Ex-mine security boss gets 3 years in W.Va. blast

View near the scene of a mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W. Va., April 5, 2010. Twenty-nine miners lost their lives in the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in decades. AP

BECKLEY, W.Va. - A former security chief convicted of lying to investigators about the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at a West Virginia coal mine was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday. Prosecutors said it was one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in mine safety case.

Hughie Elbert Stover was convicted of lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy thousands of security-related documents at the Upper Big Branch mine following the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had sought a 25-year sentence, but he said he wasn't disappointed with the judge's decision.

"This represents perhaps one of the longest sentences ever handed down in a mine safety case," Goodwin said. "We wanted to send a clear message and will continue to send that anyone who obstructs our investigation, they're going to be met with the harshest prosecution."

Federal sentencing guidelines called for a total sentence of about three years for both crimes. Judges do not have to follow the guidelines.

"Well, that's better than what I thought," Gary Quarles, whose son died in the blast, said of the punishment. "It's a little bit of satisfaction. It's a start."

W.Va. mine boss charged in deadly blast

Stover showed no emotion when the sentence was announced. He will report to prison at a later date.

"I should be pleased in the sentence of only three years in light of the government's request for 25 years," defense attorney Bill Wilmoth said. "If that's a victory, then it's a hollow one, because three years is a long time for someone who is 60 to be incarcerated."

Wilmoth said he had not decided whether to appeal the sentence.

Witnesses testified at Stover's trial that he instructed mine guards to send out radio alerts whenever inspectors entered the property, which is illegal. Stover denied the claims in a November 2010 interview with investigators.

The second count alleged Stover sought to destroy documents in January 2011 by ordering a subordinate to bag them and then throw them into an on-site trash compactor, which is also illegal. Massey Energy, which owned the mine at the time, repeatedly warned employees to keep all records while the disaster remained under investigation. Company officials told investigators of the trashed documents, which were recovered.

Defense attorney Bill Wilmoth said Stover's actions were innocent mistakes and he deserved no jail time.

The defense portrayed the former law enforcement officer, a veteran of both the Navy and Marines, as a by-the-book employee who became a victim of the government's zeal to blame someone for the deadly explosion. A former mine superintendent was charged last week with conspiracy to defraud the government.

Gary May is accused among other things of disabling a methane gas monitor, falsifying safety records and using code words to tip off miners underground about surprise inspections.

Court documents indicate May is cooperating with investigators. He could get up to five years in prison if found guilty.

Quarles said a stiffer sentence from the judge could have helped future prosecutions.

"I think it would put pressure on the rest of them to look at themselves and say, `We're not going to get out of this."'

Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon, Va., acquired Richmond-based Massey last June through a $7.1 billion takeover deal.

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