By David Hedges, Publisher
The Times Record -
Roane County Reporter

The family of a 65-year-old Reedy man fatally shot by police has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming officers used excessive force on the mentally ill man.

Two state troopers and a Roane sheriff's deputy fired a total of 29 times at Bernard Dale Cottrell, who died from eight gunshot wounds, according to the claim filed last week in Charleston.

Cottrell, the suit alleges, never fired a shot and was seated inside his vehicle when he was killed.

Named as defendants were state troopers Nathan Stepp and Zach Hartley and Roane Sheriffs deputy Brian Hickman.

Other defendants are the W.Va. State Police, the Roane Sheriffs Department and Sgt. Okey Starsick, who was the State Police district commander at the time.

The suit was filed last Thursday, the 2-year anniversary of the incident, by Charleston attorney Russell A. Williams, local counsel for a Chicago law firm, Romanucci & Blandin, which specializes in police misconduct cases.

This is the second suit Williams has filed against Stepp this year.

The suit claims Stepp and Hartley have been involved in numerous incidents of excessive force, assault, physical violence and other unlawful acts and abusive practices as troopers.

(A lawsuit over excessive force was filed against Nathan Steep in July, over a a Calhoun incident caught on camera.


The suit claims Stepp is currently on military leave from the State Police, which the suit claims is "what the West Virginia State Police does to shield and/or hide Troopers who are being investigated, sued and/or prosecuted for committing unlawful acts (as part of their employment)."

The suit says, as Stepp's supervisor, Starsick should have known about numerous other incidents of excessive force and violence perpetrated by Stepp and that Starsick "turned a blind eye to the unlawful conduct of Trooper Stepp, thereby allowing him to continue to repeatedly use excessive force and violence toward other individuals, including Bernard Dale Cottrell."

Stepp was named in a separate suit Williams filed in federal court in July on behalf of a Calhoun County man who says he was beaten to the point he had to be airlifted from the scene after he was pulled over because Stepp believed the light on his license plate was not working.

A State Police spokesman said after that suit was filed that Stepp had not acted improperly in that case. Major C.J. White, director of professional standards for the State Police, said that dashboard camera video in that case exonerated the trooper.

White did not return a reporter's call seeking comment on the latest suit.

This suit says police were looking for Cottrell on the afternoon of Sept. 6, 2016, after he left his son's home in Wood County.

The suit says Cottrell's family was pursuing a mental hygiene complaint against him and that he had brandished a shotgun, which, according to reports at the time, occurred at his son's residence near Mineral Wells.

The suit says Cottrell never fired the shotgun.

Around 3:20 p.m. Hickman and Hartley, in a sheriff's cruiser, and Stepp, in a state police cruiser, were pursuing Cottrell on W.Va. 14 at speeds up to 80 mph, the suit says.

Cottrell was headed toward Spencer when he attempted to turn around near the intersection with Randolph Road, at Billings.

Stepp allegedly passed the cruiser driven by Hickman and bumped the front end of his cruiser into the front of Cottrell's vehicle to block him in.

Stepp's dash camera stopped recording video once his cruiser collided with Cottrell's vehicle, although audio recording continued.

Once he made contact with Cottrell's vehicle, Stepp immediately began firing his weapon as he exited his vehicle, the suit says, without giving Cottrell any warnings or verbal commands.

The suit says Stepp did not determine if Cottrell was armed before opening fire.

It also claims Stepp was in such a hurry to discharge his weapon, he fired it prematurely, hitting his own vehicle in the process.

According to statements from an eyewitness and from Deputy Hickman, after Stepp finished firing several rounds at Cottrell, Stepp yelled out "gun," indicating Cottrell had a weapon.

After Stepp exited his vehicle and began firing, Hartley and Hickman exited Hickman's vehicle and began doing the same.

According to a State Police report, 29 shots were fired at Cottrell, including 17 by Stepp, seven by Hickman and five by Hartley.

Cottrell never fired his weapon during the incident and forensic testing found no traces of gunshot residue on his hands or fingers, the suit says.

According to the autopsy report, Cottrell died from eight gunshot wounds, with five bullets found in his body.

While Stepp said he saw Cottrell holding a pump action shotgun in the front seat of his vehicle, the suit says Stepp gave conflicting statements.

Stepp first said that as he approached Cottrell's vehicle head-on, he saw Cottrell holding what he assumed was a shotgun in his right hand while pointing the gun left. In that statement Stepp allegedly said he assumed Cottrell was going to pull the gun out the driver's side window as he drove by.

Stepp later contradicted himself, the suit claims, and said as he was exiting his vehicle he saw Cottrell holding a shotgun with his left hand while trying to point it out the front windshield.

Based on dash camera video footage, Cottrell's front driver side window was rolled up before Stepp made contact with his vehicle and began firing his weapon.

The suit says Hickman said in his statement that Cottrell's car was found in drive and with the tires spinning after the shooting.

After the shooting, when Cottrell was in his vehicle dead, Stepp allegedly used his baton to break out the passenger side window and removed the shotgun before any photographs or video could be taken documenting where the weapon was inside the vehicle, the suit says.

The shooting was investigated by the Jackson County prosecuting attorney's office, and no charges were filed against any of the officers involved.

A reporter's call placed to the Jackson County prosecutor's office was not returned.

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