RECORDING RELEASED: The Westover Police saga, a tale of 2 departments

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***DISCLAIMER: Some of the language and subject matter contained in the following article and in the associated audio recording may not be suitable for all audiences.***

WESTOVER, W.Va. – The latest piece of the puzzle in the situation surrounding the City of Westover and its police department has come to light in the form of a more than 90 minute audio recording of a September 2020 meeting involving former police chief Richard Panico, police Lt. John Morgan, Westover city attorney Tim Stranko and City Councilman Steve Andryzcik.

The recording was uploaded to Youtube on September 9, 2021 and has had more than 300 views to date. The video was uploaded under the name “Alex Butterfield,” an apparent homage to Alexander Butterfield, who was the assistant to former President Richard Nixon who revealed the existence of the White House’s recording system during the Watergate investigation.

The meeting came after Mayor Dave Johnson learned of Panico’s intention to resign, and of a letter that 11 members of the police department had written and signed, raising concerns about the actions and behaviors of Lt. Aaron Dalton.

Before Panico’s resignation or the officers’ letter could be addressed by Johnson and the Westover City Council, Johnson was admitted to the hospital with heart problems. During the meeting, Stranko alludes that this was due to stress related to the letter.

Stranko called the meeting, in Johnson’s absence, to formalize a plan for Lt. Morgan to take over for Panico as interim chief.

At the start of the meeting, Stranko explains that he is representing the mayor. As to Andryzcik’s presence, Stranko explains to Panico and Morgan that he is there as a favor to him, so that he did not have to do it alone, but said “Steve is representing Steve.” Throughout the meeting, Stranko points out that Andryzcik is not representing the whole council and is just one of six members.

While the initial point of the meeting appeared to be the transition of power in the chief’s office, much of it ended up being centered around the concerns with Dalton, who had recently been placed on administrative leave, and his relationship with Mayor Johnson. Several times during the meeting, Panico explains that he is resigning as a way to get the concerns about Dalton and Johnson in front of the city council.

“There’s two police departments here. They are the one that we have, and they are the one the mayor has,” Panico said. “Dalton was actually giving commands to the officers, going around me,” the former chief continued.

Dalton & Johnson concerns:

Both Panico and Morgan spent much of the meeting detailing Dalton’s alleged actions and the roles Johnson played in those actions or in preventing them from leading to discipline against Dalton:

Eight months prior, Johnson had asked Panico to have Dalton work under him directly to deal with illegal parking concerns that were a priority to Johnson, Panico explains. “I told him the problems associated with that. There’s no oversight. Dave says ‘let me worry about that,'” Panico said, describing a situation related to Dalton’s parking enforcement efforts, where he arrested a woman, at her own house, because she wouldn’t give him her ID. Panico told Dalton he couldn’t do that and dropped the charges against the woman, to which the mayor asked, “why are you butting in on that?” Panico said. “Every time I had a problem or complaint about Dalton, I’d take it to the mayor, and he’d say ‘you’re overreacting,’ or ‘leave it alone,’ or ‘he’s doing exactly what I want him to do.'”

That wasn’t the only issue with Dalton’s parking enforcement, Panico said. He explained that he was getting complaints from citizens that Dalton wasn’t giving people the time to move their cars, was instead telling them “f— you” and was threatening them with arrest.

Panico and Morgan both describe a situation where Dalton had sex with a woman while on duty and harassed her at her job. “Is that a fact?” Andryzcik asked. “He confessed to it, yes,” Morgan replied. Panico counseled Dalton over that situation, putting a written record of it in his personnel file, Panico said. When the department received a subpoena for Dalton’s file, presumably as a part of the county prosecutor’s investigation into possible destruction of property related to the arrest of William Cox, which led to a second federal lawsuit against the city, Johnson told Panico to “get rid of that,” Panico said.

