BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — A former security chief convicted of lying to investigators about the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at a West Virginia coal mine was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday. Prosecutors said it was one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in a mine safety case.
The sentencing of Hughie Elbert Stover was the first in what the government expects to be several cases in the ongoing investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine blast. So far, though only one other worker has been charged. That employee testified at Stover's sentencing as part of a plea agreement.
Stover, 60, was also convicted in October of ordering a subordinate to destroy thousands of security-related documents following the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger said she took into account Stover's age and that his crimes had no bearing on the explosion itself.
"I am charged with sentencing on the facts, not on public opinion," Berger said. "Your lies in the face of an awful tragedy are serious. (However), there is nothing to indicate your actions resulted in this explosion. It is a very serious thing to hang death on anyone."
Stover apologized in a brief statement.
"To say I'm sorry would be an understatement," he said, asking the judge to consider his family, including his grandchildren, before handing down the sentence.
Lisa Workman, whose brother-in-law, Dean Jones, died in the explosion, took issue with Stover's statement.
"My brother-in-law will never get the chance to see his 15-year-old graduate from high school, and he'll never get to chance to hold his grandchildren," Workman said.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had sought a 25-year sentence, but he said he wasn't disappointed with the judge's decision.
"This represents perhaps one of the longest sentences ever handed down in a mine safety case," Goodwin said. "We wanted to send a clear message and will continue to send that anyone who obstructs our investigation, they're going to be met with the harshest prosecution."
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."
Stover showed no emotion when the sentence was announced. He will report to prison at a later date.
Defense attorney Bill Wilmoth said Stover's actions were innocent mistakes and he deserved no jail time.
"I should be pleased in the sentence of only three years in light of the government's request for 25 years," Wilmoth said. "If that's a victory, then it's a hollow one, because three years is a long time for someone who is 60 to be incarcerated."
Wilmoth said he had not decided whether to appeal the sentence.
Witnesses testified at Stover's trial that he 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, which led to the lying charge.
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.
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, Gary May, was charged last week with conspiracy. He is the highest-ranking company official charged so far in the blast.
May was 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. Goodwin didn't immediately release details on the plea agreement but said he would soon.
May admitted he tipped off miners about the inspections and directed others to do the same. But he said Stover never told him to do so, and May said he was unaware whether Stover sent such warnings.
Quarles said a stiffer sentence from the judge for Stover 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.