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Former sergeant sues Sheriff Stephens

PARKERSBURG — A former Wood County Sheriff’s sergeant filed a lawsuit Friday afternoon alleging Sheriff Steve Stephens violated the West Virginia Human Rights Act, West Virginia Whistleblower Law.

The suit, also naming the Wood County Commission as a defendant, was filed by former Sgt. Della D. Matheny, who said the events described in the lawsuit led to her quitting the department in July 2021.

According to the lawsuit, around 2012, Matheny was working with Stephens in the home confinement department and she said he made “inappropriate comments to (her) about her weight and appearance. He made comments to (her) about how her butt looked in the pants she wore.”

The lawsuit also states Stephens was “infatuated” with Matheny’s social life. He allegedly added Matheny’s ex-husband on Facebook and asked him questions about Matheny’s sex life.

“She confronted her ex-husband who admitted to the inappropriate communications,” the suit said.

The lawsuit mentioned Stephens was “obsessed” with Chief Deputy Tasha Hewitt and “upon information and belief, Sheriff Stephens also inappropriately touched (her). Moreover, similar to (Matheny), Sheriff Stephens made offensive comments to (Hewitt) about her butt,” the suit said.

Hewitt entered a relationship with Sgt. Tim Allen and when the two told Stephens, the suit said “Sheriff Stephens became irate and manically jealous of their relationship.”

While Stephens and Matheny were on the scene of a fatal crash, he asked her to get inside of a cruiser while he talked about Hewitt’s and Allen’s relationship. During that conversation, the suit claims Stephens called Hewitt a “gender-specific derogatory term.”

“Sheriff Stephens pounded the steering wheel with his hand. He was so angry that (Matheny) observed veins protruding from his forehead. Sheriff Stephens then stated ‘how could (she) do this to me,'” the suit said.

On a separate occasion, Stephens used the same “derogatory” term to describe Hewitt while he was attending the funeral of a former lieutenant of the Wood County Sheriff’s Department, according to the lawsuit. He also made similar comments about her while eating at Colombo’s Restaurant, the suit said.

Around the same time, Stephens sent Allen to the training academy for 16 weeks and the suit claims Stephens sent him away to “break up their little family. He then stated ‘I would have sent Deputy Hewitt to the academy but she is a little (expletive) and she would have (expletive) all the troopers down there,'” the suit said.

A lieutenant was in the room when Stephens allegedly made the comment and the suit said he “became visibly disgusted” by Stephens’ words. The suit said Stephens looked over to Matheny and said “I’m sorry, I probably should not have said that in front of you, huh?”

Friday’s lawsuit also says that in March 2020, Hewitt filed a formal complaint also naming Stephens and the Wood County Commission and during the investigation following the complaint, it was “upon information and belief (that) witnesses confirmed during the investigation that Sheriff Stephens created a hostile work environment,” the suit said.

As a result of that complaint, the investigator recommended the Wood County Commission implement sexual harassment training, which Friday’s lawsuit said was never done.

Matheny’s lawsuit said Stephens was aware of her participation in Hewitt’s complaint, and that following the filing of that complaint and its investigation, Stephens “retaliated” against Matheny and “continued to create a hostile work environment.”

Matheny learned from other deputies that Stephens talked about her behind her back, calling her “lazy and worthless,” the suit said. And, according to the lawsuit, Stephens “micromanaged” Matheny by keeping track of her movements through her cruiser’s global positioning system and she said he falsely accused her of not doing her job.

Earlier this month, the Wood County Deputy Sheriff’s Association wrote a letter to the Wood County Commission, which stated a unanimous vote of no confidence in Stephens’ leadership had been taken.

In response to the letter from the association, Commissioner Blair Couch said “(Stephens) is capable of regaining the deputies’ confidence,” the suit said.

By not taking action after being made aware of Stephens’ behavior and in light of the association letter, Matheny said Wood County Commission “continues to condone the misogynistic culture created by Sheriff Stephens,” and Matheny is seeking a jury trial.

As of Friday afternoon, commissioners Couch, Bob Tebay and Jimmy Colombo had not yet read the suit. Colombo and Couch said they are unable to comment until the suit has been reviewed with the commmission’s attorney, Wood County Prosecutor Pat Lefebure, on Monday.

Colombo believes there could be a connection between the lawsuit and the vote of no confidence.

“It seems to me it must be all attached together one way or another, (with) everything coming out at the same time,” he said.

Couch said he is sure there are a lot of moving pieces at the sheriff’s office. Tebay referenced his friendship with Stephens and said he “hates to hear anything derogatory about him.”

The commission will discuss the issue during Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

Calls to Stephens were not returned, and Hewitt referred calls to her attorney for possible comment. A message left with the law firm after business hours had not yet been returned by deadline.

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