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Putnam special enforcement unit

Members of the Putnam County Special Enforcement Unit are seen on a hidden security camera searching through Dustin Elswick’s bedroom.

A deputy clutches the glass jar in one hand and, with another, shines a flashlight on the container, shaking it as he peers inside.

Dustin Elswick arrived home to find the jar’s contents — the ashes of a dead friend — inside two discarded drug test kits in his yard. Bits of bone were among the ashes.

Clad in T-shirts and carrying their service weapons in their waistbands, Putnam County deputies pushed aside a window air conditioner and climbed through a window to get into Elswick’s home near Hurricane as he worked on a summer morning in 2019. Deputies disabled a visible security camera but didn’t see another one hidden, capturing their images as they rifled through his belongings.

That scene is depicted in one of three federal lawsuits filed over the work of four Putnam deputies who composed a special drug-fighting unit. Another suit claims they confiscated more than $10,000 in cash along with firearms and threatened to strangle a man if he didn’t sign a document allowing it. A deputy pointed a gun at a Lincoln County man when they raided his friend’s Putnam home, slammed him into a wall and threatened him, according to still another suit.

Formed nearly seven years ago as a result of what ex-Sheriff Steve Deweese described as increased call volume over drugs, the team of deputies called the “Special Enforcement Unit” responded to anonymous drug tips. Deputies wore plainclothes and carried out what are known as “knock-and-talks,” which allow police to investigate private property without a search warrant if they suspect criminal activity.

“We’re not trying to hide,” Sgt. Brian Hall, chief of the unit, told WCHS-TV in February 2016. ”We’re being aggressive, proactive — in-your-face-style law enforcement. We want people to know we’re out here.”

Local TV news pieces during the unit’s early days lauded deputies for their high arrest count, partnership with U.S. Marshals in arresting federal fugitives and consistent ability to put dope on the table for camera spots. The unit scored victories in combating a drug crisis “with the help of people who are tired of crime in their neighborhood,” one story read.

“The community, really — I had a lot of positive feedback and comments from it. That’s for sure,” Deweese said.

Until July 2019, the office Facebook page regularly posted news of arrests by the four deputies. Then mentions of the unit ceased.

On Jan. 15, 2020, Monroe County attorney John Bryan posted a six-minute YouTube video from the security cameras at Elswick’s farmhouse. Bryan represents Elswick and others in the three federal suits. The video garnered more than 130,000 views and showcased most of the allegations Elswick made in the complaint he filed last month against the deputies and the Putnam County Commission.

Bryan said he waited to sue, holding out hope the Sheriff’s Office would hold the deputies accountable. The statute of limitations on the claim was scheduled to expire Aug. 21, two years after the warrantless raid on Elswick’s home. Bryan filed Aug. 20.

“From day one we brought this to their attention,” Bryan said. “We made all the evidence and information available to them.”

The deputies have denied wrongdoing in all three cases, which name them as Hall, Xerxes Rahmati, Scott Lowther and Brian Lockhart.

Just after 11 a.m., the unit arrived at Elswick’s home, guiding unmarked cruisers down a long private driveway and then crossing a swinging bridge over a creek to reach the farmhouse, where they rummaged through chests, drawers and other belongings, tossing about clothes and furniture. A security camera captured an image of a deputy donning a vest marked “SHERIFF.”

They pulled Elswick’s legally owned firearms from storage and scattered the weapons about his home. Tests on the ashes from the jar turned up no traces of illegal narcotics. Deputies confronted Elswick’s mother who’d been alerted by his aunt and arrived with a friend. She was not permitted near her son’s home. Deputies checked her criminal history and ran a report on her license plate, detaining the woman and her friend for 40 minutes, until the search concluded and investigators left, according to the lawsuit.

The video offered a rare look at the unit’s typical operating procedure, Bryan said. After WOWK-TV aired a story on the video, calls from people in Putnam reporting similar encounters streamed into Bryan’s voicemail, he said.

Deweese ordered an internal investigation, according to a report. Elswick waited for word on action taken in response. It never came, Bryan said.

“We cooperated ... and we never, ever heard anything — any outcome,” Bryan said. “We were just all completely kept in the dark, so this was the only other thing that we could do, was file a [civil rights lawsuit.]”

