|(Mountain State Stoplight - Douglas Soule)
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On the last day of his life, Timmy Rhodes drove his blue Dodge pickup truck to his childhood home in Roane County.
His fiancÃ©e, Tammy Nichols, sat beside him. They were going, she later said, to pick up mail and other items. But around 4:45 p.m., a neighbor dialed 911 with a complaint.
Rhodes was spinning gravel beneath his tires and some of it hit her house, she said.
âMy neighbor is out here spinning up my damn road, and I want something done about it,â she told a 911 dispatcher.
Roane County Sheriffâs Deputy Mike King arrived at the scene. Within minutes, the 28-year-old Rhodes was dead â shot in the head by the deputy.
The sheriffâs department says the shooting was warranted: that Rhodes did not comply with Kingâs orders and moved toward a weapon. A West Virginia State Police investigation found the shooting was justified, and a Roane County grand jury declined to indict King for killing Rhodes.
But Rhodesâ family disagrees with their conclusions and has sued King and others over the shooting.
âIf there ainât justice done today and for Timmy, itâs just going to happen again,â said Lorene Hackney, Rhodesâ grandmother, during a protest days after the shooting.
And less than two years after Hackney uttered those words, King shot and killed another man: 63-year-old Michael Nichols.
Lawyers for the Rhodes and Nichols families â from the law firms Calwell Luce diTrapano and Goodwin & Goodwin â allege in court filings King had a history of misconduct. They said in a press release he wasnât wearing a body camera during either shooting, and cited the lack of body camera evidence in the lawsuit over Nicholsâ death.
In documents filed in response to the lawsuits, King denied any wrongdoing in both shootings. In response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act in mid-April, the West Virginia State Police said the official investigation into the second incident wasnât complete; this week, they declined an opportunity to provide a status update. Attempts to reach the deputy through the county and his personal attorneys were unsuccessful.
On Feb. 22, 2019, Deputy King parked his unmarked silver Dodge pickup truck beside a garage of one of Timmy Rhodesâ neighbors in Walton, according to the deputyâs statement, which was included in the State Police investigative report about the shooting.
The two men knew each other. King had had several previous non-violent run-ins with Rhodes, none of which resulted in arrest.
But there are two distinct narratives of what happened that evening, culled from Kingâs official statement, 911 calls, reports from the scene of the shooting and the resulting lawsuits.
King approached Rhodesâ truck wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a bulletproof vest, and he was armed with a shotgun, according to the lawsuits filed by Tammy Nichols in Roane County Circuit Court and by Rhodesâ brother, Travis, in federal court.
In his statement, King said he wasnât wearing a bulletproof vest at first, and approached Timmy Rhodesâ vehicle armed only with a holstered handgun, confident there would be no problems.
King said he called out to Rhodes, who returned to his truck.
At that point, King said he became wary: in his statement, he said he had heard of a domestic call from a couple of months before, where Rhodes allegedly was using methamphetamine and sitting on a handgun while talking to officers.
According to his familyâs lawsuits, Rhodes was also wary, because of Kingâs alleged reputation for unnecessary force.
The deputy said he couldnât see what Rhodes was doing inside the truck, so he put on a bulletproof vest. He said a neighbor told him to be careful, saying Rhodes had been doing a lot of shooting on the property the previous weekend. King asked the neighbor to call the dispatch center with an update on the situation; he complied.
At that point, King said, he strapped on a shotgun because of the distance between him and Rhodes. Still on the neighborâs property, King said he yelled, âTimmy, exit your vehicle and show me your hands.â
Tammy Nichols got out and lay on the ground. Rhodes eventually did the same. King said as Rhodes got out of the truck, he shouted âIâm not going to fucking jail!â at the deputy.
Nicholsâ view of her fiancÃ© was limited to what she could see under the truck, but according to the lawsuits, Rhodes was âscared and confusedâ and asked why he was being ordered around since he was âpeacefully on his familyâs property.â
King continued to advance on him, âaggressively screamingâ that Rhodes should get on the ground, the suits say.
The deputy, who was âphysically much bigger and stronger than Timmy,â then allegedly threatened him and said it would not bother him to âblow Timmyâs âfucking brains out,ââ according to the federal suit.
