|By Bob Weaver|
A confusing case of criminal crackdown or State Police harassment is reaching a boiling
point in Braxton County, with allegations directed toward detachment commander Sgt.
John Bonazzo and other officers. A Braxton County trooper has been fired and Bonazzo has
been under investigation by his agency.
Bonazzo issued a list of eleven citizens to other
agencies, stating they should "not be given a break if stopped." Braxton County Prosecutor
Bryan Lanham says he does not have a problem with the list, and does not consider it
illegal. "I don't know of any laws broken by the State Police," he said.
Lanham said "I support my law enforcement officers as much as possible." He said
consideration should be given about those complaining and "look at the veracity and
truthfulness...the credibility of those making the complaints in some of these cases."
"Since Sgt. Bonazzo has returned to the county our drug arrests have gone up
dramatically," said Lanham.
Tension worsened when an anonymous subject created a "down and dirty" web page listing
sexual dalliances by local police, listing names.
Civil suits are being processed by several individuals on the "target list" with multiple
complaints and professional misconduct charges reportedly filed against the State
M. A. Staley, a Braxton trooper involved in the fray, has been dismissed from the State
Police, reportedly linked to charges of sexual impropriety and other misconduct
State Police officials declined to release information regarding Braxton County problems
and reasons for Staley's dismissal. A Freedom of Information request was filed by The Hur
Herald, with the FOIA denials linked to some "exclusionary statues," which State Police
Bonazzo, who belongs to the 500-member Gassaway Baptist Church, publicly states he is
concerned about young people and drug dealing in the community. Pastor Mark Stump
denied a story the church was circulating a petition on behalf of the officer, but church
members say the have been involved in supporting the officer. One member described Sgt.
Bonazzo as "being under attack."
"Sgt. Bonazzo is a Christian man who is trying to do the right thing. He has a wonderful wife
and family," said a church member, who asked not to be identified. "Time will prove he is on
the right side with this."
Bonazzo was involved in a Calhoun County case where he and Trooper Doug Starcher
indicted and prosecuted Chloe resident Kelley Mace for possession with intent to deliver an
illegal substance. The case continued for nearly a year, after which the drug evidence was
reported to be common garden sulfur.
State Police claimed Mace was involved in a million dollar drug deal. Court records
indicate little or no evidence, except testimony from an informant who was incarcerated at
Mace, who is bringing suit against Bonazzo, Starcher and
the State Police, said "I will never understand why they did this. They ruined my business
and they have nearly ruined me." Mace claims police got on the witness stand and "lied
again and again." Mace asked Calhoun Prosecutor Tony Morgan to investigate the case.
Morgan says his review of the case does not show criminal intent, although the matter is
still under consideration.
A principal target to rid Braxton County of problems is Renee VanHorn, former owner of
Rumors, a popular night spot frequented by area youth. Rumors is now closed, which
VanHorn blames on police harassment. She was on Bonazzo's list which was issued to
other police agencies.
Renee VanHorn claims she is targeted by State Police
VanHorn said "I have been videotaped by Braxton Prosecutor Brian Lanham, my phone has
been tapped, I have been run out of business, harassed by the State Police and a woman
spit in my face on the street the other day." Her house also burned to the ground and her
eight-year-old daughter was removed from her custody for a week with "no evidence." She
is represented by Cowan attorney Howard Blyer.
Regarding VanHorn's accusations that Prosecutor Lanham videotaped her activities,
Lanham said "That's outrageous. It didn't happen at all."
Individuals on the "target list" claim police officers have harassed them, making multiple
traffic stops. Roy McCumbers of Gassaway said his son was arrested for throwing a water
balloon, fined $50 and costs. "That's the first time I ever heard of that," he said.
McCumbers or his son was on Bonazzo's list.
VanHorn and several others on the list contend the situation has boiled over because of
sexual improprieties by Braxton State Police and other local law officers.
VanHorn has now been arrested four times since she was first charged in August, 2001 for
contributing to the delinquency of a 17-year-old male. The warrant states she was turning
the boy against his parents and causing problems within his family. The case implies she
was having an affair with the youth.
After making further contact with the minor and other incidents, including a traffic stop for
a "flickering taillight," she has been re-arrested with her bond raised to $50,000. She was
also charged with attempting to flee the state, which she denies. VanHorn is currently out
of jail, living with her mother. The youth's family now have their property for sale and are
leaving the community.
VanHorn said she called the State Police when her phones lines were cut, which she says
was related to her problems with the 17-year-old youth's family. When Trooper M. A. Staley
arrived, he told VanHorn "You have no f - - - - - - rights." She said he poked her in the chest,
leaving bruises for a week. The incident was confirmed by VanHorn's mother and about a
dozen other people.
VanHorn produced a tape recording with whom she alleges is Sgt. Bonazzo calling her "A
drug dealing prostitute and trash." She said "I have never sold drugs or participated in any
illegal sex acts."
Sheriff Howard Carpenter told The Hur Herald he threw documents away sent to him by
Sgt. Bonazzo, indicating he did not keep Bonazzo's memo or copies of the material
published on the internet site.
Sgt. Bonazzo has reportedly brought charges against some officials in Braxton County
connected to the fray, but those issues are yet to be made public.
VanHorn said none of Braxton's newspapers have printed a word regarding the problem. "I
think they live in fear of the police, like I do," she said.