12 News Investigates: Behind the Body Cam in lawsuit against Westover Police

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WESTOVER, W.Va. — A Westover man has filed a federal lawsuit against two Westover Police officers and their police chief, accusing the white officers of civil rights violations.

Andre Howton

According to the suit, an officer pulled Andre Howton, a Black man in his 50’s, from his home and beat him in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2019.

Only one officer’s body camera was rolling during the incident, which started when police responded to a call at Howton’s apartment in Westover. The first several moments of the call seem calm, even routine. Howton is heard asking the officers to remove a woman from the home because she wants to use drugs. The woman is put in the back of a police vehicle, but what happens next is now at the center of a Federal lawsuit.

“I knew what happened was wrong, and I knew that my client did not commit a crime,” attorney Beth Lebow told 12 News. She said the case began for her when her client (Howton) faced four charges after the incident, including battery on an officer and disorderly conduct.

“He [Howton] was like ‘What do I do? […] He said ‘I did not hit that officer. I’m telling you if I did it, I would tell you I did it, but I did not touch that man,’” Lebow remembered. It wasn’t until she saw the body camera footage captured on Officer Aaron Dalton’s camera that they decided to reject a plea deal for Howton and head to trial. The trial never took place.

“We filed motions and within days, they just said we’re going to drop the charges,” Lebow said.

In the footage, Howton yells out to the woman from outside the doorway as she is escorted to the police vehicle. Officer Zachary Fecsko is then heard saying, “When you’re in your own house, you can do that stuff. If you’re going to come out here and yell, you’re going to see a different person, you understand me?”

Howton then steps back inside the apartment. Fecsko continues to yell at Howton in the doorway, saying at one point during the exchange “get in the house and shut up.” Dalton can be heard saying “You’re being disrespectful Andre.”

Howton then asks “You’re mad at me because she’s smoking crack?” At that point, the footage shows Howton inside his home until Officer Fecsko pulls him out.

The complaint also cites the words used by Fecsko as he pulls Howton out of the doorway. The complaint states “‘…he angrily yelled get your a** out here boy!’ The Plantiff is an African American male in his fifties, the officer a Caucasian male in his twenties.”

“You have a young man who is white, in his 20’s calling him ‘boy’. […]  It’s not a friendly thing. The connotations of that word go very far back in history,” said Lebow.

During the ensuing struggle after he is pulled from the doorway, you can hear Howton say “You pulled me out!” According to Lebow, this is where things took another turn.

“You pulled me out. That’s what he said. And you see him just pull him over and start hitting him immediately.” The lawsuit claims Fecsko hit Howton 13 times, fracturing facial bones and breaking out three teeth. Lebow says Andre was immobilized during the struggle.

“Andre cannot move, he’s pinned between Fecsko’s legs, on his side.” 

Officer Zachary Fecsko and Officer Aaron Dalton are named as defendants in the suit, along with Police Chief Richard Panico. In the suit, Panico is accused of condoning the officers’ behavior. Lebow says the officers were never disciplined.

“These two officers were never even punished,” she said. “The chief looked at it and said – ‘nothing to see here.’”

Chief Panico did not respond to our requests for comment, but in an article published in the Dominion Post last year he said during a use-of-force report, they found nothing out of “normal bounds” and cited self-defense.

The lawsuit states both officers have a history of violence before they were hired in Westover. In 2010, a man sued the Fairmont Police Department and claimed four officers attacked him at a party. One of those officers was Aaron Dalton. Documents show that around 2013, Dalton was asked to resign from the Fairmont Police force.

In 2015, Fecsko faced charges of Domestic Battery and Burglary after an incident involving an ex-girlfriend. Those charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement. He pleaded guilty to Destruction of Property and served probation.

Lebow said the employment and criminal histories of the defendants are important, because they “show a pattern and policy within that department to encourage, or at a minimum, condone, inexcusable acts of violence and racial biases.”

The lawsuit goes on to say that violations continued after the body camera was switched off. According to the complaint, the officers took Howton to the police station and then into court for arraignment, before taking him to North Central Regional Jail where he was “turned away for the severity of his injuries.” The suit stated that Fecsko then drove Howton back home and state something to the effect of “don’t say I didn’t show you any mercy.”

“If a police officer puts his hands on you in a violent way, that is a seizure of your person. So that is a fourth amendment violation,” Lebow explained.

Howton is asking for damages and attorneys fees. You can read the full lawsuit here.

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