The only people who saw what happened next were King and Rhodes. King claimed Rhodes lay on the ground, but then didnât stay down. He said Rhodes jumped back to his feet and reached into a front pocket, yelling âShoot me, fucking shoot me!â The man pulled out a cell phone, King said, and the deputy advanced toward him.
Rhodes ignored his orders to get on the ground, King said, so he knocked him down. As Rhodes fell, so did the deputy. Then, King said, a scuffle ensued, calling it a âstruggle for the control of [his] shotgun.â
He fired the gun point blank at Rhodesâ head.
At 5:01 p.m., John Larch, the neighbor who had just called the dispatch center for help after talking with King, dialed 911 a second time. He reported hearing a single gunshot from the deputyâs direction. Larch later told law enforcement that he could hear, but not see, what happened between Rhodes and King.
Around the same time, King called the dispatch center.
âHey, I just shot him,â he said, breathing heavily. âI need some backup. I need an ambulance out here.â
Rhodes was pronounced dead by emergency medical services at 5:41 p.m. The cause of death: a shotgun wound to his right cheek that penetrated his skull and brain.
A toxicologist found methamphetamine, amphetamine and marijuana in his system, according to documents in the State Police investigative report.
Tammy Nichols told law enforcement in a statement shortly after the shooting that Rhodes had been awake for the previous several days â âjust acting like he was out of his mind.â
He had been whispering to himself, acting paranoid and as if he knew something bad was going to happen, she said.
But lawyers representing his family say in court filings that Timmy Rhodes did not present any physical threat to King and did not attempt to take his shotgun.
âDefendant King fired his shotgun at close range, shooting Timmy in his face. Timmy was unarmed, was not lawfully under arrest, and was in a completely defenseless position,â they wrote.
After conducting the investigation, State Police said King did nothing wrong. State Police First Sgt. Jason Saurino â who works in a district that includes Roane County â said the shooting was a âreasonable and necessary response to prevent [King] from receiving a deadly injury.â A Roane County grand jury decided not to bring any charges against King, based on Saurinoâs testimony and investigation.
Less than a week after King shot and killed Rhodes, protesters gathered in front of the Roane County Courthouse, which houses the sheriffâs office. Holding homemade signs, they chanted âJustice for Timmyâ and âSave our town, bring King down.â
Rhodesâ death was the catalyst, but the protesters said it was only the latest incident in which King was accused of using excessive force. If action wasnât taken, they said, something similar would happen again.
At the time, several lawsuits alleged King had displayed a âpattern of negligence, misconduct, and use of excessive force,â documented by numerous complaints to the Roane County Commission and the former sheriff. The lawsuits over Rhodesâ shooting include several allegations of intimidation and one of physical assault documented by official complaints â all of which the deputy denied in court responses.
The Roane County Sheriffâs Department denied a request made under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of all complaints filed against King.
But in an email explaining the denial, an attorney representing the sheriffâs department, John R. Teare Jr., said there was only one official written complaint. The document, dated December 2017, was in regard to the alleged physical assault: a man who said King severely beat him. Teare said the complaint was determined to be unfounded.
Teare also pointed to an unwritten complaint from March 2014 that he said turned out to be false, and he said a letter sent to the county commission in April 2013 resulted in an internal investigation that revealed no misconduct from King.
Neither former Roane County Sheriff L. Todd Cole, current Roane County Sheriff R. Brian Hickman nor lawyers representing the county responded to interview requests for this story, though Hickman responded to some requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2019, in addition to the federal lawsuit over Rhodesâ death, King was sued twice over separate incidents from the previous year.
Clay County resident Brad Proctor alleged that King and State Police officers forced their way into Proctorâs residence shortly after Proctor was involved in a vehicle chase that caused King to wreck his cruiser. Proctor says he didnât resist, but King and the others stomped on him and punched him as he lay prone on the floor, and later left him laying cuffed and shirtless in the snow for more than an hour. Lawyers for those sued deny those allegations.
Proctor also alleged the Roane County Commission had not addressed Kingâs conduct appropriately despite ânumerous other incidents of his excessive force.â His lawsuit is set to go to trial in September; none of the commissioners returned requests for comment for this story.
In a deposition in the Proctor lawsuit, King said former Sheriff Cole had never reprimanded him over complaints from people he interacted with.