Panico and Morgan detailed another incident for Stranko and Andryzcik, where Dalton allegedly violated a suspect’s 4th amendment rights during an arrest at the Econo Lodge. Junior officers were arresting a man who had a warrant in Ohio and were working to get consent to search the hotel room, when Dalton began a search without consent or a warrant, finding fentanyl hidden in the room, they said. The situation was recorded on officers’ bodycams, and Dalton admitted to it, Panico and Morgan said. The suspect then filed a formal complaint against Dalton, which elicited the following response from Johnson, Panico said: the “mayor comes and jumps my a–. ‘Why are you telling these people to file complaints?’ Dave jumped me and goes, ‘You put that guy up to it. I know how this is going to turn out. You’re going to try to f— Dalton again.'”

Panico said the department’s COVID-19 protocols were another place Dalton stepped out on his own, by making officers ride with him, despite policies that called for them to social distance by driving separate vehicles. “F— that rule, the chief’s not in charge, I am. The mayor’s got my back,” Dalton would tell the officers, Panico said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve went in that office to do a one-on-one with him about Dalton, and he’s (Johnson) basically saying, ‘get out of here, I don’t want to hear this,'” said Panico.

Panico explained that he suggested to Johnson that he talk to the department’s sergeants, to get their take on Dalton. This was Johnson’s reply, Panico said: “They’re a bunch of p——. They’re going to lie. They’re going to tell me what I want to hear, or they’re going to lie to me to get rid of Dalton.”

“There’s something we’re missing. There’s no sense. There’s no logic why this protection would be at that level for a man that’s so egregious in his crimes. It doesn’t make sense. What is there that Dave wants to protect this man so much where he tells me, ‘bury something, don’t let this get out’ or he goes, ‘Rick, I thought you were my friend? I thought you were going to get rid of that paper?’ Dave I can’t get rid of it. ‘But I thought you were my friend?'”

When Panico later suspended Dalton, he alleged that Johnson said, “I can put a stop to this.” Panico responded, “Dave, as your friend, take a step back.” Johnson repeated, “I can stop this.” The exchange continued with Panico saying, “I’m not your friend. I’m the chief of police. You’re obstructing me.” At that point, Johnson,”just went off,” Panico said.

Panico told the group that Dalton is calling officers from other departments and asking them if they want the chief’s job, to replace him, and suggests that is something he would not do on his own if he didn’t feel empowered by the mayor. “He’s (Dalton) a jackass. There’s nothing we can do about that,” was Stranko’s reaction.

Concerns acknowledged:

However, several times during the meeting, Stranko does acknowledges issues with the way Johnson has handled things.

“I’ve already corrected the mayor, and he’s agreed with me about intervening in the chain of command. So, he’s agreed and promised he’s not talking to your (Panico’s) subordinates anymore. That’s out. He wants to do the right thing, he really does. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. You know how that goes.”

“In this case (investigation into Dalton), you’re absolutely right, he was obstructing an investigation that you as the chief of police felt was appropriate. The mayor doesn’t have to get in the middle of that.”

“My failure is being a friend,” Panico said of his dealings with Johnson. “You cut him too much slack, Rick. You cut him way too much slack, to his detriment,” Stranko said.

“All I can do is go to the council and say the mayor’s f—— up,” said Stranko, concluding, “we’ll help the mayor do better. That’s what I’ve been doing for eight years.”

Throughout the meeting, Stranko repeated that Panico should have called him about the issues. “I wish you would’ve called me Rick, I could’ve helped.” Panico replied, “I was told not to call you. I was told, ‘don’t call nobody. You keep it with me. I’ll make this decision.'”

More allegations against Dalton:

Panico and Morgan detailed several other allegations against Dalton.

Panico explained, “he’s making comments to the female officer. We can’t even have him ride with her because we’re afraid of what he’s going to say or do. He told a new officer, ‘I’m going to f— you in the a–, and it’s not sexual, and show you what kind of power I have over you.'”

“Demented,” Stranko is heard exclaiming. “Yeah it’s demented, but that’s his mind. ‘You don’t have to follow Panico’s direction, you don’t have to follow my direction, you don’t have to listen to your sergeants, they’re incompetent,'” Morgan described Dalton as saying.

Panico describes another situation involving the department’s former secretary, who has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city. She has “half-black grandkids,” and “Dalton’s going ‘white power, white power,’ provoking her all the time over this,” Panico detailed.

