ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Seven agents from the Ohio Investigative Unit have testified against Belmont County Commissioner Matt Coffland during two days in court, and just one said they personally saw him throw a can that hit an agent in the head during an incident in July at Jamboree In The Hills.
Special Prosecutor Thomas Hampton rested his case at the end of Thursday's proceedings. Defense testimony starts at 9 a.m. today before visiting Judge Linton D. Lewis at the Belmont County Courthouse.
Coffland is on trial for a felony charge of assault against a peace officer. If convicted, he would not be legally permitted to serve as commissioner.
Photo by Joselyn King
Belmont County Commissioner Matthew D. Coffland confers with his attorneys during proceedings at the Belmont County Courthouse on Thursday.
A Shadyside bar owner, Coffland also had received misdemeanor citations earlier this year from agents.
The felony charge filed by the Ohio Department of Public Safety, the enforcement arm for the Ohio Bureau of Liquor Control, states that on July 20, Coffland threw a full "can or bottle" containing an "unknown fluid" at Agent Donald Germany while at the JITH venue near Morristown. The can struck Germany in the back of head, and the liquid splashed other agents, according to the citation.
Patrick Cassidy, attorney for Coffland, asked Linton Thursday to dismiss the charge against his client, citing what he termed a lack of a case by the prosecution. Lewis denied the motion.
Cassidy noted the state's primary witness, Alicia Corey of Warren, Pa., testified that she witnessed a man throw a can that struck someone who she later learned was an undercover agent. But, he added, she was unable to positively identify Coffland as the man who threw the object.
"And although there have been many agents who have testified, there have been none - except (Agent Ron Robinson) - who actually said he saw something in connection with throwing this actual can," Cassidy said. "That is, he saw a can flying through the air that some unidentified man threw, and he also testified that he didn't know where it landed. He did not know whether or not it hit anyone. After that ... what the agents testified to is what they told each other happened."
But Hampton countered Corey was "100 percent sure when she pointed him out and got him arrested" and "100 percent sure when she saw him in the cuffs" that Coffland was the man who threw the can.
"She just doesn't remember now," he continued. "Even without her testimony, Agent Robinson saw the can - just didn't see it land. You can draw the inference that it landed on the head of the agent that got hurt."
The first to testify Thursday was Germany, who told the court he had just started work as an agent in May. Agent Collette Shannon was his field training officer and was with him at JITH. The two collaborated on the paperwork asking for charges against Coffland, he said.
Germany said he and Shannon were patrolling the JITH crowd looking for underage drinking when they stopped to ask some younger-looking males for their identification. As many as 10 other agents were in close proximity, and agents who testified Thursday said that wasn't unusual - they often "travel in packs for safety" at large venue events.
While speaking with the youths, Germany said he noticed two men pointing at him and looking angry. One he identified as Coffland. About 30 seconds later, Germany said, he felt something strike him in the back of the head.
"It felt like somebody hit me with a rock ... or maybe I got punched with a fist in the head," he said.
Germany added he never saw what hit him, or where it came from. He held his head while other agents jumped into action, and he said he was not personally involved with the arrest.
After Corey and Robinson pointed out Coffland, a group of agents converged on the tarp where the Coffland family was gathered to apprehend him. He was taken back to the Investigative Unit's s command station at the JITH venue for processing and then to the Belmont County Jail.
Germany said he spoke with Coffland at the command post and that Coffland asked him, "Did I hit anybody?"
Germany told Coffland the can he threw had struck him.
"He said, 'I'm sorry,'" Germany said.
Other agents testifying Thursday were Sharon; Belmont County resident Robert Anderson; his wife, Michelle Anderson; Sam Love; and Erik Lockhart, supervising agent in charge of the Athens, Ohio, post. None said they personally witnessed Coffland throw the can or saw it land.
Cassidy consistently asked the agents about their training in gathering evidence, and why none had thought to try and find the can allegedly thrown by Coffland.