Grand jury clears detective Edelen

PARKERSBURG – Just days after two Parkersburg Police officers shot and wounded an armed suspect, a special grand jury unanimously decided not to indict a city police detective who shot and killed a man at Grand Central Mall in January.

The same grand jury also voted not to indict another Parkersburg officer accused of using excessive force against a handcuffed suspect in August. However, the officer, Patrolman Jay Hart, has been disciplined internally, Police Chief Joe Martin said.

The grand jury reports were issued Thursday morning, when the panel did return indictments against 17 individuals.

But Parkersburg Police Detective P.M. Edelen was not among them.

On Jan. 14, Edelen and other local law enforcement officers were engaged in a training exercise at the mall food court when a man later identified as 27-year-old John Ragalyi of Newport allegedly stole a woman’s purse. Investigators said the woman called for help, and Edelen and fellow Parkersburg Detective J.M. Stalnaker gave chase, identifying themselves as police officers.

Both Ragalyi and Steven L. Pfalzgraf, 24, of Parkersburg, fled into the parking lot and got in Pfalzgraf’s car. Stalnaker attempted to grab the keys from the ignition, and Pfalzgraf put the vehicle in motion, dragging the officer with him.

When Stalnaker got loose, Pfalzgraf turned the car toward Edelen and drove forward, investigators said. The detective fired his gun multiple times at the vehicle, fatally wounding Pfalzgraf.

According to the grand jury report, the panel “unanimously determined that Detective Pat Edelen acted appropriately in self-defense and defense of others in his actions in firing his weapon at the vehicle driven by Steven Pfalzgraf and did not violate the laws of the State of West Virginia.”

An internal review by the city police also found Edelen acted appropriately under the department’s lethal force policy. Martin said Thursday he was pleased the grand jury agreed and thanked them for their service.

“I was pretty confident Sgt. Edelen did no wrong and was going to be exonerated,” he said. “Nonetheless, it’s still a necessary hurdle that we need to present those facts and findings to that body of the judicial system and get their stamp of approval as well.”

Wood County Prosecuting Attorney Jason Wharton said it’s always been his policy to take officer-involved shootings to a grand jury to allow members of the public to review the evidence, since his office often works closely with police. The West Virginia State Police turned the findings of their investigation over to Wharton’s office in June, and this was the first grand jury empaneled since that material was received.

Tuesday’s shooting of 42-year-old Christopher Paul Johnson, of Parkersburg, by two city police officers is also expected to go before a grand jury eventually.

Parkersburg Police Lt. G.D. Nangle and Officer M.L. Bosley fired on Johnson at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Plum Street, reportedly striking him four times, after he allegedly refused to lower a gun he’d drawn and pointed at Nangle.

Johnson remains in critical condition at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, a hospital spokeswoman said. Both officers are on administrative duty while the incident is investigated by State Police and reviewed internally. Martin has expressed confidence the officers acted appropriately.

The grand jury on Thursday also reported no indictment against Parkersburg Police Patrolman Jay Hart.

In October, a lawsuit was filed against Hart, Bosley, an unnamed officer, Martin, Mayor Bob Newell and the city by Parkersburg resident John Michael Sadler Jr., who claimed he was punched and choked by Hart while being processed at the Parkersburg Police Department following Sadler’s arrest on a charge of driving under the influence. Bosley and another officer were in the room but did nothing to stop Hart, the lawsuit claimed.

The lawsuit was settled last month by the city’s insurance carrier for $80,000, with every defendant but Hart dismissed.

It wasn’t Hart’s first encounter with the suspect, who he’d shot five years earlier in an incident in which Sadler reportedly threatened to kill a family member and then himself and pointed a shotgun at the officer. An internal investigation determined the shooting was justified.

Last fall, Wharton took the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia and an FBI agent was assigned to investigate.

“My office was advised within the last 30 days that the U.S. Attorney’s office was declining prosecution,” Wharton said Thursday.

The FBI provided the prosecutor’s office with its investigative materials, and the case was presented to the county grand jury.

“Based upon my initial review of the case in October … I felt this was a case that had to be presented to the grand jury for a determination by the public,” Wharton said.

The grand jury voted to return no indictment against Hart.

Hart remains on administrative duty, and disciplinary action was levied against him after an internal review determined he violated the department’s policy regarding the unnecessary use of force on a prisoner.

“The administration here at the city has dealt with his violation internally, and the punishment he received was fitting for the policy which he violated,” Martin said.

The chief said he could not release specifics on the disciplinary action; however, Hart held the rank of sergeant at the time of the incident.

The lawsuit against Hart was the fifth filed since 2009 alleging excessive force by Parkersburg Police officers. The prior cases were also settled for amounts ranging from $2,500 to $135,000.

Another excessive force suit was filed in May by Parkersburg resident Albert Richards, who claims he was assaulted after being handcuffed. Martin has called those allegations a “total fabrication” and said he is advocating against a settlement in that case.