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Paintball trial begins for police officers

by James Fisher

REGIONAL WRITER

BUCKHANNON -- A Lewis County deputy sheriff testified Thursday that four Bridgeport Police officers accused of taking part in paintball war games last year believed they had permission to be in the historic building.

The jury trial for Bridgeport police officers Jamie Atkinson, Mike Matvich, Mark Norman and Jon Harbert began Thursday morning in Upshur County Magistrate Court after being moved from Lewis County late last year. Norman and Matvich are facing two counts of destruction of property while Atkinson and Harbert each face one count.

Lewis County Chief Deputy J.J. Burkhart testified Thursday the officers told him they were part of a group who went into the old Weston State Hospital to play paintball games.

Defense attorney John Scott asked Burkhart if any of the officers said anything about cleaning the paint-like substance off the walls at the conclusion of the games. Harbert's written statement indicated he was told the hospital was scheduled for renovations and no one involved needed to clean the building, Burkhart testified.

Burkhart, who said he was a close friend of Norman's and felt sympathetic toward the officers for having to investigate the incident, testified he told Harbert "it was a bad deal all around."

He also affirmed Scott's statement that Burkhart told Harbert "if he hadn't been a police officer, if he had worked somewhere like Kentucky Fried Chicken, it wouldn't have gone this far."

William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital administrators Jack Clohan and Chip Garrison testified about the condition of the hospital after the paintball games and the effort to clean the inside of the hospital.

In his opening statement, Lewis County Assistant Prosecutor Robert Morris said he intended to prove the officers "injured and defaced the inside of the main building of the old Weston State Hospital."

Scott and defense attorney James Matish disputed that claim, saying the officers did not intentionally splatter a paint-like substance on the walls, ceilings and floors and the hospital was already in a "deplorable condition" prior to the games. Matish and Scott produced pictures that showed water-stained walls, broken windows and door glass, fallen ceilings and animal waste in several places in the hospital.

Clohan testified the firm in charge of security for the property had a procedure to keep track of visitors, but the procedure was not followed. He also testified only he and Garrison had authority to allow anyone onto the property.

Under cross-examination by Matish, Burkhart testified the security guard had tried to clean some of the mess and was concerned for his job because of the incident.

Garrison testified that prior to the paintball games, hospital administration "had little to do with the old hospital," but security has been increased since that time.

The trial resumes today at 9 a.m. in Upshur County Magistrate Virgil Miller's courtroom.

Regional writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446

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