UPDATE: Woman Fires Attorney in Sniper Digging Case Lawsuit

By: Cathleen Moxley, Brooks Jarosz, Brad Myers, Michael Hyland Email
By: Cathleen Moxley, Brooks Jarosz, Brad Myers, Michael Hyland Email

UPDATE 2/7/12 @ 11:20 a.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The woman who has filed a lawsuit against the city of Charleston was back in court Tuesday.

Shaffer wanted the city of Charleston to repay her for damages to the property. It’s a place where police say sniper shooting suspect Shawn Lester hid out several years ago.

Sandra Shaffer told the court she has fired her attorney.

In a handwritten letter Shaffer submitted to the court on December 28, she writes:

"I fill Mr. Clifford did not have an interest in my case. He was there for the puldisity and not for helping me get a new home or belongings. He made my case a personal issue between Danny Jones and Kent Carper. Detv. Hunt should not of been on the suite. Mr. Clifford said he was there to fight the man, but I was there to recover my home and belongings. Since nothing was happening I wish to fire Mike Clifford, Ed Rebrook and any other lawyer from Cliffords office."

During the hearing Tuesday, the judge accepted the motion to dismiss Clifford, Rebrook and any other lawyers from Clifford's office of their duties in this case.

It's still unclear if Shaffer plans to hire a new attorney or represent herself. There has been no trial date set for this lawsuit.

Shaffer also filed a similar lawsuit against Kanawha County, but a judge dismissed the county from the lawsuit, saying sheriff's deputies simply provided security while Charleston Police conducted the search.

Mr.Clifford wasn't immediately available for comment.

Lester is scheduled to go on trial in the murders later this spring.

UPDATE 12/28/12 @ 9:10 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A high-profile part of the Kanawha County sniper case is coming to an end.

That’s after Sandra Shaffer, the Sissonville woman whose home was destroyed in a search for evidence, dropped her lawsuit. She said the case wasn’t going anywhere.

Shaffer wanted the city of Charleston and Kanawha County to repay her for damages to the property. It’s a place where police say sniper shooting suspect Shawn Lester hid out several years ago.

A judge dismissed Kanawha County from the lawsuit, saying sheriff's deputies simply provided security while Charleston police conducted the search.

Shaffer said she has suffered throughout the search process.

"I do feel like that I'd been wronged, and I did do without,” Shaffer said. “It's been nine months, and I've really suffered."

Shaffer went on to say, “I do feel like they at least owe me a house and some belongings. But, whether I would get it or not, that's a different story."

County officials said they found meth-making materials and condemned the property.

"There is a necessity for the police, in this case the Charleston Police, to detect crime and not worry about being sued individually,” said Kent Carper with the Kanawha County Commission. “That was the part that I found most offensive."

For now, Shaffer is living with family and doesn't know what she'll do next.

"Right now, I'm mad as hell,” she said. “So, until I get over that, I don't know what I'm going to do."

The side story to all of this was the man she hired to represent her, attorney Mike Clifford. He was the county prosecutor at the time of the murders and and fought off attacks he was too close to the case to represent her.

Shaffer recently fired him, saying her case became too much about him.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones declined to comment on the case until Shaffer formally moves to withdraw it.

There were reports Wednesday Shaffer planned to leave the country for a wedding despite the fact that she's out on bond for a 2009 drug charge. She says she was unaware that the conditions of the bond were still in place and has canceled her plans.

UPDATE 10/7/11 @ 9:15 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Kanawha County attorneys argued Friday that a lawsuit against them related to the investigation of the 2003 sniper shootings should be dismissed.

Sandra Shaffer’s home was destroyed this spring when Charleston Police brought in heavy machinery to dig on her Sissonville property for evidence in the sniper case.

Shaffer has sued the city of Charleston, Kanawha County, a city police officer, a county employee and several unnamed defendants.

When Shaffer returned to her property in April as the digging was wrapping up, she found a complete mess.

"It's sickening, I mean just absolutely sickening to see everything that you've worked for in your life to be laying out in a mud hole," Shaffer told WSAZ.com in April.

Shaffer says someone needs to pay, so that she can get a new home.

"The Kanawha County deputy sheriffs simply provided security for this on the site," says Johnnie Brown, an attorney representing Kanawha County in the case.

During Friday’s hearing, Brown argued the deputies had a minimal role in the search operation.

"There's a duty for a police officer not to stand idly by and watch someone's constitutional rights get violated," says one of Shaffer’s attorneys, Richelle Garlow.

County attorneys say police found meth-making materials at Shaffer's home along with piles of trash and raw sewage running into the open woods.

So, it needed to be condemned.

"Now, were there situations that needed correction? Certainly," says Mike Clifford, one of Shaffer’ attorneys.

But beyond that, county attorneys say the deputies were simply standing guard while the police department followed a court order to search the site.

Brown described the “extremely limited role of the sheriff's department. Has there been anything to counter that? Absolutely no evidence.”

But, Shaffer's attorneys say there was no reason to tear her home apart.

"We still have hope that the city will do the right thing, or the county will do the right thing, and replace the double-wide. That's all they've got to do," says Clifford.

Police have said they didn't end up finding any evidence on Shaffer's property.

Friday's hearing only concerned the county, not the city's part in this lawsuit.

Both sides have 30 days to file paperwork with a judge, and then he'll make a decision.

UPDATE 8/24/11 @ 6:25 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A former Kanawha County prosecutor was back in court Wednesday, awaiting a decision about whether or not he can represent one of his clients.

“Sandra Schaffer, as of this morning when I talked to her, was still homeless,” her attorney Mike Clifford said.

Schaffer says her house was destroyed last April as police searched for evidence related to the 2003 sniper shootings that killed three people.