Also in 2019, David Idleman, a former school bus driver, alleged he was assaulted by King and State Police, who approached him while sitting in his car to tell him he had a headlight out. He says he ended up in handcuffs and was assaulted without cause, knocked unconscious and given a concussion as well as other injuries, according to The Times Record, a Roane County newspaper. He also says he was left with PTSD, and he gave up his job and moved out of West Virginia to avoid retaliation from police. He settled the suit for $60,000 this spring.
King and the two state troopers named in the suit denied Idlemanâs allegations.
And then, in 2021, another lawsuit: this one filed by Melissa Fields, after her father, Michael Nichols, was killed by King in October 2020.
âI donât want [King] to hurt no more families,â she said earlier this year. âNo one else needs to go through this. No one. And Iâm scared that itâs going to happen again if we donât put a stop to it.â
The shooting of Michael Nichols
Twenty months to the day after King shot Timmy Rhodes in Walton, the deputy got a phone call asking for help.
On the evening of Oct. 22, 2020, a Gandeeville resident called Kingâs cellphone while he was off duty. King then contacted 911 dispatchers, according to the call log from that evening. He said a subject â Michael Nichols â was âgeeking outâ and âtrying to break in on a couple women,â but did not have much more information. King asked two officers to call him back; when the dispatcher told him they were unavailable, he asked the dispatcher to send them to Nicholsâ house in Gandeeville.
King also headed to Nicholsâ property.
Most of the details available about the Nichols shooting come from the lawsuit Fields filed in federal court. The State Police investigation into the incident is ongoing; Roane County officials would not comment, citing the pending investigation.
Nichols (who was not related to Timmy Rhodesâ fiancÃ©e Tammy Nichols) was a slight, older man who lived alone and owned no firearms, according to the lawsuit. He was on the porch when King pulled up and would have been well-lit by a large street lamp overhead that âwould have made it easy to see that Michael presented no imposing threat to anyone.â
According to the lawsuit, Nichols would have questioned why King, who arrived without a warrant and uniform, was âarguably trespassingâ on his property. Even if the man presented a threat in Kingâs mind â which the lawsuit emphasizes he âabsolutely did not and was physically incapable of doingâ â it would have been because of the deputyâs âutter failure to follow protocols and wholly unnecessary escalation of an alleged routine disturbance.â
What happened next is still unclear. But when it was over, Nichols was dead â and the lawsuit alleges there was no justification for the use of force.
In her lawsuit, Fields alleges King shot Nichols three times: once in the chest, once at a downward angle through his side into his pelvis, and once by placing his gun barrel against Nicholsâ cheek and shooting him through the face downward into his chest.
Nichols was either doubled over or sitting on the ground when King fired at least two of his shots, the lawsuit alleges.
There was no sign of physical struggle between King and Nichols at the scene or on Nicholsâ deceased body, according to the lawsuit.
Because of Kingâs failure to inform 911 of his whereabouts or the circumstances surrounding the events, the lawsuit alleges, dispatchers were unable to send medics quickly to the scene.
According to the call log of the incident, which the lawsuit says exhibits the âchaotic circusâ of those being sued, the neighbor called the 911 dispatch center about a half hour after Kingâs initial call to 911, saying that an officer said shots were fired and an ambulance was needed. A dispatcher called the neighbor back to get more information about what happened.
âMy husband said the officer hollered, âCall 911,â and that he needed an EMS because he had shot somebody,â the neighbor said to the dispatcher.
She said the officer had come because she and her husband had had issues with Nichols.
âHe was coked out of his head,â she said. âHe came over here, he was talking out of his head, he told my husband he was third in command, was going to do dirty stuff to his sister, and all this.
âIt was like he was trying to pick a fight,â she said, according to the call. Then, she was cut off mid-explanation by the dispatcher, who was trying to figure out whether the officer shot Nichols or if Nichols shot himself. The dispatcher seemed unsure which officer was even at the property.
â[Nichols is] still alive,â the neighbor later said. âIf you send someone, heâs still alive.â
Fields alleges that Cole, the former sheriff, and the Roane County Commission have failed to offer any specific justification or explanation to the Nicholsâ family about his death.
The former sheriff and the Roane commission resorted to a âvague suggestionâ that Nichols allegedly âmoved toward a weapon,âthe suit alleges.
According to the lawsuit, Fields believes the âweaponâ Nichols allegedly moved toward may be an old BB gun that was wedged under the porch railing and used as a decorative railing spindle.