Deweese declined to comment for WOWK’s story and this one. He said Wednesday he was unaware of the lawsuits. Putnam County Sheriff Bobby Eggleton told the Gazette-Mail deputies were disciplined for actions alleged in the Elswick lawsuit. The former Nitro police chief, Eggleton took over in January after Deweese chose not to seek reelection.

Lockhart retired in March. The remaining deputies still are working for the agency, Eggleton said. He said he could not comment on their discipline. The deputies’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Bryan filed an open records request and got no search warrant, police report, criminal charges or anything documenting the raid on Elswick’s property. Hall told Elswick on his mother’s phone the day of the search that deputies were serving civil process paperwork from magistrate court, according to the suit. That process usually is handled by a county process server, not law enforcement. Hall did not advise Elswick in their phone conversation that deputies were searching inside. The deputies found no drugs.

It was part of a pattern, Bryan said. The unit criss-crossed Putnam County executing knock-and-talks, leaving hardly any paper trail, he said. The incident at Elswick’s home wasn’t isolated, and it wasn’t the first.

Four months before that raid, the unit’s four deputies and a fifth, Kenny Davis, marched through the front door of Bliss Johnson’s Poca home at about 5 p.m., without a warrant and without consent, as he and his father-in-law worked on a back deck to construct a cabinet, according to the family’s lawsuit. The unit had been tipped Johnson’s son had marijuana in the home.

In the basement, deputies found a dead plant resembling a marijuana or hemp plant, according to the suit. Deputies ordered the family to gather around the kitchen table and stay there. They threatened the Johnsons’ extended family, Hispanic and visiting from Virginia, with deportation. Johnson denied a deputy’s assertion the family was selling heroin..

“The defendant officers were threatening to put the occupants of the house in handcuffs and repeatedly demanded, ‘We need to see some green cards.’ The defendant officers were also threatening to call Child Protective Services to seize a four-year-old child in the home, as well as an adult child with down syndrome, since the rest of the family was going to be taken into custody,” the suit reads.

According to the suit:

The unit scoured the family’s luggage and inquired about their prescriptions and private healthcare information. Deputies ordered Johnson to open a safe they’d pulled from under his bed, confiscating $10,000 in cash and a few lawfully owned firearms after threatening to “choke him to death” in the basement if he did not sign a document agreeing to give the money and weapons to the Sheriff’s Office. Deputies forced Johnson and his son to sign search consent forms after the search had already been conducted. A deputy pocketed $300 from the son’s car.

Afterward, the unit instructed Johnson’s son “to meet them at an abandoned building in Teays Valley, where they pressured him to sign donation forms and also attempted” to get the name of another target they believed to possess illegal drugs. “However, he had no information to provide,” the suit reads.

The family said the money and weapons never were returned.

Before the Elswick raid came another in Putnam, according to a suit. Mason Dillon, of Lincoln County, was there, visiting a friend and playing a video game as his friend packed food in the kitchen before a planned fishing trip. When deputies knocked on the door, Dillon’s friend refused to let them inside. They responded by forcing their way in, Davis aiming a weapon at Dillon when he questioned what was happening, the suit says.

Hall and Rahmati pulled Dillon from the home and slammed him into a wall outside, according to the suit. He remained handcuffed for 90 minutes while deputies searched his friend’s home, finding a small amount of marijuana and cash, according to the suit.

Neither Dillon nor his friend were charged with a crime. Deputies used their cellphones to photograph Dillon’s driver’s license and warned they could harm him, the suit says.

An open records request turned up no records or warrants in either the Johnson or Dillon case. Both the Johnsons and Dillon contacted Bryan after seeing the Elswick video, the attorney said.

“People were afraid to say anything until they saw that video where they got caught red-handed, and so they felt safe reaching out to me about it,” Bryan said.

Elswick’s was the first complaint raised against the unit, Deweese said. That people didn’t complain sooner was understandable, Bryan said.

“I think there were people out there who were scared, because they didn’t know that they weren’t alone,” Bryan said. “I think it really traumatized people because you want to trust law enforcement, and then they have this experience, and it sort of calls into question, ‘Well, who do you call if it’s the cops that break into your house? Like, do I call 911? Who do I call?’”

Joe Severino is an enterprise reporter. He can be reached at 304-348-4814 or joe.severino@hdmediallc.com. Follow @jj_severino on Twitter.

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