Lincoln man sentenced for threatening voting fraud investigators
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Lincoln County man will spend at least eight years in prison for using a handgun to threaten federal agents who were questioning him on his property about a voting fraud scheme linked to several county officials.
U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston, in what he called one of the most difficult decisions he's faced in his six years on the bench, sentenced James A. Matheny, 62, to eight years in prison Monday.
Prosecutors said Matheny brandished a handgun at FBI Special Agent Todd Berry and James Wise, an investigator for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office, before threatening to kill both men.
Last spring, Berry and Wise met Matheny on a gravel road outside his home in Midkiff and questioned him about an absentee ballot linked to the voting fraud investigation.
When Wise approached Matheny to show him some papers that apparently contradicted his story about his absentee ballot, Matheny pulled out a gun, and pointed it at the investigator's legs, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby.
"Are you calling me a liar? I will kill you," Matheny told the agents, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. Magistrate Court.
The incident defused quickly, with both agents backing off and Matheny retreating back to his house. No one was injured.
In May, a jury convicted Matheny on charges of assaulting a federal officer with a deadly weapon under a criminal statute that also includes language for resisting or impeding an officer. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the charge carries a seven-year mandatory prison term.
The jury also convicted Matheny of brandishing a firearm. Johnston sentenced him to an additional year on that charge.
"No doubt, pulling a gun on someone was not the right response to this situation," the judge said Monday.
During the trial in May, Matheny's lawyers argued that the agents did not properly identify themselves during the confrontation, which was only about 15 seconds long. Neither Berry nor Wise was wearing a uniform, and Matheny said he did not see a badge.
The investigator testified that they did not have an opportunity to properly identify themselves. Johnston balked at those statements Monday.
"I suspect that if they had, this may not have occurred," the judge said, addressing Matheny. "On the other hand, you shouldn't have pulled your gun out."
Matheny's lawyer, Mark McMillian, argued after the trial that his client's actions that day did not fit the charges. Matheny was not trying to assault the officers; he just wanted them off his property, McMillian said.
Matheny's handgun was not loaded, and he did not pull out the weapon until the men started advancing toward him, the lawyer added.
But if Matheny was trying to force the agents to leave, he could have achieved that goal through less drastic means, according to Ruby.
"If he was just trying to scare them off, he would have just shown them the grip of the gun or told them that he had a gun," Ruby said. "Instead, he explicitly said, 'I'm going to kill you'."
Wise, who spoke briefly during the hearing, said he and his wife have been having trouble sleeping since the ordeal.
"I have seen a lot of death and sorrow during my lifetime," he said. "On that day, I believed I would never see my family again."
"Mr. Matheny, you have changed my life and my family's life forever. And it's not a good change," he said.
Matheny did not speak at Monday's hearing.
Three Lincoln County officials have pleaded guilty in connection to the scheme to flood the county's 2010 Democratic primary with illegally obtained absentee ballots. Last month, Johnston sentenced former county clerk Donnie Whitten to a year and a half in prison, and former sheriff Jerry Bowman to a year in prison.
Former Lincoln County commissioner Thomas Ramey will be sentenced for his role in the scheme in October.
After Matheny's statement, Tennant issued a statement lauding state and federal investigators. "The Secretary of State's Office continues to work closely with election officials in Lincoln County to make sure that the election process is being followed. We have been to Hamlin many times to work side by side with them, and that partnership means that the people of Lincoln County can have faith in their elections," she said.
Reach Zac Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.