Hancock sheriff candidate faces indictment

WHEELING – A former Hancock County sheriff’s lieutenant who is running for the office of sheriff has been indicted for allegedly roughing up a suspect while making an arrest in January 2015.

Mark Cowden, 51, of Weirton, faces one count each of deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice (falsification of document) following his indictment by a federal grand jury in Wheeling, U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II said. The indictment was announced Wednesday afternoon.

The indictment accuses Cowden, a Republican candidate for sheriff, of using excessive force during an arrest attempt on Jan. 27, 2015. During the arrest, which occurred at the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, Cowden allegedly physically assaulted a suspect identified only as “R.H.,” the indictment said.

Cowden was indicted under the section of the U.S. Code pertaining to deprivation of rights under color of law.

On Jan. 29, 2015, while filling out arrest-related paperwork, Cowden allegedly made four false statements about the incident and omitted two key facts, the indictment said.

Cowden allegedly falsely claimed that the suspect became “more agitated” as he approached the sheriff’s department, described the suspect as “verbally abusive/combative,” claimed that he and another officer told the suspect to “settle down,” and claimed that the suspect was told “to stop at the elevator” in the sheriff’s department, the indictment said.

The indictment also accuses Cowden of omitting the fact that he struck the suspect in the head and that the use of force injured the suspect.

Cowden could not be reached for comment.

Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, under whom Cowden served and against whom Cowden is running, declined to comment on the case or the original incident.

“It’s not my investigation,” he said. “Any inquiry about this investigation needs to go through the U.S. attorney’s office.”

Fletcher said he did not testify before the grand jury this week but that he may be called to testify in the future.

Cowden, a 1983 graduate of Weir High School, worked at the sheriff’s department for 26 years, 16 of those years as a sergeant and lieutenant. He was promoted to lieutenant in February 2014 and retired in May 2015 – four months after the alleged incident addressed in the indictment.

Cowden filed as a Republican candidate for sheriff in January and ran unopposed in the May 10 primary election.

In his campaign literature, Cowden describes himself as a man of faith and a “visionary leader whose only goal is to serve the citizens of this county. … I am pro Second Amendment and the constitutional rights of the people.”

Cowden faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 for the deprivation of rights charge and up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 for the obstruction charge.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jarod J. Douglas and Department of Justice Civil Rights Trial Attorney Nicholas Murphy are handling the case on behalf of the government.

Cowden is scheduled to make an initial appearance before Wheeling Magistrate Judge James E. Seibert at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)


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