Less than 15 minutes after he guided a spray-painted jet-black motorcycle off Corridor G and onto Trace Fork Road, Billy Means would never walk again.
Exiting the Chick-Fil-A parking lot, a South Charleston police officer spotted Means that sunny morning of May 2, 2020, and began following him. The officer radioed dispatch and learned the license plate and registration for the bike did not match.
Means, 31, said he’d constructed the motorcycle from spare parts and was riding to a friend’s place to pick up clutch cables for another bike he was building.
He never made it there.
Instead, he wound up in a sludge pond with two officers standing over him. Means claims one officer ran a cruiser into the bike, knocking him into the water, and the other stomped on his head as he lay unable to move. Both officers deny those claims.
Means settled a federal lawsuit against South Charleston and both officers for $2.45 million. The city paid more than $60,000 in taxpayer money to cover additional insurance costs, documents showed.
Thousands of pages of deposition transcripts, court orders and expert testimony among numerous court filings in Means’ case paint a murky picture of the incident and the administrative decisions leading up to it.
The officer who initially followed Means declined to comment for this story. Means could not be reached. Both spoke under oath about the nearly 15-minute pursuit of Means, and both had different stories to tell.
None of South Charleston’s police cruisers was equipped with dash cameras, and officers did not wear body cameras, which might have provided clarity where accounts varied.
But video played a pivotal role in the case.
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Officer Eric Peterson had seen it before: People spray-paint stolen cars and motorcycles to cover their color, make and model, he said in a deposition. Billy Means rode a bike that also looked pieced together.
That helped the veteran policeman decide to tail Means rather than take breakfast back to the city maintenance garage.
How the pursuit unfolded is where versions of the events begin to diverge.
As he drove out of South Charleston toward the Boone County line, Peterson said, he flashed his cruiser’s blue lights and aired its siren, seeking to stop Means over the mismatched registration and plates. Means said he used tags from another bike.
Means traveled at speeds of more than 50 mph, looking over his shoulder at the cruiser behind him, crossing into the opposite lane and occasionally dropping a foot to the pavement to steady the bike, Peterson said in a criminal complaint. Means’ reckless driving forced the chase into Boone County, Peterson said.
Parts of the motorcycle fell as Means drove with Peterson remaining “three to four car lengths” behind, the officer said.
Means said he looked behind him to wave off the trailing cruiser, which, he said, repeatedly closed to within six to eight inches of the Honda motorcycle. Means said he never reached 50 mph, and the officer neither flashed the cruiser’s lights nor operated its siren. Means said he did not pull over because the officer neither asked nor directed him to do so.
Means said he’d ridden street bikes for 15 years, frequenting rural roads through Kanawha and Boone counties since he was 16. He said Peterson’s description of his driving was not consistent with his skill level, and he never lost parts from the bike. Peterson said he did not look for those parts for his later investigation.
Peterson called for backup midway through the pursuit. South Charleston police officer David Harvey responded, following Peterson near Emmons Road, Harvey told attorneys in his April 26 deposition.
A police siren was audible in a dispatch recording of Harvey radioing in. When Peterson’s voice is heard in the recording, no siren is heard. Peterson later said hearing problems prompt him to switch off his siren when he radios in.
At an unmarked railroad crossing on Emmons, Means said, he slowed his bike. Peterson’s cruiser struck the rear tire, sending Means hurtling into the nearby sludge pond, Means said.
Peterson said his cruiser never touched Means’ bike.
“I saw him strike the railroad tracks,” Peterson said. “The bike spun and ejected him off through the air.”
Briefly unconscious, Means said, he woke on his back in the water. He tried to roll over and stand but was “field goal kicked” by one of the officers standing over him.
“They were telling me they were going to leave me for dead and screaming they should have killed me,” Means said.
Means said he gave the officers his name, birthdate and Social Security number and asked them for help out of the ditch.
Harvey said he pepper-sprayed Means after the biker failed to lift an arm from the water as Peterson restrained the other. In a use-of-force report, Harvey said he sprayed Means over concerns the biker might be holding a weapon underwater. Means complained he was drowning, Peterson said, so the officers seized him by the wrists and sleeves and pulled him from the pond to the other side of the railroad tracks, where they handcuffed him.
