As Halloween gets closer daily, I find myself wondering just what a “kid” would look like if he or she were to desire to dress up and go trick-or-treating as COVID-19 for the upcoming ghostly holiday. I would think that even a spooky COVID-19 character would have to wear a mask. But what would it look like?
Instead of examining the irony that accompanies the above scenario, allow me to present one of the most interesting murder cases ever to occur in Logan County that does not involve the name of Mamie Thurman. Intriguing as the double murder is, the complete outcome of the court case was never fully disclosed. Allow me to lay the foundation for this story.
From the very beginning of the state of West Virginia until 1977, justices of the peace, sometimes referred to as magistrates, functioned at the lowest level of the state judicial system. JP’s, as they were often referred to in my youth, had jurisdiction in small civil lawsuits, misdemeanor cases, and conducted felony preliminary hearings, much like magistrates of today.
However, the difference in the justice of the peace system and the Magistrate Court system is that JP’s received no salaries and were compensated by the costs assessed by them against losing parties in civil suits, and against criminal defendants who pled guilty or were otherwise convicted. The bottom line was that justices of the peace depended financially upon plaintiffs winning in civil suits and criminals being found guilty. The JP’s pay was determined this way and it truly was not a fair system.
Perhaps that is why so many justices of the peace over the years found themselves getting into troubles by finding illegal ways of financial gain. The forthcoming story that I’ve planned is an example of one justice of the peace who may have been murdered because of his involvement in crime.
Because of the extent of time that I have spent researching this particular case and because of other crimes that are associated with it, for today’s purposes, I shall present only the basics of what happened May 27, 1969, when Ezra Butcher and Imogene Whitt, 35, of Chapmanville were shot at Butcher’s home at Godby Heights. Butcher died at the scene and Whitt succumbed the next day following surgery for a bullet wound to her abdomen.
The Logan Banner’s headline the same day of the shooting reads: “Magistrate Ezra Butcher Slain.” The newspaper account said that “Justice of the Peace Ezra Butcher of Guyan District was fatally shot early this morning at his home at Godby Heights and a woman in the home at the time was critically wounded.”
Logan Prosecuting Attorney Oval Damron said a woman who lived across W.Va. Route 10 from the Butcher home told him she heard at least two shots around 2:35 a.m. the morning of the shooting and immediately aroused her husband. She said they heard an automobile pull out from in front of Butcher’s home at a high rate of speed but were unable to determine which direction it went.
When the neighbors arrived at the Butcher home, they said they found the magistrate lying on the floor in the living room, with Mrs. Whitt lying across his legs. The Banner reported that the neighbors said Butcher died within a minute or two of them arriving on the scene and that Whitt spoke a few words before she lapsed into unconsciousness.
Butcher had been shot three times — once near the center of the chest, once on the left chest, and once on the left side. The shots were apparently fired from close range since James Funeral Home attendees said powder burns ringed each wound. In addition, Butcher had several wounds to his head, including a severe six or eight inch cut on the top of his head.
Sadly, Mrs. Whitt’s eight-year-old daughter, who was in another part of the house hiding under a bed during the shooting, told Prosecutor Damron that she heard her mother say, “Why did you do that?” and then heard another shot fired. Bullets found in the living room floor appeared to be from a .38 caliber pistol, according to the prosecutor.
Butcher, a carpenter by trade, had been elected justice of the peace in 1960. He was re-elected in 1964 and again in 1968.
Authorities could find no real clues to the murders, despite an extensive investigation by state and federal authorities. Many people at the time believed Butcher’s death was a political assaination. Prosecutor Damron and Judge Harvey Oakley were reportedly under tremendous pressure to bring the perpetrator to justice, as the rumor mill continued to grind daily.
Nonetheless, it would not be until three years later that the murder would be solved and the uncovering of a Cleveland, Ohio, crime ring would reveal that Butcher had been involved with a Cleveland “crime family” that was operating in southern West Virginia. Butcher, it would later be revealed, was involved in a stolen car operation and had not shared the profits adequately with at least two other involved individuals.
While the murderer and his accomplice will be revealed in another edition of this newspaper, it is the shocking way in which the murder was proven that will come as the surprise.
Also, of interest is the fact that both the prosecuting attorney, Oval Damron, and one of the defense attorneys, Bernard Smith, would both shortly thereafter be federally charged and wound up in prison for election-related activities.
It is of special interest to this writer because in the same 1972 Logan County indictments another person was charged with the killing of a friend of mine and that newspaper headline ran the same day of the murder indictments involving the death of Butcher and Whitt.
Why do I take a personal interest in the killing of my young friend, just after about a year following my high school graduation? Well, it is because I was there when the death occurred.
I’ll be back with more next week.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.