A scathing letter authored by deputies addressed to their own sheriff and a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment have ignited an effort to remove him.
Wood County Commission President David Blair Couch said he expects an update Monday in an investigation into deputies’ claims against Sheriff Steve Stephens. The county deputy sheriffs association described Stephens as a “tyrant” who wielded power like an “oppressive dictator.” Twenty-seven deputies and ex-deputies unanimously voted no confidence in Stephens on Oct. 10 and addressed a two-page letter of grievances to the commission.
Commissioners hired former federal prosecutor and Charleston attorney Booth Goodwin to lead an inquiry, which began Monday. After a week of interviews and fact-finding, Goodwin will lay out details of his probe to the commission Monday, Couch said. If Goodwin finds evidence substantial enough, he would help the commission file a petition with the circuit court, where a judge would appoint a three-judge panel to rule on removal.
Sgt. Della Matheny claims in an Oct. 22 lawsuit that Stephens made inappropriate comments about her appearance, specifically referring to how her buttocks appeared in uniformed pants. His remarks progressed into inquiries about her private life and relationship with her now ex-husband, including Facebook messages to her partner about her sex life.
Stephens did not return requests for comment. He has yet to publicly address the claims against him.
The sheriff served in the Vienna Police Department for 28 years, including time as chief. He retired in 2010, soon joining the confinement program, where he first worked with Matheny.
She was sworn into the Sheriff’s Office in July 2013, where she quickly rose in rank. When Stephens won election and took over the office in January 2017, she noticed his predatory patterns returned. He targeted newly hired deputy Tasha Hewitt, the suit claims. His harassment intensified over time.
Stephens told Hewitt her hair looked raggedy after she cut it and began growing it back. He inappropriately touched her, made comments about her buttocks and inserted himself in her romantic relationship with a fellow deputy, according to the suit. Stephens “became irate and maniacally jealous,” the lawsuit says.
At the scene of a fatal house fire, Stephens angrily turned to Matheny and repeatedly called Hewitt a “whore,” according to the suit. He made the same remark at a funeral for a deputy who died of leukemia. Stephens sent Hewitt’s boyfriend, the fellow deputy, on a 16-week assignment to the State Police Academy, remarking to Matheny and other deputies that he’d made the move “to break up her little family,” according to the suit.
Stephens said he would declined to send Hewitt to the academy because “she is a little whore and she would have f--- — all the troopers down there,” the suit reads. Stephens laughed off Matheny’s advice that he apologize to Hewitt.
Attorneys for the women could not be reached for comment.
Hewitt filed a complaint with county commissioners early last year, which led them to hire Charleston-based Bailey & Wyant to investigate. The firm recommended in March 2020 the commission hire another firm to conduct comprehensive sexual harassment and hostile work environment training. The suit says that didn’t happen.
Matheny claims Stephens made insensitive comments behind her back after the investigation concluded. The hostile work environment intensified over the next 16 months, according to the suit. Matheny left the force July 23 and sued three months later, claiming the commission continued to “subject female employees to a dangerous work environment.”
Couch defended the commission’s handling of claims by Matheny, Hewitt and others inside and outside the Sheriff’s Office. He said he couldn’t discuss personnel matters and cited a need to separate gossip from truth.
“[Our] obligations are not only to the citizens of Wood County, the voters of Wood County, but the men and women in law enforcement that work under Sheriff Stevens,” he said.
The procedure to remove an elected public official is lengthy, meriting the commission’s actions thus far, Couch said.
“We’ve brought the sheriff in a variety of times to talk at the commission — he’s an elected official, and far be it from us to tell an elected official how to run his operations — but it was becoming quite evident that he had a situation,” Couch said. “The more we discover into it, the more we thought that maybe these [allegations] had risen to the level of removal from office.”
Couch said commissioners have been notified to retain documents for other potential lawsuits.
The deputy’s association depicted a “vibrant culture that encompassed teamwork, leadership, professionalism and integrity” at the Sheriff’s Office when Stephens arrived. In five years as sheriff, Stephens “destroyed the positive culture within our organization and developed a culture that can only be described as hostile and negative.” Stephens’ “blistering” rhetoric and “unprofessional and dehumanizing” treatment of county employees led deputies and other staff to resign, retire or pursue jobs elsewhere, deputies wrote.
“We no longer have police officers wanting to lateral to our agency like in the past,” they wrote. “Our agency has some of the best and highly experienced law enforcement officers in the area, and we are in real jeopardy of losing them.”
In late 2019, the state fire marshal honored both Matheny and Hewitt for saving a 6-year-old girl from a house fire.