Means told the officers he’d lost feeling in his legs. Peterson said that was the first he’d heard that complaint.
Peterson raced to his cruiser and radioed emergency medical services. Harvey stood over Means. Two bystanders who’d been traveling along Emmons watched and recorded the arrest on a cellphone. The video, partially blurred, shows Harvey seize a handcuffed Means, attempt to move him, then raise and lower a foot in proximity to Means’ head, which was covered by a black helmet.
In a deposition, Harvey said he stepped over Means, not on him. Mary Chandler, one of the bystanders, said there was “no question” the officer stomped on Means’ head. South Charleston police did not did not respond to a request seeking comment from Harvey for this story.
Dr. Daniel Husted, a spine surgeon based in South Florida who reviewed court and medical records on behalf of Means, wrote that Means’ vertebrae likely fractured in the crash but detached once the officers dragged him up steep terrain without spinal immobilization.
Harvey rolling Means was “another action that is extremely concerning given the potential at that time of a spinal injury,” Husted wrote. The stomp, along with being handcuffed behind his back, also caused damage to the motorcyclist’s spinal cord, Husted wrote.
“The initial fractures, however, are not likely to have caused the permanent paralysis, as the irreversible spinal cord trauma likely came after this initial injury at the hands of the South Charleston police officers,” Husted wrote.
Defense lawyers presented a motion analysis conducted by exercise scientist Timothy Joganich, who wrote that the way Harvey moved his leg over Means was not consistent with how one normally would stomp.
Means said he blacked out before paramedics arrived.
He said he awoke in the hospital 16 days later.
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Peterson charged Means with improper use of evidence of registration, attempted fleeing from a law enforcement officer, driving on a suspended or revoked license, no vehicle insurance and drug possession.
A half-gram of meth was found in Means’ backpack, Peterson wrote in a case report. Means denied having drugs.
He said he’d previously been addicted and knew it was wrong to drive without a license. After being cited for driving under the influence about a decade ago, he said, he could not afford classes to get his license back.
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In October 2020, a grand jury indicted Means on five felonies and a misdemeanor, the charges stemming from the incident at Emmons Road and a separate run-in with law enforcement in February 2019. In the latter case, Means was accused of fleeing with reckless indifference to the safety of others, possession of a stolen vehicle and fleeing while driving under the influence, all felonies. No drug charges were filed.
He later signed a deal with Kanawha County prosecutors, pleading guilty to driving with reckless indifference in the 2019 case and misdemeanor driving while license revoked for DUI in the Emmons case. Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom sentenced Means to five years’ probation.
Forced to use a wheelchair and facing other ailments after the crash, Means said, he lost his job as a gravedigger in Loudendale. He struggles to move his bowels and must be “dug out” by nurses, he said in his deposition.
He worked occasionally for his father’s residential contracting service and took a job as a gas station clerk in 2015. He was homeless for a time, he said.
After his first settlement check arrived, Means left town and has not been heard from since, his father, Mike, said.
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Nearly four months after the crash, on Aug. 24, 2020, the bystanders’ video was posted to YouTube. Means sued the following day.
On March 29, a day before Peterson and Harvey’s scheduled depositions in the case, defense attorney Duane Ruggier II revealed in a public court filing that the FBI was investigating both officers in the Means incident.
Ruggier asked the judge to delay the depositions until the FBI investigation concluded because the officers likely would have to plead their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
Ruggier declined to comment for this story.
Before the request could be heard, Ruggier filed another motion saying the officers had been cleared and the depositions could proceed.
The depositions were made public June 28. The two sides settled roughly a month later, on July 30.
An FBI official said the agency neither would confirm nor deny the investigation, a standard response from the feds in such circumstances. In depositions, Harvey and Peterson said they learned of an inquiry in February and met with federal agents in March. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
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Means had seen trouble before his encounter with Peterson and Harvey, and before the February 2019 case. His prior history includes charges ranging from joyriding to embezzlement, dating to 2009.
South Charleston police Chief Brad Rinehart cited Means’ past while defending his officers and criticizing the city’s insurance company for settling the case rather than go to trial.
