Political corruption in Logan County can be traced all the way back to the days of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. In fact, history shows that there has yet to be a decade in the past 120 years where some sort of illegal political activity hasn’t emerged within Logan County. Perhaps, though, the decade of the 1960s is one filled with more political vengeance than any other.
Vote buying and other election violations in the county had been prevalent since at least the 1920s, so perhaps by 1969 folks had grown accustomed to the political shenanigans of their leaders, that is, until the murder of Justice of the Peace Ezra Butcher and a female companion in the early morning hours of May 27, 1969.
For three years the deaths went unsolved, causing every kind of speculation one can imagine — from political assassinations to murder and suicide. The many barber shops and hair salons that once dotted the streets of Logan proved a breeding ground for rumors to abound.
Perhaps that is likely why when convicted felon and Cleveland, Ohio, native Douglas McArthur Willard — looking at the possibility of up to many decades more of prison on the newest charges — offered to “solve” the ghastly murders, the police, prosecutor, defense attorneys and circuit judge all agreed to the arrangement, provided that Willard, who was already sentenced from 1 to 10 years on another matter, passed two independent polygraph tests.
Upon passing both state police administered tests, hopes were high that Willard’s information would finally lead to the arrest of the person(s) responsible for the Godby Heights exterminations. The crime, authorities thought, might finally be solved and result in the perpetrators being brought to justice.
It was 1972, and Logan attorney Bernard Smith, who had represented Willard in the felony case in which Willard received a 1- to 10-year sentence, was himself facing federal prison after being found guilty in 1971 of illegal 1970 election activities. Judge Oakley, likely realizing State Senator Smith’s impending doom, appointed George Partain to assist Smith in the court matter in case Smith could not complete the legal defense.
According to attorney Partain, he and Smith proposed a plea agreement to the prosecutor to permit Willard to plead to a second-degree murder related to the death of Ezra Butcher and Imogene Whitt, as well as a breaking and entering charge related to a Chapmanville robbery. Willard offered to not only give a statement related to the two murders but also to other crimes if he was given immunity to all the crimes he admitted to in his statement to prosecutors.
After police confirmed the polygraph information given by Willard as accurate, he surprised everyone by saying that he and Butcher had been engaged in a criminal enterprise and that it was he (Willard) who had killed Butcher and Whitt in the midst of an argument in which Willard said Butcher owed him $10,000. Willard said that he and Ventrue Mitchell, a resident of Boone County, were involved in a stolen-car operation based out of Cleveland, Ohio, in which Butcher had refused to share the profits.
Judge Oakley entered an order dated Nov. 6, 1972, that failed to properly recite that immunity was part of the plea agreement. The order had places for counsel to sign but was left blank. About two years later on Feb. 24, 1974, an order was entered that recites the facts of the plea agreement. It can be found in Criminal Order Book 10 at Page 249 of Logan Circuit Clerk Mark McGrew’s office — McGrew and employees being very gracious in providing the case files for this writing.
There are many twists and turns to this story. For instance, Prosecutor Oval Damron, well-respected at his profession and void of any legal problems for himself, would develop cancer and eventually never return to work. However, he was responsible for the previous hiring of assistant prosecutors Doug Witten and Don Wandling. Wandling later would be elected Logan County Prosecutor, and he and Witten would become law partners prior to Witten being named Logan Circuit Judge. Witten, after a long-lasting bout with COVID-19, has since retired and Wandling has been serving as assistant Logan prosecutor for a number of years.
Attorney Partain, who practiced criminal law until age 65 and now is retired, graduated from law school in 1967 and was 27 years of age when Butcher and Whitt were murdered some 52 years ago, about two months before NASA’s Apollo 11 mission would land the first men on the moon. It was also at a time when the average annual income in America was $15,550, which makes the amount police claimed taken from Butcher ($20,000) even more significant.
Partain, understandably, could not publicly comment much concerning the case, not knowing if Douglas Willard is even still alive. However, Partain did say that for 10 years after the 1972 court case, he annually received a Christmas card from prison inmate Douglas Willard.
At least three men, Willard, Charles Douglas Scaggs, and Sam Moore, all with Cleveland Ohio connections, had been convicted of local crimes in the early 1970’s. Some of the men testified against each other, with both Scaggs and Willard testifying against Moore in a robbery case. Interestingly, in the case of Ventrue Mitchell, the Boone County resident who was indicted in the murder cases involving Willard, who had implicated the Danville resident, prosecutors filed a motion Jan. 19, 1973, that was granted by Judge Oakley to dismiss his felony case.
After defense attorney Bernard Smith was charged as one of the “Logan County Five” in connection with the 1970 election fraud in which he was convicted in 1971, expelled from the West Virginia Senate in 1972 and disbarred from the West Virginia Bar Association in 1974, and following Smith’s prison sentence the same year, defendants Moore and Willard filed writs of habeas corpus — Moore for ineffective counsel by Charleston attorney John Ward, and Willard for the same reason against attorney Smith — to get new trials.
In both instances, prosecutor Don Wandling handled the trials, and each writ was denied by the presiding circuit judges, resulting in both men returned to prison to finish their sentences.
And now to add a personal touch to this unusual account of double murder and the conviction that came about in a most unusual way, likely saving the confessed killer from a life-long prison sentence.
First, defense attorney Bernard Smith, commonly known then as one of the most brilliant, yet ruthless and arrogant attorneys to ever practice law in Logan County, had been elected state senator after previously serving as state welfare commissioner, where he was accused of fraud during the corrupt administration of Gov. Wally Barron. My first encounter with Smith came in an odd way.
I was 13 years old in May 1966 when, even before the sun had come up to lighten the polling grounds of Verdunville Grade School (directly up the hill from where I lived), county commission candidate Alvis Porter — the uncle of a nephew named for him who would years later become Logan Circuit Clerk — pulled a pistol and stuck it to the chest of Bernard Smith, who had made an unflattering remark to the former constable. Standing only about six feet away from the two men, I honestly thought Porter was going to kill him. And, oh, how Logan County history would have been changed.
Fast forward from 1966 to sometime either in the late 1980s or early 1990s. No longer a teenager, I journeyed about a mile from my Verdunville home to a little community beer joint known to me as John’s, but to others as The Shegon Inn. It was there that many guys of the mostly younger Mud Fork community had regularly gathered on weekends for several years — since becoming of legal drinking age — to enjoy some 50-cent beers, maybe shoot a few games of pool, and partake in the three-songs-for-a-quarter jukebox.
One evening I walked into the place and sat down at one of the only six bar stools in the cinderblock building that featured an outdoor toilet and two gas pumps. I couldn’t help but notice the fellow at the bar stool beside me. Despite the man having arms the size of tree trunks, I never gave him much thought because John Mullins, the owner and bartender, could handle anybody that even thought of causing trouble.
After a quick glance over at the man, the burly guy with a thick gut, in one of the deepest voices I’ve ever heard, said, “You’re going to buy a belt off of me, son.” I must have looked confused, and he repeated, “I said you’re going to buy a belt off me. They’re six dollars apiece.”
Not even knowing the man, I wisely agreed to purchase the leather belt — one of many made in prison by Sam Moore, the man whose name I would only later be told.
Moore would — about 20 years later — end a criminal career by murdering a Boone County preacher near the Logan-Boone County line. Convicted, Sam Moore died in prison.
As for this writer, well, I’ve often wondered just what would have transpired had I not bought that leather belt.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.