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Fire units ask county for relief
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ROMNEY — At the evening meeting held May 25, the County Commission received requests to give American Rescue Plan funds to local fire companies, to compensate them for last year’s fund-raising shortfalls; to the Central Hampshire Public Service District to develop a new water source in Augusta; and to the county broadband project to continue to expand coverage.

Requestors all referred to stated purposes of the ARP, with firefighters trying to make up for financial losses due to Covid-19, and the other requests emphasizing building infrastructure.

The commission could do no more than “add to the list” the requests received, said Commission President Brian Eglinger. The county has not yet received the promised funds, and no one is entirely sure what restrictions will be placed on them.

The request on behalf of the county’s volunteer fire companies was presented by Springfield Valley fireman Brian “Tad” Malcolm, who serves as the county emergency management director.

Malcolm reported 2 of the 8 fire companies had seen revenue drops of over $60,000 each last year, due to Covid-19 restrictions that shut down gun bashes and other profitable fundraising activities, and all but one of the others had lost substantial amounts.

Malcolm gave the commissioners a list of the losses each company incurred, measured by comparing this year’s receipts to what was raised in previous years. The losses added up to over $200,000, Commissioner Dave Cannon noted.

The request for help developing a secondary water source came from the Central Hampshire Public Service District, which asked for ARP funds to aid in the development of a secondary water source in the North River area.

The commissioners were told CHPSD considers this high priority given the dependence of the Romney water system on river water and the vulnerability of rivers, including to the South Branch, to contamination.

The commissioners were reminded of the 2014 Elk River Spill that left 300,000 people in the Charleston area without safe drinking water. It was also noted that studies already done by the county have found the $3 million to $4 million cost of drilling a well on county-owned property in Augusta the cheapest option.

The other 2 alternatives considered were a $7 million project piping water from sources serving the Capon Bridge Technology Park, or a $10 million water plant constructed on the North River.

County GIS and technology director Aaron Cox also made a request for ARP funds, hoping to use them to extend the county broadband project.

In other business, the commission approved a conservation easement for Bonnie View Farm, at the request of Farmland Protection Board Director Alison Jewell. The easement will protect 817 acres of land along U.S. 50 west of Romney from development.

Eglinger, who served as Farmland Protection Board director before being elected to the County Commission, praised the decision as helping preserve the rural character of the county.

The commissioners voted to renew 1-year contracts with Capon Bridge to provide the town with a floodplain administrator, and with the Winchester-based Middle Department Inspection Agency for inspections related to building permits.

After a brief executive session to discuss terms of the contract, the commission hired Matthew Hott to oversee construction of the new county ambulance station planned for Sunrise Summit and the completion of work at the county judicial center.

‘We want her found’
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Nearly 3 months after she disappeared, Cassie’s parents are still searching

The Augusta woman and her ex-husband have been searching since mid-March for 24-year-old Cassie Sheetz. They have only questions and frustrations for their efforts.

“We want her found,” Cassie’s dad Larry Black says. “Not knowing is one of the worst feelings ever.”

The West Virginia State Police said they have done all they can to try to find the missing woman.

“We’ve searched for days and days and days, both on foot and in water, with cadaver dogs and bloodhounds,” said Sgt. A.D. Teter of the Pocahontas County detachment.

“We got nothing.”

By all accounts, Sheetz went up Spruce Knob on March 11 with 2 men, 30-year-old Grant Sager and 23-year-old James Brill Jr. Sheetz and her 3 children were living with Sager in Wardensville. Brill is from Wardensville also.

The 3 were recorded by surveillance cameras at a gas station in Riverton around 2 p.m. that Thursday. Riverton sits on Route 28 about halfway between Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob, in the Monongahela National Forest.

That’s the last time Cassie Sheetz was seen by anyone other than Sager and Brill.

The trio apparently drove to the top of Sprue Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, reaching the summit around midnight. Snow and ice covered the ground, but March 11 had turned pleasant, about the 1st spring-like day of the year.

“There was still close to 6 inches of snow and ice melt on the road,” Black said.

Details about what happened on Spruce Knob are sketchy.

Shelton said Brill told her during a phone call a few days later that the 3 became separated, starting with Sager going in search of the source of a noise they heard.

Then, he told Shelton, he fell and lost sight of Cassie by the time he got back up.

“James supposedly made his way back to the vehicle and supposedly busted the back window out because Cassie had the keys to the car,” Shelton said. “Grant was seen walking back up towards the car.”

Friday morning, each man made his way off the mountain walking down the Huckleberry Trail.

Cassie never showed up.

Sager and Brill reported the disappearance to authorities later on Friday and searching began almost immediately.

Black found out that his daughter was missing on Saturday. Shelton, in rehab at the time, was informed 2 days later, March 15.

Black, a truck driver living in Pennsylvania, was up on Spruce Knob that Sunday, March 14, with a trooper who showed him where the vehicle had been.

“I hiked the trail they were supposed to be on by myself,” Black said. “Probably about a mile in it was just so thick and rugged that I wanted to come back later.”

