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Westover Police accused of using excessive force in federal lawsuit

WESTOVER, W.Va. — An 11 minute video of two Westover Police officers involved in an altercation with a 54-year-old man, showing the man pulled from the doorway of his apartment and beaten, has resulted in a federal lawsuit and raised questions about the actions of officers following the incident.

The lawsuit filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia alleges that Westover Police officers Zachary Fecsko and Aaron Dalton, physically assaulted Andre Howton when they responded to a call at his residence on Jan. 1, 2019.

Officers Fecsko and Dalton as well as Westover Police Chief Richard Panico are named as defendants in the suit.

Read the entire lawsuit here

The lawsuit alleges that Howton was pulled out his residence by Officer Fecsko, thrown on the on the concrete parking lot, and beaten in the face and torso. Howton suffered multiple facial fractures, broke at least three teeth and other serious permanent injuries. The entire incident was captured on the Officer Dalton’s body cam.

“When you look at that video camera, the body cam, you can see pretty clearly what happened. He [Fecsko] pulled him out and started hitting him immediately,” said Howton’s attorney Beth Lebow.

After the incident, the lawsuit alleges that Howton was charged with four criminal counts and did not receive immediate medical attention.

The Incident
Police were initially called to Howton’s apartment after an argument occurred between Howton and a woman, who Howton claimed wanted to use drugs in his residence. Howton requested that the officers remove the woman. Eventually the woman was placed the police cruiser and for some reason, what to that point and been a routine call, suddenly escalated.

“It seems like a switch was just flipped in the officers,” Lebow described in an interview with WAJR’s Talk of the Town.

Listen to “Dave & Sarah | August 5, 2020” on Spreaker.

Officer Fecsko began shouting at Howton, who was standing in his doorway yelling obscenities directed toward the woman. The situation continued to escalate as Fecsko shouted back at Howton to “get in your house and shut up.”

Fecsko continued to yell “come outside and start yelling,” and “I’ll be back down here tonight if you come outside again.”

Howton, who appeared to still be standing inside his apartment, shouted “crackhead” in the direction of the woman, still sitting in the back of the police cruiser. Fecsko, who had almost walked back to his car, suddenly turned and approached Howton.

Fecsko can be seen on the video grabbing Howton by the collar of his shirt while shouting “get your A** out here boy!”

Howton was thrown to the ground and the lawsuit alleges, Fecsko threw at least 13 punches, landing multiple punches to Howton’s torso and face. Meanwhile, in the background, Dalton shouted for Feckso use pepper spray on Howton has he lay on the ground.

When Fecsko stopped, Officer Dalton can be heard on the video saying:

“You asked for that Andre. You earned it.”

After The Video
The video concludes with Howton and another man who had been at the apartment, handcuffed and sit-in on the concrete outside the apartment. Despite visible injuries, Howton did not immediately receive medical attention, according to Lebow. Instead, Lebow said that Howton was arraigned then taken to North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County.

“North Regional turned him away. They said his injuries were too severe, he needs to go to the hospital,” Lebow alleged.

Except, Howton was still not taken to the hospital. Rather, the lawsuit claims Officer Fecsko took Howton back to his apartment and dropped him off.

“I don’t know how they finagled that paperwork wise, but that’s what happened,” insisted Lebow.

It was several days before Howton received medical attention. His daughter, worried after she had not been able to contact him for several days, came to check on him and found Howton injured at his apartment. According to Lebow, Howton doesn’t remember much about those days between the incident with police and when his daughter found him.

Howton Charged
Howton was charged with four counts after the incident with Officers Fecsko and Dalton: disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, obstruction and battery on an officer under Westover City Code. Because the charges were filed under city code, Howton’s case did go before the Monongalia County Magistrate Court, Circuit Court or the county prosecutor.

“I requested a jury trial and they had never had a jury trial before. There were a lot of continuances, at one point they switched prosecutors. Once it was time to file motions, we filed a motion to be involved in all the jury selection processes because we weren’t certain Westover knew how to sit a jury because everyone was telling us they had never done so,” said Lebow.

“The day we filed that motion I got a call from the prosector that they were going to drop all four charges.”

Lebow stated it took about a year to clear Howton of the criminal charges.

Checkered Pasts
Both Officers Zachary Fecsko and Aaron Dalton have checkered pasts.

Prior to working for the Westover Police Department, Fecsko was charged with domestic battery and burglary after in 2015. He allegedly broke into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment in the middle of the night and destroyed her belongings. Fecsko also allegedly had a physical altercation with the woman and threatened her. The charges were ultimately dropped as part of a plea agreement.

Dalton formerly worked for the Fairmont City Police Department before signing on with Westover. According to the lawsuit, Dalton was sued for an unprovoked attack on two men at a party. The victims were wrestled to the ground, punched in the face, tased, kicked, beaten and sprayed in the face with mace.

The lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court.

Dalton’s personnel file stated he had been placed on administrative leave when he applied for the job in Westover.

What Now?
Despite the body cam footage, Lebow said she did not receive any documentation that an official investigation into the incident that night had been completed. Westover Police Chief Rick Panico told the Dominion Post, in June 8, 2019 article, that the officers actions aligned with the department’s policies and there are “no rules of the road” when dealing with these kinds of situations.

Lebow said Howton still deals with the injuries from the January 2019 incident and that Howton needs extensive surgeries to repair the damage to his teeth and jaw.

“I hope these two officers are held accountable for their actions. I hope that they are no longer allowed to work with the public and other police around the country start to see that society is not going to put up with it any more,” Lebow said.

The lawsuit is seeking damages and a jury trial has been requested.

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