BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — A former security chief convicted of lying to investigators about the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at a southern West Virginia coal mine was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday.
Hughie Elbert Stover was convicted of lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy thousands of security-related documents at the Upper Big Branch mine following the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had sought a 25-year sentence, hoping to send a resounding message about Stover's crimes following the April 2010 explosion.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for a total sentence of about three years for both crimes. Judges do not have to follow the guidelines.
"Well, that's better than what I thought," Gary Quarles, whose son died in the blast, said of the punishment. "It's a little bit of satisfaction. It's a start."
Witnesses testified that Stover instructed mine guards to send out radio alerts whenever inspectors entered the property, which is illegal. Stover denied the claims in a November 2010 interview with investigators.
The second count alleged Stover sought to destroy documents in January 2011 by ordering a subordinate to bag them and then throw them into an on-site trash compactor, which is also illegal. Massey Energy, which owned the mine at the time, repeatedly warned employees to keep all records while the disaster remained under investigation. Company officials told investigators of the trashed documents, which were recovered.
Defense attorney Bill Wilmoth said Stover's actions were innocent mistakes and he deserved no jail time.
The defense portrayed the former law enforcement officer, a veteran of both the Navy and Marines, as a by-the-book employee who became a victim of the government's zeal to blame someone for the deadly explosion. A former mine superintendent was charged last week with conspiracy to defraud the government.
Gary May is accused among other things of disabling a methane gas monitor, falsifying safety records and using code words to tip off miners underground about surprise inspections.
Court documents indicate May is cooperating with investigators. He could get up to five years in prison if found guilty.
Quarles said a stiffer sentence from the judge could have helped future prosecutions.
"I think it would put pressure on the rest of them to look at themselves and say, 'We're not going to get out of this.'"
Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon, Va., acquired Richmond-based Massey last June through a $7.1 billion takeover deal.
Associated Press writer Vicki Smith in Morgantown contributed to this report.