He was back up the mountain every other day for 3 weeks searching.

“I was probably hiking 10 to 12 miles a day,” he said, “and I’m an average fat truck driver.”

Shelton has been to Spruce Knob 3 times herself.

So why did Cassie, Sager and Brill go to Spruce Knob?

“The story we’ve got was Cassie wanted to show them something,” Shelton said. She said her daughter had been to the Spruce Knob observation tower once, but never to the summit.

“My daughter was scared to death of the dark,” Shelton said. “She would never have gone there at night.”

Sgt. Teter was more blunt with his assessment.

“She wasn’t a hiker,” he said. “She was a tweaker,” using the slang term for a methamphetamine user.

Sager has drug convictions in his past and is currently sitting in the Potomac Highlands Regional Jail on what Teter called federal and state parole violations related to drugs.

Brill, Teter said, “has lawyered up” and won’t take a polygraph test.

Black and Shelton acknowledge that Cassie has a checkered past.

“We’ve never said Casssie was a saint, but she’s our kid,” Shelton said. “Regardless of whether it’s drug-related or not, it’s still our child.”

The parents want to see more done.

“Why didn’t they bring in the FBI?” Black wonders.

Teter says the State Police have done all they can.

“We’ve closed the case as active and pending,” he said.

Black and Shelton are still on the case with flyers, Facebook postings and a gofundme account.

“There’s too many unanswered questions that don’t add up. It’s hard to say where she is,” Black said. “We’re doing everything possible that we can.”

1-room Walnut Grove ‘a real gem’
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But that’s the problem: it shouldn’t blend in. In fact, Ed Snyder is looking for help to bring it back out of obscurity in Hampshire County as a museum and walk-in artifact illustrating education as it was more than 150 years ago. 

The building is the Walnut Grove School, and the original structure was built in 1850. It’s a 1-room school, and likely one of the oldest and best preserved in the state, said Snyder, whose late wife Joy’s family was the Tutwilers, who actually founded and received their education at the school.

“The school was founded by (my wife’s) great-grandfather on the family farm, and it stayed on the family farm until it closed, I think around 1935,” said Snyder.

The school closed in 1935, but in August of 1973, Clyde Tutwiler (Snyder’s father-in-law) sold the building to the school board, who moved the structure from its original location on Little Cacapon Creek to where it sits now on the HHS campus, near the agriculture buildings.

Clyde Tutwiler sold it in 1973 with the purpose of the board turning it into a museum, Snyder explained. But that didn’t really happen.

“I don’t think it's really been touched in 50 years, and probably another 70 before that,” Snyder said with a laugh. “The school hadn’t been used since the 1930s except for a few visitors who went through after it was moved.”

He added, “I obviously don’t like the idea of a 150-year-old relic in the county just sitting idle.”

Snyder’s plan is to bring some attention back to the history of education in Hampshire by opening Walnut Grove School back up to the public, without using any county funds (only private donations), and maybe even looking into getting it on the National Register of Historic Places.

“That was Mr. Tutwiler’s original reason for donating it, so it could be used as a building museum,” Snyder said. “I see no reason as to why it shouldn’t qualify. If it can’t be the National Register, then the state one.”

One-room schools aren’t necessarily uncommon in the Mountain State, but Walnut Grove School has a step up above the rest: it is still furnished with the same items as it was when it was used 150 years ago — chalkboards, desks, you name it.

He even reached out to the Country School Association of America, he said, to see what they thought of the historical goldmine that is Walnut Grove.

“They said, ‘You’ve got a real gem here,’” chuckled Snyder. “Usually they have to go hustling for furniture and donations and stuff like that, but it’s already here.”

Snyder lives in Winchester now, but the school and the Tutwilers have deep roots in Hampshire County. Snyder’s wife Joy had 2 sisters, Betty and Dorothy. Betty is the only one of Clyde Tutwiler’s children still living, but Snyder says he has several nieces currently in the county as well, including Rhonda Dante, Theresa Hoff and Sonya Mowery.

“I’m really doing this more as a memorial for my wife and her family,” Snyder said about Joy, who passed away last fall. He said that while Joy’s family has the ties to Walnut Grove, he won’t be able to complete the project on his own.

He has posted information on the Hampshire History Facebook page (“I’ve gotten a whole bunch of new contacts just from the comment section,” Snyder said with raised eyebrows. “I was surprised there was that kind of interest in an old school.”) and is looking for help, maybe from the Retired School Employees Association, to bring the school back to being a museum and educational tool.

Snyder said that someday soon, he also hopes to see someone write a book about the history of 1 and 2 room schools in Hampshire County. With over 140 of these rural schoolhouses originally across the county, Snyder says current numbers have dwindled to around 30.

“(Walnut Grove) is the most complete schoolhouse,” he pointed out. He’s looking to mark it as a historical site and a nonprofit, showing Hampshire County that history is, and continues to be, right in its backyard.

