case between Betty Lightner, Billy’s mother and the homeowner, and Baldwin. According to the testimony, Carson was served a subpoena in the case on June 17, hours before the incident. However, it was Carson who was initially served the subpoena by a private investigator. Carson agreed to bring the papers to Baldwin—the reason she came to the home in the first place.

Baldwin testified that Betty Lightner mentioned she might sell the property, but he had not spoken with either about an eviction case—his primary contact over the past eight years was the now-deceased Billy Lightner Sr., with whom he had “a very good relationship.” Baldwin initially had a lease for the first year, but continued renting from Lightner Sr. on a “hand shake” deal over the next seven years. The eviction case has since been closed and the residence no longer belongs to Betty Lightner, according to Beard’s testimony.

Baldwin called the West Virginia State Police on June 18, the next day. Trooper Beard arrived at the residence to meet with Baldwin and Carson on June 18 for a walkthrough tour. After this, he interviewed Billy Lightner and his mother at her residence.

Weeks later, Copenhaver was interviewed in Alderson Town Hall. Beard testified Copenhaver confirmed he entered the residence, told him he was “fearful of Billy at the time,” and was worried he would have to “fight” him because “he was so drunk at the time.” Copenhaver stated he had one beer and was not intoxicated during the incident, agreeing to be Lightner’s “designated driver” and to watch him so he didn’t “do anything stupid.”

Beard also testified that Baldwin’s bed had been urinated on, but was uncertain who did this.

“[I know because] the smell was kind of undeniable, but I asked the [interviewees] questions, and I got different responses, enough to acknowledge it happened,” Beard explained. “It’s back and forth as to who did it. … When I visited the Lightners’ [home, I asked]. Billy shook his head and said [Copenhaver’s child] ‘did it, you know how he pees on everything.’ Ms. Lightner looked at him and said ‘he told me you did that.’ … I don’t think [Copenhaver] saw who did it.”

Bryan also asked if Beard, a mandatory reporter in child abuse cases, had reported the incident to Child Protective Services or the Department of Health and Human Resources. Beard stated he didn’t, leaving the child in the custody of his mother. Bryan noted this means he was also left in Copenhaver’s custody.

Bryan also inquired into Baldwin’s car accident that led to his injury before the incident. There was only one vehicle involved, his work truck. A warrant was issued for Baldwin for a DUI charge relating to the accident. Baldwin testified that he was not intoxicated during the wreck. Via confirmed that the case was “pending in the court as we speak.”

Copenhaver (right) waits for the Magistrate building to open.

Bryan also asked if, due to the lights being off and the possibility of the property being abandoned, that Lightner and Copenhaver removed the weapons to prevent it from being stolen. Baldwin noted the rifle was not the only gun on the property and they were shut behind a “door locked without a handle,” which was forced open.

The rifle and bow were returned to Baldwin the following day by Betty Lightner before the interview with Trooper Beard. According to Beard, Betty Lightner told him “they were idiots.” Baldwin testified that as she returned the stolen items, “she just kept apologizing over [Lightner], blaming it on alcohol.”

Carson also testified that during the initial confrontation, Copenhaver said “so you must be Janah” to her, and did not answer when asked to identify himself.

At the end of this line of questioning, Bryan asked if Baldwin agreed to testify against Copenhaver in exchange for better treatment in the DUI case. Baldwin dismissed this argument. In addition, Baldwin was arraigned in the DUI case on July 22, by Beard, more than a month following the incident and initial reports.

According to the testimony of Beard and Baldwin, neither Lightner nor Copenhaver had permission to enter the residence, and Betty Lightner had not notified him of an incoming inspection.

Beard also noted that he was unaware of Copenhaver being the mayor of Alderson when he was dispatched. He stated Baldwin might have mentioned it during the interview, but he became aware of the fact during a conversation with his sergeant.

In closing statements, Via argued that the case should come before a Greenbrier County Grand Jury, the process by which felonies are charged.

“What this boils down to is that Mr. Copenhaver told the officer that he went into the home, [he went with Mr. Lightner,] that they … had planned to go to this residence,” Via argued. “His son, age 12, went with them. [They had no authority whatsoever to be in the home.] There’s been a lot of talk about eviction proceedings. … There [were] no orders entered. He was the lawful tenant there. … They weren’t there doing an inspection of the premises. … Most inspections do not involve … urinating on a bed, leaving beer cans laying around, [and someone intoxicated]. The idea that this is an inspection … is absurd. Two items were stolen, Mr. Copenhaver’s son carried them out, … at the request of Mr. Lightner right in front of Mr. Copenhaver. … This is obviously an unlawful entry into someone else’s residence [with the intent to commit a violation of the law,] everything else is just background noise.”

Bryan disagreed.

“I would argue [this is exactly what this is], what this should have been, and what it still should be—a civil matter between the Lightners and Charlie Baldwin. All of this could have been handled through the eviction case. …. That didn’t even involve Mr. Copenhaver. I think there’s a chance this is being blown way out of proportion because Mr. Copenhaver is the mayor in Alderson.”

Stover sided with the prosecution, agreeing to send the case to a grand jury in the circuit court.

Alderson Mayor Travis Copenhaver approaches the Magistrate Court office before his hearing.

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