ELKINS - Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud Thursday in federal court and was forced to resign his law enforcement post.
In addition, he faces a sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000, among other penalties.
Hawkins, who is named in an unrelated civil lawsuit also in federal court alleging sexual assault and a libel lawsuit in circuit court, entered the plea during a hearing media outlets were invited to attend without being told who or what was involved.
Attorney Harry Smith, left, leads his client, John Hawkins, out of U.S. Magistrate Court Thursday afternoon in Elkins. (The Inter-Mountain photo by Anthony Gaynor)
Hawkins, 47, also must relinquish his West Virginia Law Certification and agree not to serve in any law enforcement capacity in the future.
The felony plea stems from an incident where Hawkins staged a motor vehicle accident, ultimately filing a false insurance claim with the assistance of one of his law enforcement officers. The indictment had been sealed until Thursday's hearing. It was one component of a two-year federal investigation into Hawkins' conduct, officials said.
U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II of the Northern District of West Virginia said the key point his office was trying to achieve was to have Hawkins resign as sheriff and be held accountable for some of the criminal conduct it is believed he committed.
"We didn't want him to have any further opportunity to impact the pursuit of justice with his position," Ihlenfeld said. "We thought he was having a negative impact on the pursuit of justice in Barbour County and that it was necessary for us to pursue a conviction and also have him step down as sheriff. We wanted to have him removed from office. This was the most efficient way to do that. That's why we proceeded in the way we did."
"He cannot go to another county and run for sheriff," Ihlenfeld said. "He is a felon anyhow (now), but he cannot apply to be another law enforcement official anywhere else."
As part of the plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney's Office agrees "not to pursue other investigations into the conduct of Hawkins, including his alleged mishandling of an estate in his capacity as sheriff, allegations of missing funds from the sheriff's tax office, and potential violations of civil rights."
U.S. Magistrate Judge John S. Kaull, who proceeded over Thursday's hearing, said the state is free to investigate Hawkins if it wishes.
"We cannot bind the state of West Virginia in any way," Ihlenfeld said. "This is only binding upon the United States Attorney's Office in the Northern District of West Virginia."
Kaull asked Hawkins if he could explain, in his own words, why he was in court.
"I am here for the purpose of entering a plea and a charge against me in federal court," Hawkins said.
"I have signed a resignation letter (for sheriff), which will be sent at the end of these proceedings," Hawkins continued, noting the resignation would be effective immediately.
The Barbour County Commission has tapped Chief Deputy Brett Carpenter to take care of the sheriff department's daily operations until further notice.
During Thursday's hearing, Ihlenfeld still presented evidence, despite Hawkins' guilty plea. He called to the stand Special Agent Fred Aldridge of the FBI, who said he had been employed with the bureau for 11-plus years.
"I started the investigation two years ago," Aldridge said. "The allegation of mail fraud was brought forth six to eight months ago. The mail fraud was brought to my attention by investigator Brad Dumire of the West Virginia Insurance Fraud Commission."
Aldridge said, "On or about April 2, 2013, we were made aware that Sheriff Hawkins staged a motor vehicle accident on a farm he leased to raise cattle on Jerusalem Road in Barbour County. The vehicle was a 2004 GMC Envoy that was titled in his wife's name. Throughout the investigation, we learned that on April 9, 2013, Hawkins filed a false insurance claim describing the accident and said he was distracted and was driving too fast off of Jerusalem Run Road and drove off the road and struck a tree."
The insurance employee handling the claim asked if law enforcement responded and Hawkins told them they did, Aldridge said.
"She asked if there was a police report, and he said he would get it for her," Aldridge said. "That afternoon, a deputy from the sheriff's office called 911 and asked for the number of the report about the accident. One of the deputies prepared a false uniform traffic crash report. As a result of that, mailings occurred between Columbus, Ohio; Arlington, Texas; and Philippi - at least six (times). One of those mailings was a check delivered to GM Financial April 15, 2013."
Aldridge said the photos of the accident were not consistent with Hawkins' statement.
"The investigation led to the electronic data recorder in the vehicle being taken to a State Police accident reconstructionist," Aldridge said. "Data was inconsistent with the story Sheriff Hawkins gave to the insurance representative. At the time of impact, the brakes were off, the speed was 22 mph and the throttle was at 30 percent. The reconstructionist said the vehicle traveled 63 feet. He (Hawkins') took his foot off the gas, applied no brakes and struck a tree. The reconstructionist revealed an intentional crash."
Aldridge said the sheriff's deputy - who was not named in the indictment or during Thursday's proceeding - told him he did not report to the scene of the accident. Rather, he was requested by Hawkins to complete the report at a later date.
"The deputy admitted the report was false," Aldridge said.
"The defendant used his position as sheriff to take advantage of the insurance claims process and to receive a substantial financial benefit," Ihlenfeld said. "The false accident report that he ordered his deputy to create helped to substantiate his claim, as did the fact that he was a law enforcement officer himself. By abusing the authority of his position, Sheriff Hawkins violated the trust that the citizens of Barbour County placed in him when he was elected."
The investigation into others who may have been involved with the scheme is ongoing, Ihlenfeld said, noting other concerns also exist.
"There is an allegation that there is money missing from the Sheriff's Tax Office. The sheriff has a law enforcement side and a tax side. A small amount is missing, and the sheriff could be involved," Ihlenfeld said. "We agreed not to pursue this, but the state of West Virginia or a special prosecutor can investigate this and pursue it."
Ihlenfeld said Hawkins' sentencing hearing probably will take place in six to eight weeks. In addition to a sentence and fine, other penalties may include a term of supervised release of not more than three years in addition to any imprisonment as well as restitution.
"The court also will institute a special assessment of $100 whether you have the money to pay or not," Judge Kaull said.
"A presentence investigation report will be prepared by the probation office," Ihlenfeld added.
The agreement also requires Hawkins to be completely forthcoming and truthful in all inquiries made of him by investigators in Ihlenfeld's office. Hawkins further is required to make restitution of $8,262.65 to Nationwide Insurance Co.
This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney John C. Parr and was investigated by the U.S. Attorney's Office Public Corruption Unit. Agents and officers from the FBI and the West Virginia State Police led the inquiry into Hawkins' alleged misdeeds. Assistance was provided by the West Virginia Insurance Commission, Fraud Investigation Division.