Cruelty charges continued
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DReturn of 7 dogs on Monday docket

Sabrina Droescher was in magistrate court briefly Tuesday afternoon for a pretrial hearing on 103 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty that were lodged against her in early April.

But Prosecutor Rebecca Miller said her office has yet to hand over the information it has on the case to Droescher’s attorney, Kevin Sponaugle.

“Discovery is voluminous,” Sponaugle acknowledged to Magistrate John Rohrbaugh. “We expect it in the next week or 2.”

Rohrbaugh continued the case for 90 days to give the defense team time to work through the evidence still being sorted by lead investigator Cpl. Phoebe Lahman of the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office.

Droescher will be back in the Judicial Center at 3 p.m. next Monday (June 7) before Judge Carter Williams in her bid to regain custody of 7 dogs.

Magistrate Ron DiCiolla denied her their return on April 16.

“This case is over,” DiCiolla said after his ruling.

“This case is far from over,” Droescher muttered as she left the courtroom. She appealed, setting up next week’s hearing in circuit court.

Authorities had allowed 1 dog, a blue pit bull, to remain with Droescher “for safety purposes” due to its extremely aggressive behavior. The 7 other contested dogs are being held at the county animal shelter.

When DiCiolla ruled that the 7 dogs would not be returned, he told Droescher, “What I’m seeing is good intentions gone bad. At this point, looking at the whole picture, I’m not going to return the dogs to you.”

Droescher was charged with 103 counts of animal cruelty after the dogs were seized from her Cabin Road property off Timber Mountain Road.

When sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant there on April 5 they found the remains of at least 20 dogs along with the live ones.

Cpl. Phoebe Lahman began an investigation into Droescher’s Love Shack rescue on Sept. 30. At that time Droescher was ordered to reduce the number of dogs she housed.

Technology drives HMH expansion
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SUNRISE SUMMIT — The $4.2 million expansion project that Hampshire Memorial Hospital is undergoing is driven by the changes in technology in the 10 years since the hospital was built.

“We want to relocate and give more space because of growth and also changes in technology,” HMH President Tom Kluge says amid the pounding and drilling of construction.

Improved technology is spurring expansion of the lab facility, relocation of the pharmacy and installation of a permanent home for nuclear medicine.

“There’s more that we can do here,” HMH Vice President Mary Sas said about the blood testing done in the lab, “because the technology has been so improved. It doesn’t have to stay in Winchester.”

But the capabilities come with equipment that’s bulkier.

“We’re going to have to push out that space just to get the equipment in there,” Sas said.

So the lab will be built out into space now used as the reception area. A new addition is being built to accommodate reception, but that’s really the only expansion of square footage.

All the rest of the work is building out empty space from the original construction 10 years ago.

“We’re not adding a lot of square footage,” Kluge said. “We’re really renovating on the inside and moving some services.”

The pharmacy will move, again to accommodate new safety standards as well as equipment that gives it more capabilities.

The emergency department is going from 6 exam rooms to 8, although that’s more driven by growth than technology.

“Pre-pandemic we got up to 9,000 visits a year and 6 rooms is pretty tight,” Kluge said, noting that the ER is having to hold patients longer, particularly psychiatric.

New space on the 2nd floor of the Multispecialty Clinic will house not only the pharmacy, but wound care, a sleep lab and nuclear medicine.

The sleep lab moves from the respiratory department to its own 2 rooms, allowing HMH to join the other 5 hospitals in the Valley Health system to have such a facility.

“With heart disease, lung disease and obesity, it’s a much needed service,” Sas said, and then noting that improving technology allows many sleep studies to be done outpatient and at-home.

“But we still have a good many that are done inside,” she said.

Nuclear medicine is a diagnostic tool using radio isotopes that is handled as a mobile service now.  

“But we want to make it a permanent service,” Kluge said. 

HMH began planning the changes nearly 3 years ago and received go-ahead from the state in 2019.

Construction was scheduled to begin in early 2020, stopped dead in its tracks by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We couldn’t have the construction workers in and everything was pretty much shut down,” Sas said.

And, of course, hospital staff was focused on containing the pandemic and treating the virus’s victims.

“The pandemic stressed all hospitals,” Kluge said. “There was a time when it was difficult to make a transfer for high level care because everyone was full.”

That difficulty reinforced the notion in Valley Health that perhaps the small hospitals could step up their care, fitting in with a corporate goal to keep people local.

“It’s certainly opened up the thought we can take care of many people here,” Kluge said.

Sas pointed out one way the migration of services from Winchester Medical Center is already occurring.

“A year ago all of our Covid tests had to be shipped to Winchester,” she said. “We now have 3 different Covid tests we can do right here.”

Construction finally began in January and is scheduled to wrap up before the end of the year.

The investment follows a $750,000 expansion of the Multispecialty Clinic 3 years ago. And, of course, the hospital itself is just 10 years old, a $35 million investment.

“Valley Health is prepared to make the investments in their communities,” Kluge said.