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Paintball charges don't stick

by James Fisher

REGIONAL WRITER

BUCKHANNON -- An Upshur County jury deliberated about 10 minutes before finding four Bridgeport police officers innocent of destruction of property charges in connection with two paintball games last May in the old Weston State Hospital.

"The jury returned a fair verdict. My clients did nothing wrong," said defense attorney Jim Matish. "They understood the law, and they applied it correctly."

Matish represented officers Jamie Atkinson, Mike Matvich and Mark Norman, while the fourth officer, Jon Harbert, was represented by John Scott.

A Lewis County deputy sheriff testified Thursday the officers told him they believed they had permission to be in the historic building.

A security guard testified Friday that he let the officers in because he believed they were going to participate in a training exercise.

Bridgeport Police Chief Jack Clayton then testified Friday that his police officers were ethical and hard working and had no record of disciplinary problems. He said he was shocked when he heard about the incidents, but said he believed Lewis County Sheriff Robert Rinehart was "being taken over by events."

The officers testified Friday that Rinehart had told them during interviews and subsequent conversations that the investigation was political in nature.

Rinehart did not testify Friday to refute any of the officers' statements.

As part of the jury's instructions, given at the conclusion of the evidence, Upshur County Magistrate Virgil Miller told jurors that the testimony of any witness who was on the list of potential witnesses but was not called could be assumed to be damaging to the state's case.

Atkinson, Harbert, Matvich and Norman were among 25 people charged last year after officials discovered the building had been used as a battleground in a paintball game.

Nearly two dozen others have appeared in court over the past year and entered pleas of no contest.

Each defendant was fined $100 and ordered to pay $250 restitution for each count.

Two of the original charges have been dropped, one for naming the wrong person and another because the defendant died.

A former Buckhannon resident who has since moved to Michigan has not been served with a summons.

The state paid Smokebusters Restoration Specialist of Weston more than $8,000 to have the paint-like substance, consisting of vegetable oil and food coloring, cleaned from the hospital's interior.

Regional writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446

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