POINT PLEASANT — Probable cause has been found in the case of a Point Pleasant Intermediate School principal accused of felony child abuse with the case now bound over to a grand jury after a contentious preliminary hearing Monday morning.
Principal Cameron Moffett arrived at the Mason County Courthouse Monday morning for that preliminary hearing looking very calm and collected — very unlike the media image which has portrayed him as some sort of tyrant on a school bus. Moffett was greeted outside Mason County Magistrate Court to applause from staff from Mason County Schools which had showed up in force to show him support. However, also at the courthouse were family members and supporters of 11-year old student Zachary Plants. Plants was in the building but kept away from the commotion and out of view.
Those permitted in Magistrate Court were limited to witnesses, family, media and counsel. While in the smaller magistrate courtroom, Moffett was served by a representative of the Plants’ family attorney, presumably regarding the civil suit which has been filed against Moffett and Mason County Schools in U.S. District Court. The representative indicated he was also in town to serve Mason County Schools Superintendent Suzanne Dickens though Dickens did not appear to be at the hearing, at least not in the magistrate courtroom.
With well over 100 people showing up for the proceedings, Mason County Magistrate Gail Roush made the decision to move the hearing into the much larger accommodations of the circuit court courtroom. After concerns over the recording system were worked out and after running everyone in the substantial crowd through the metal detector, the preliminary hearing finally got under way with Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Sherry Eling bringing out her first witness.
Jamie Cochran, the bus driver who was assigned to the bus on which the incident took place, took the stand. Eling asked if Cochran had seen the video of the incident to which Cochran said she’d seen the whole video in its entirety shortly before taking the stand, adding she had previously seen edited versions of the video on the Internet. Eling then asked if the video represented the events as she remembered them that day to which Cochran said yes. Eling then played the video in the courtroom which got a visible, visceral reaction from the boy’s family with many breaking down in tears. When questioned further about the incident, Cochran agreed with Eling that it appeared Moffett did roll Plants, who was described as throwing a “fit” at this time, down the aisle but Cochran also said he did not roll the boy off the bus, saying she saw Plants walk off the bus under his own power and was not pushed or shoved by Moffett.
Jim Lees, attorney for Moffett, asked Cochran if the student had been asked multiple times to move from his seat on the bus and refused. Cochran said he had, but she didn’t know why he didn’t want to move and when asked about the student’s history, Cochran said she had no prior knowledge of it.
At this point, Eling objected to Lees’ attempts to bring up the student’s history with Magistrate Roush sustaining her argument. This ruling caused an audible grumble from some in the courtroom with Magistrate Roush momentarily halting the hearing to restore order.
Cochran said once Plants was off the bus, she witnessed Moffett restraining the upset boy on the ground. Lees then asked Cochran if she would agree this whole situation which occurred outside the bus lasted around 20-30 seconds in length — she agreed. Lees further asked if she saw Moffett do anything to intentionally harm the student, such as pushing, shoving or striking, to which Cochran said no. Eling then followed up with Cochran, going to what she felt was a relevant point in the video — the point where Moffett actually physically touches Plants and therefore, as Eling argued, establishes Plants was moved from a seat and into the aisle because Moffett physically put him there.
At this point, the prosecution rested with Lees bringing out his first witness — Elizabeth Kapp, a fifth grade teacher at PPIS. Kapp was on the bus that day with Cochran, preparing the students to depart for an event at the National Guard Armory. Kapp’s bus was apparently one of four loaded with students who were all waiting on the order to depart. Kapp said while getting ready to depart, both she and Cochran tried to convince Plants to move without success. Kapp said Plants was allowed to bring his MP3 player with him and that apparently a piece had fallen off the player. She added he appeared “agitated” and “frustrated” and did not acknowledge her as she was speaking to him. When asked by Eling if other students had shoved Plants out of his seat, indicating this was perhaps a reason for his agitation, Kapp said she didn’t see it. Kapp said when both she and the bus driver could not get Plants to obey, the protocol was to call for the principal.
The video Eling played shows Moffett did get on the bus, asked Plants to come to him twice but with no success. Moffett then went to talk to Plants, with Kapp saying she did not know what was said between Moffett and Plants at that time. Kapp said when Moffett asked her to clear the bus of the students in front of he and Plants, she did and was standing outside the bus when Plants and Moffett later appeared. Lees earlier argued Moffett cleared the front of the bus to protect the other students. Kapp says she witnessed Plants walk out of the bus on his own and then throw himself on the ground into a fit. Kapp said, in her opinion, Moffett then restrained Plants to keep him from injuring himself. Lees asked Kapp about the 20-30 seconds of Moffett restraining Plants and if Plants calmed down. Kapp agreed on Lees’ timeframe and that Plants did calm down.
Lees then called Annette Cook, another teacher at PPIS who was standing outside the bus Moffett and Plants exited on that day. Cook said she saw Plants walk off the bus first and on his own. Cook said he continued to walk further and then dropped himself to the ground, kicking and screaming. She said she didn’t see what happened after that because she’d gotten onto her bus with her kids to supervise them at the time. Lees asked if she’d given her statement to the Point Pleasant Police Department which is investigating the case to which she replied she did. However, Cook accused the department of dismissing her statement and questioning what she said she saw.
During closing arguments, Lees said the statute for felony child abuse in West Virginia says physical injury must have been shown by other than accidental means — arguing the state had no evidence to support this charge. Eling disagreed saying Lees was not interpreting the statute correctly, arguing that it applies to any person who abuses a child or creates a substantial risk of bodily injury.
Also during a contentious closing, Lees was upset he could not get into the child’s background who he often referred to as “unruly,” asking whether or not Moffett was supposed to stand around and wait to “get kicked in the balls” by this “unruly” child who at one point had his feet at Moffett’s groin in the video. Lees then asked if teachers now had to call 9-1-1 or other law enforcement to get an “unruly” child off the bus.
“There has to be physical injury and intent,” Lees argued, saying those two crucial elements were not present in this case.
Shortly after, Magistrate Roush announced her decision to audible reactions which included clapping from the supporters of the Plants family and booing from those who were there to support Moffett — this display was quickly silenced by a deputy with the Mason County Sheriff’s Department who then cleared the courtroom.
Immediately after the hearing, Lees spoke to the press saying Moffett should’ve handled the situation exactly how he handled it. Lees also said he believes the background of the child “is relevant in this case, but this magistrate didn’t rule that way.”
Outside, after the ruling, supporters of the Plants family stood on the corner of Sixth and Viand Streets with signs. One of these supporters was Plants’ aunt, Bethany Vance, who said the family was pleased with the ruling and that, “he’s (Zachary) a good boy … he doesn’t deserve this.”
Once the courthouse had cleared, Zachary was led across the parking lot, a jacket over his face with family flanking him until he was placed in a pickup truck, ending another day in a series of days which has seemed to divide an entire community.