“Means started the whole ball rolling. Driving illegal — believed to be stolen motorcycle,” the chief wrote in a statement typed in all caps.
One of Rinehart’s officers had seen trouble before, too.
Asked by Means’ lawyers, Danté diTrapano and Jesse Forbes, why he’d been moved from plainclothes to a patrol unit in 2018, Peterson recounted in his deposition an incident that he said “just caused a storm.”
After drinking at a 2017 Halloween party, the officer said, he argued with his fiancée about “another officer’s Snapchats and messages to her” which he believed were sexually suggestive. After contacting that officer’s wife, Peterson said, he snatched his fiancée’s purse and refused to return it, prompting her to call police.
Two South Charleston officers responded, one of them Harvey. Peterson said he was disciplined, but not criminally charged, for being “disrespectful [to the responding officers], and I was intoxicated in public.”
DiTrapano and Forbes continued in the deposition to ask the officer about prior discipline. Both attorneys declined to comment for this story.
Peterson joined the plainclothes unit in 2011, three years after starting with the department, he said. In his first year in plainclothes, Peterson said, he was disciplined for having sex with a department drug informant. Two of their encounters took place in a city-owned vehicle parked in a driveway outside her apartment and once inside it. He said only the latter occurred on-duty.
His superiors learned about the problem when the owner of the apartment left a manila envelope at the station, Peterson said. The man wanted to let the department know an officer was having sex in a city vehicle.
Peterson said the woman never testified in any cases, though she had provided information in a recent case. Peterson said he was ordered off duty for five shifts without pay.
The Gazette-Mail requested personnel files for both Peterson and Harvey. The latter officer’s file showed no disciplinary records. He did not seek to withhold any records.
Peterson withheld dozens of pages from his file, citing exemptions under the state Freedom of Information Act.
The file referred to cases Peterson mentioned in his deposition and other undated incidents, including ”memos to file regarding West Virginia State Police training academy incidents and counseling,” an “internal memo concerning Peterson’s off-duty conduct” and ”internal handwritten notes concerning Peterson incidents.”
Earlier this year, Peterson was transferred from patrol to an assignment as the resource officer at South Charleston Middle School, where he remained working last week, according to a school official.
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As South Charleston police cruisers were replaced in the last decade, the old-school dash cameras inside them went away too.
Harvey said in his deposition there had not been dash cameras in the cruisers he drove since joining the force in May 2017. Peterson said cruisers were equipped with dash cams when he left patrol in 2011, but when he rejoined the unit seven years later, they were gone.
Asked about cameras and the role they might have played in the Means case, Rinehart — the department’s top cop since 2007 — declined to comment.
South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens, who hired Rinehart, told the Charleston Daily Mail for a January 2015 story that recent police killings nationwide demonstrated a clear need for officers to wear body cameras. He stressed transparency, especially in the case of defending his officers against false claims.
The department’s then-assistant chief said all of South Charleston’s 40 police officers soon would be wearing body cams. The 10 new cruisers the department purchased lacked dash cams, but that would be mitigated by every officer wearing a body cam.
South Charleston did not roll out body and dash cameras department-wide until last month.
Mullens said there was no “magic answer” to explain the city taking nearly seven years to act on its word. He cited technology questions, education, resistance from officers and financial issues within the department that needed solved first. Mullens said the Gazette-Mail was playing “Monday morning quarterback.”
“You don’t know what we went through those seven years,” he said.
Peterson said he bought his own dash cam off Amazon for about $70 in May 2018. He said the camera made investigations easier and his allegations more concrete. Rinehart, however, in September 2019 called for all personal cameras to be removed from cruisers and officers department-wide. Peterson said he was unsure what the issue was, but it revolved around “chain of custody.”
It would have been almost five-and-a-half years removed from Mullens’ comments, and eight months since Rinehart told officers to remove their personal cameras, that Peterson followed Means onto Trace Fork Road. Mullens denied the city and department hung one of its own out to dry.
The mayor’s remarks in 2015 indicated he appreciated the value of cameras.
“A couple of years ago there was a complaint — two sides are always opposite,” Mullens said. “If we’d had the camera on, we would have known what was going on.”