Note: This story discusses suicide and the details of how someone died by suicide. If you are at risk or know someone who has died by suicide, this story could be triggering.
If you're experiencing thoughts of self harm or suicide, help is available through the West Virginia Division of Health and Human Resources 24 hours a day at 1-844-HELP-4-WV (1-844-435-7498) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Denise Fernatt’s suicide letter was brief.
“I’m sorry for those having to work this call,” Fernatt wrote. She wrote down her identifying information, and phone numbers for her husband, her son and a woman at her church, to make it easier for authorities to identify her body and notify her family and loved ones.
“Being alive scares me more than death,” Fernatt wrote.
Then she jumped from the New River Gorge Bridge on Aug. 5, 2017 — six days after partially nude photos of her were posted around her town, at the local Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club and on social media, and two days after she was fired as a result of the photos.
“Recent victim of public humiliation, being harassed and lost job of 17 years with probation because of the public humiliation,” wrote Fernatt, who worked in the probation office in Fayette County Circuit Court.
A roughly month-long police investigation into Fernatt’s death didn’t yield criminal charges against anyone, including the three women who investigators from the Glasgow Police Department believed were connected to the photos: Lesley Taylor, Crystal Foster and Amanda Tucker, who now goes by Amanda Holmes.
Fernatt’s widower, Roy Fernatt, filed a wrongful death lawsuit last week against the people who he claims bullied his late wife to her death two years ago, knowing she suffered from depression. He is seeking unspecified damages. The case, filed by Charleston lawyer Michael Clifford, has been assigned to Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit.
Police records, including records of Denise Fernatt’s death and text and online conversations before and after her death, were provided to the Gazette-Mail earlier this summer.
All three women named in the police record are defendants in the lawsuit, as are Glasgow Fire Chief Marty Blankenship, who is Taylor’s boyfriend; a “John Doe” and “Jane Doe”; the Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club Inc. and that club’s Local Chapter 40.
Taylor and Blankenship did not return messages from the Gazette-Mail. Foster and Holmes could not be reached for comment.
‘Pushed her to her limit’
Roy Fernatt told the Gazette-Mail last week that he, Denise and the people named as defendants in his lawsuit were all good friends at one point, riding in the Local Chapter 40 of the Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club together.
He believes a falling out over support from the club shortly after the Fernatts had a motorcycle wreck a few years ago, and a clash about a Facebook post in April 2017, led the women to target his wife.
“It started from there,” Roy Fernatt said. “It never failed until they pushed her to her limit.”
Around 8 p.m. on July 31, 2017, Roy and Denise Fernatt told Glasgow police that someone had printed out and posted copies of a personal, partially nude photo of Denise throughout Glasgow, Cedar Grove and Shrewsbury in eastern Kanawha County, according to the police record.
The next day, Aug. 1, Denise Fernatt received a letter from then-Circuit Judge John Hatcher Jr., who told her she was suspended without pay because of the “obscene/pornographic, sexually provocative photograph” of her that had been distributed.
On Aug. 3, Hatcher signed a letter terminating Fernatt’s employment. He said he no longer had confidence that she, as a judicial employee, was able to “uphold the confidence of the public and the court.”
Hatcher’s Aug. 1 letter, about Fernatt’s suspension, was found along Fernatt’s handwritten suicide letter. She left the papers in her 2005 Hyundai Tucson, which she left parked and running in a construction area near the north end of the New River Gorge Bridge, according to a report by a park ranger who responded to her death.
In the month after Denise Fernatt died, two Glasgow Police investigators — Sgt. Christopher Powell and Cpl. Corey Morgan — shared her suicide letter and the evidence they had collected with two assistant prosecutors at the Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
Both of the prosecutors said the circumstances of her death were a “moral travesty,” but didn’t violate any existing criminal laws in West Virginia, Powell said in a report filed Sept. 21, 2017.
Neither Powell nor Morgan charged or arrested anyone in Fernatt’s death.
‘All parties involved knew this fact’
Denise Fernatt suffered a head injury in her motorcycle wreck, and had tried to end her life before, Morgan said in one of his reports. He said those who posted the photos of her knew that.
“All parties involved knew this fact and the intent was clearly stated,” Morgan wrote in a report dated for Sept. 11, 2017.
In the records provided to the Gazette-Mail, Fernatt’s previous attempts to end her life were noted in texts between Taylor and Holmes. They discussed printing and displaying the photos in town and on Facebook, according to cell phone records obtained in the police investigation.
The women in the text exchanges talked about getting double-sided tape, and how upset they were with Denise.
“Oh I can and will be a dirty bitch!!” Amanda Holmes texted on July 25, 2017. “I will make the silly blonde with a head injury want to kill her self [sic] because u f*ck with me my family or my friends its over..[sic]”
Taylor said she would “gather up some tape and tacs” after saying she “wanted those nasty pics” of Denise Fernatt.
On July 27, three days before the photos were posted, Taylor sent out a text: “It’s almost picture day!”
Three days later, on July 30, Taylor texted, “Done. We’ll see what happens,” according to the police records. That was one day before the Fernatts went to the police, and a week before Denise Fernatt ended her life.
During an interview with Glasgow police on Aug. 16, 2017, Blankenship told Morgan he’d heard Denise was having an affair. Blankenship said he wouldn’t provide a name or any other information about the alleged affair without talking to his attorney.
Blankenship told Morgan that Denise Fernatt “... tended to be very attention-seeking, and had attempted suicide on multiple occasions,” according to the report.
The Fernatts told police that Denise had taken the photos in 2010, and she’d only sent them to her husband and Crystal Foster. They said they didn’t know how anyone else got the photos, but said Blankenship might have stolen the photos from Denise Fernatt’s laptop.
At least one person who worked with Blankenship at Walker Machinery in Belle told Morgan that Blankenship had the photos on his phone and shared them at work on July 25, five days before they were posted throughout Cedar Grove and 11 days before Denise died.
In his reports, Morgan cleared Blankenship of being involved in the plan to post the photos, and the actual posting of the photos. “It seems as though the fire chief had no knowledge of the photos being posted until after the incident occurred,” the officer wrote.
Morgan said he found the picture of Denise that had been posted and shared on the phone belonging to Crystal Foster, who is a teacher’s aide in the Kanawha County Schools system. He also said he found on Foster’s phone what appeared to be a screenshot of a conversation between Foster and Holmes about wanting to harm Denise Fernatt, in which Foster said Denise “deserves everything she gets.”
“Amanda had responded with ‘I have something up my sleeve,’” Cpl. Morgan said in his report.
Trying to influence and impede
On Sept. 11, 2017, six weeks after the photos were posted, Morgan closed the Denise Fernatt investigation without filing any criminal charges.
But later that month, on Sept. 26, he filed another report and said Marty Blankenship and Lesley Taylor had “exhibited behavior that may have been construed as trying to influence and impede” his investigation.
Blankenship on several occasions stopped by the police station and asked Morgan how far along he was and “would try to persuade me to look through the contents of his phone first so his name could be cleared,” Morgan said.
Blankenship stopped by the police station on Sept. 9, 2017, while the investigation was ongoing, and invited Morgan to dinner.
“When I didn’t show, [Taylor] came over at approximately 2100 hours and brought me a plate of food an stated ‘I know with everything going on it probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for you to come over but still wanted to give you some food,’” Morgan wrote.
Contact information available to the Gazette-Mail for Foster and Holmes was outdated, and Taylor and Blankenship did not return the newspaper’s messages Friday.