It had been there for quite some time, and would have been familiar to King, who had visited Nicholsâ residence before, the lawsuit argues. The BB gun was removed by King or other officers after Nichols was killed, according to the lawsuit.
It was âobviously not a threat in the unlikely event it could have even been seen by Deputy King from his position when he shot Michael,â the lawsuit says.
In an interview with Mountain State Spotlight, Fields said her father had been arrested in the past for drug-related crimes. She said he began using drugs after he was prescribed opioids following an injury. He eventually got treatment and was clean for three years, she said, but had relapsed.
After the shooting, the sheriff placed King on administrative leave pending the State Police investigation, according to multiple media reports. The Roane County Sheriffâs office wouldnât comment this week on whether that remains the case.
Roane County 911 Manager Melissa Gilbert said that, according to her records, King last responded to a call on Oct. 22, 2020, the same day Nichols was killed.
No body cam
The lawyers representing Rhodesâ and Nicholsâ families say King was not wearing a body camera during either shooting.
The Roane County sheriffâ's department body camera policy, which took effect in 2016, requires officers to activate the cameras âduring the course of an encounter with the public that becomes adversarial after the initial contact.â Officers assigned body cameras must use them unless authorized not to by the sheriff or the deputy chief, and if an officer doesnât activate the body camera, they must document why, according to the policy.
Mountain State Spotlight sent the sheriffâs department a FOIA request for any body camera footage of the Rhodes or Nichols shootings. Sheriff Hickman, who took office in January, said the department âis not in possessionâ of such footage. Asked whether that meant King wasnât wearing a body camera, he replied in late January, âI have read your most recent email and will respond in a timely manner.â As of this storyâs publication, he had not responded.
Hickman also didnât respond to a FOIA request asking for documentation of why Kingâs camera was not in use during the shootings. Roane County Prosecutor Josh Downey, responding to a later request to the county commission, said no such documentation exists.
âMany questions could have been easily answered had King used his department-assigned body camera,â lawyers for Melissa Fields wrote in a February press release. âHowever, even after King failed to use his body camera during the Rhodes shooting, King was permitted back out on patrol, without his camera, and shot yet another unarmed man.â
The lawsuits allege that the former sheriff and the Roane County Commission have failed to enforce the policy.
In the August 2020 deposition King gave for the Proctor lawsuit, the deputy confirmed he had a body camera. But he says he goes around in plain clothes because of the work he does, âso it would be hard to wear a body cam.â
âIâm the drug unit,â he later added, saying part of his job is doing drug buys and working with confidential informants for information on burglaries and people suspected of committing crimes.
In former Sheriff Coleâs deposition for the Proctor case, he agreed when asked by a lawyer that it was âoddâ there was no evidence King had used his camera in some previous encounters, according to The Times Record.
A trial date for the lawsuit filed by Tammy Nichols for the shooting of Timmy Rhodes has not been set. All of the judges in the 5th Judicial Circuit â Jackson, Calhoun, Mason and Roane counties â recused themselves from the case. It has been transferred to Kanawha County.
But the trial for the federal suit filed by Travis Rhodes is set to begin on Feb. 22, 2022, according to a scheduling order. Melissa Fieldsâ lawsuit over the Michael Nichols shooting is expected to go to trial seven weeks later.
âA lot of life aheadâ
On a warm spring afternoon in April, Tyler Nichols could hear the trickling of Coleman Fork from Michael Nicholsâ front porch in Gandeeville. It mixed with the wind, which swayed tree branches tipped with the lime green of budding leaves.
The sound, from the creek he used to fish with his grandfather, followed Tyler as he walked off the porch and around the property, pointing out his grandfatherâs knick-knacks and projects, and recalling the good times they had together.
âA lot of memories here in this little holler,â he said, tears in his eyes.
One memory heâd rather not revisit: finding a pool of blood on the front porch the morning after Deputy Mike King shot and killed Nichols.
Michael Nichols had had his problems, Tyler said, and he had been open about them; he had even been trying to get help.
âHe was a father to me,â he said. âHe had his days, like everybody else, but he was a good man.â
Now, his grandfatherâs ashes rest around his house and at a nearby family cemetery.
Tyler ended his walk back at the front porch, the same place his grandfatherâs life ended less than a year before.
âHe had a lot of life ahead of him still.â
Reporter Eric Eyre contributed to this story.
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