(02/02/2002)
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 Police.

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 violations.

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 frequently use.

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 the time.

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.


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