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W.Va. State Police shooting unjustified, Kohler family says

MAYSEL, W.Va. -- Tammi Hicks wants to know why a West Virginia State Police SWAT team shot and killed her father, whom she calls a nonviolent man with no criminal record.

On June 26, the State Police fatally shot Richard Dale Kohler, 65. Troopers said Kohler refused to open his door, and then pointed a rifle at them when they pried his door open.

However, Hicks said she's never known her father to keep a gun inside his trailer, let alone be someone to want to hurt police. Kohler, she said, had severe hip problems and got around with the help of a cane.

"How could he be holding a cane in one hand and raising a rifle with the other?" Hicks said. "Dad wasn't that strong, he was disabled."

She also questions why a SWAT team was there for her father -- an alleged small-time drug dealer -- in the first place.

Police believed Kohler was giving away pills prescribed to him in exchange for stolen items.

At 6:05 a.m. on June 26, a Wednesday, members of the State Police's Special Response Team went to Kohler's trailer to help agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency serve a search warrant. Police did not have an arrest warrant for Kohler.

The State Police said troopers pounded on Kohler's trailer door and that he refused to come out. Troopers pried open his door, the agency says. Once inside, the troopers said, Kohler pointed a rifle at them and they shot him dead.

Sgt. Michael Baylous, spokesman for the State Police, said Friday he does not believe Kohler fired a rifle, but it is still unclear. Baylous said eliminating a threat is proper State Police protocol, and troopers are trained in how to deal with potential threats using a virtual shooting simulation at the State Police Academy.

Baylous defended the use of a SWAT team for what apparently was an allegedly low-level criminal.

The State Police's Special Response Team, he said, is called into action when the State Police receives information that a suspect is violent or combative with authorities.

"The simple fact that the Special Response Team was there, they had to have some type of intelligence that said there would be a risk," Baylous said. "Let's say a couple of troopers went out there and [served a warrant] like they normally do, and then something happened. Where would we be today?"

Baylous did not say Friday what might have prompted the State Police to bring its SWAT team to Kohler's trailer.

The trailer, along Maysel Laurel Ridge Road, was draped in plastic last week. Danny Hicks, Kohler's son-in-law, pulled back the plastic for a reporter, showing several bullet holes in the door. He said he believes those holes contradict the State Police version of events.

"This door was never opened. If it was opened, there would be no bullet holes on the outside," Danny Hicks said. "They shot Richard dead through the door."

He pointed to a large bloodstain near the front door where Kohler died.

"It took Richard a while to get up out of bed to answer the door," Hicks said. "I believe they shot him dead before he could even open it."

The door appears to have been pried open after the shooting, he said.

Kohler had fallen ill within the past few years and needed help getting in and out of bed and chairs, the Hickses said. He used to be severely obese, they said, but dropped weight drastically after a stomach-bypass operation.

Tammi Hicks said her father was shot so many times by State Police troopers that he was unrecognizable. The body was cremated, she said.

Clay County sheriff's deputies went to Kohler's trailer several weeks before he was shot to investigate a stolen sink, Tammi Hicks said. Kohler turned over the sink and identified who gave it to him, she said.

"They knew he was cooperative," Tammi Hicks said. "Someone had broken into his trailer three times before that, and he allowed police into his home every time. You're not going to invite someone in your home if you have something to hide."

Kohler's daughter and son-in-law have retained Charleston lawyer Michael Clifford, but no lawsuit has yet been filed over Kohler's death.

Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Samples said Kohler's shooting remains under investigation, and no ruling has been made as to whether it was justified or not.

Baylous said it's only natural for victims' families to question officer-involved shootings, which he calls "critical incidents."

"What happened happened, and the facts are the facts," Baylous said. "It's unfortunate for the families and also unfortunate for our troopers, who had to go through the experience of taking someone's life away who posed a threat."

Tammi Hicks said her father trusted the law and taught her to be courteous to police officers. He wasn't the type to fight with anyone, she said, and she won't get over her father's death until she clears his name.

"My dad was the type that believed in the system," she said. "Now look at what the law did to him."

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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