“We’ve had complaints from mall security (Morgantown Mall) that Dalton won’t respond up there. He just says ‘f— you,'” Panico went on to say.

Concerns over the city’s image:

At various times during the meeting, how all of this reflects on the City of Westover is discussed.

“The city is being exposed to risk. This letter (the officers’ letter about Dalton) is huge risk to the city and the department,” Stranko said. “Huge! Huge!” Panico agreed.

Morgan defended the decision to write the letter about Dalton. “We are willing to do this to ourselves as a department with the atmosphere that’s going on in the United States right now, and we’re willing to do this And, bring all that s— down on us? What’s that say to you guys? Do you not understand that there’s a problem?”

“A new guy who’s only been here a month wanted to sign this letter!” Panico chimed in.

“I see the desperation, and I hear the desperation, but we can only do what we can do here. For the department to have a meltdown like this, right on top of the Howton morass. We’ve already got Danielle Walker and the rest of ’em screaming about ‘it’s unsafe to be in Westover.’ What a terrible thing that is for the city,” Stranko said.

“People need to trust the department. Public safety is serious business. That why this b—- over here, sorry (laughter), that’s why this delegate screaming about ‘Westover’s an unsafe place to be’ is so destructive, because we know that’s not the case,” Stranko continued.

The city’s attorney then cautioned against similar letters in the future. “The route I hope we take in the future is less formal, less writing.”

“We’ve got a leak in council right now. We have people that don’t think about Westover first,” Stranko went on. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure this stays in house,” Stranko said.

Moving forward:

“I cannot in good faith leave here if Dalton’s going to come back,” Panico said. “Your mission now is to work with John (Morgan) and develop a case to fire him,” Stranko instructed.

“I can tell you that I’m going to do my best to make sure Dalton never comes back after what I’ve heard today. That’s insane!” said Andryzcik.

“I get it, he’s a sociopath, I get it, and he needs to go,” Stranko said. “Yes, he absolutely needs to go,” Andryzcik agreed, continuing, “I think Dalton’s a done deal. I need this to just go away, like not go away, hide it, but it needs to be resolved, fixed, done and over with. Dalton is a cancer right now. I’m going to make my opinion known, and I’m going to take it as high as I’ve got to take it for this guy not to come back here.”

Back at the beginning of the meeting, Lt. Morgan is not convinced that he wants the job as interim chief.

“Where’s that going to put me in a liability situation? I don’t agree with things that are going on either right now. I’ve got an officer that we don’t want here. What kind of support do I have? I’m not one of the mayor’s favorites because I’m one of his guys (referring to Panico),” Morgan said. Then, in response to a “take it or leave it” option by Stranko, Morgan went on to say, “Good luck finding anyone else in the department to step into this, because it ain’t going to happen.”

Stranko suggested a police committee to be a buffer between the department and the mayor. Panico and Andryzcik quickly tell him that there already is one. “I’m on the police committee. We’ve never met. Obviously, some checks and balances have been missing,” Andrycik said, but he was not sure who else was on the committee. It has “never been utilized properly,” Panico said. When he brought the use of the committee up to Johnson, “what the f— do they know? I’ll tell them what they need to know,” was the answer he got, Panico said.

After the Sept. 11, 2020 meeting:

Three days after the recorded meeting, Panico officially resigned in front of city council. The next month, retired West Virginia State Trooper Joe Adams was named as the new chief.

A year later, Dalton remains on paid administrative leave, and just last month, he filed a request for an injunction against the City of Westover, claiming it is denying his employment rights.

The three lawsuits against the city are still pending.

When reached by 12 News about the recording, Stranko declined to comment on behalf of either the City of Westover or himself, saying the recording “speaks for itself.”

12 News also reached out to former chief Panico, who said he did not make the recording, nor did he release it on Youtube.

The recording was addressed at the September 20, 2021 Westover City Council meeting, where a citizen called for an independent investigation into the city and Stranko attempted to apologize to Del. Danielle Walker.

You can read a full timeline of 12 News coverage of the situation in Westover here.

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