Clifford wants the Kanawha County Commission and the city of Charleston to pay for the damage.

“The fact that they chose to drive a bulldozer right through the middle of Sandra Schaffer’s house has nothing to do whatsoever with the sniper shooting,” Clifford said.

City and county officials say Shaffer’s property had already been condemned for meth, and that there was a strong reason to dig for evidence in the murders.

They also argued that Clifford’s role as prosecutor at the time of the sniper shootings is a conflict of interest.

“Whatever he learned while he was the prosecutor cannot be used against us, and it's already started to be used against us in the briefing of this case as to the reasons for the search,” said Michael Mullins, who is representing the city.

However, that argument wasn’t enough to convince the judge.

“The court is going to deny a motion to disqualify Mr. Clifford and allow him to continue on with the representation of Ms. Schaffer,” Judge James Stucky said.

Clifford says his main goal is to make sure Schaffer receives compensation for her home and damaged property.

UPDATE 7/20/11 @ 6:20 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A lawsuit over a remote piece of property in Sissonville has hit a snag, after the Kanawha County Commission filed a motion saying the property owner's lawyer should be disqualified.

Sandra Shaffer says investigators destroyed her home in connection with the 2003 sniper shooting investigation.

Shaffer filed suit against the county for the damage.

The county then fired back, wanting her attorney, Mike Clifford, dismissed from the case.

Clifford was the Kanawha County prosecutor at the time of the shootings.

The commission argues Clifford has a conflict of interest.

The judge delayed Shaffer's suit Wednesday until a hearing and decision is made on Clifford's status.

Shaffer wants to get a protective order against the county, but that will have to come after the decision on Clifford.

They are due back in court in late August.

UPDATE 7/6/11 @ 6:30 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- There’s more controversy surrounding the investigation into the 2003 Kanawha Valley sniper shootings that killed three people.

Several months ago, police went digging for evidence on Sandra Shaffer's property in Sissonville.

After her home and property were destroyed, Shaffer sued several agencies in Kanawha County. Now, the county is fighting back.

The Kanawha County Commission says Shaffer's attorney, Mike Clifford, poses a conflict of interest because he was the prosecutor at the time of the sniper shootings.

Wednesday, the commission took action by filing a motion to dismiss Clifford from the case.

“If money's owed then we'll pay it, but in the meantime we think it's improper for this certain lawyer to be doing this because, during the time, he represented police,” Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper said.

“They found nothing on Sandra Shaffer's property even remotely related to the sniper shootings,” Clifford said.

But the commission fired back, saying that's not completely true.

“Today's not-evidence becomes tomorrow's evidence,” Carper said. “There are items that have been seized out there that may well become pertinent evidence."

Clifford says he conferred with the ethics committee before filing the suit, and that this motion is only holding up the process.

“This is a no-brainer,” Clifford said. “They know that ultimately they're going to have to compensate her for what they did to her property."

Clifford says he does plan to file either a counter petition or an ethics complaint against the county's attorney who represented him at the time of the sniper shootings.

Carper says at the end of the day he just wants justice for the sniper victims and doesn't want to waste tax dollars on these lawsuits.

County officials also have said they don't owe Shaffer anything because the property was condemned due to meth found in three trailers.

UPDATE 6/3/11 @ 11:45 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – An attorney for the Sissonville property owner where police spent several days digging for evidence in the 2003 sniper shootings filed a lawsuit Friday for damage done on the property.

Mike Clifford, who is representing property owner Sandra Shaffer, filed the lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court against the county, the City of Charleston, Charleston police officer James Hunt and county planning director David Armstrong.

Clifford says police destroyed Shaffer’s residence “maliciously, unreasonably” and “in violation of clearly established law.”

County leaders call the accusations outrageous.

WSAZ.com got a chance to visit the site after police opened it up again and found Shaffer’s home destroyed with her belongings scattered about the property and covered in mud.

At the time Shaffer said it was "absolutely sickening to see everything you've worked for all your life to be laying out in a mud hole."

Since then, she's tried to get money through the city and county's insurance carriers, and now she's suing.

Clifford says, "I've been ready, willing and able to negotiate, to mediate, to do whatever's necessary to resolve this so I can put my client back in a home. They have deliberately made the decision not to."

County leaders say before the investigation and the digging even began, they found piles of tires, junk cars and raw sewage all over Shaffer's property.

Commission President Kent Carper said of the accusations, “I think that's totally ridiculous. I do not see that any of the police officers did anything maliciously or in bad faith. I just don't see that."

In the suit, Clifford claims he's just seeking money from liability insurance, not taxpayer payments.

"Well, that's a nice PR spin for Mr. Clifford, but this will cost the taxpayers all kinds of money," Carper says.

City officials say they actually have to pay out of the general fund up to $300,000 per claim against the city.

During Friday’s bond hearing for sniper shooting suspect Shawn Lester, there was a twist on this situation.

Charleston Police Lt. S.A. Cooper said Shaffer admitted there could be a body and vehicle buried under her home.

Cooper testified, "The person that owned that home told us that she believed there may be a vehicle under the house, with a body in the trailer."

Lester’s attorney, George Castelle, responded, "That was your source?"

"No, no, she confirmed our sources that she had the same information," Cooper said.

Despite all the digging, police never did find anything but acknowledged the evidence possibly could still be buried somewhere else on the property.

The city, county, and individuals mentioned in the lawsuit have 30 days to file their responses.

UPDATE 4/22/11 @ 7:10 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- What started as a battle over property damage has turned into a battle over representation.

Sandra Shaffer's property in Sissonville was recently condemned for meth and turned upside down into a crime scene connected to the 2003 sniper shootings.

Shaffer's lawyer Mike Cifford filed a claim for damages from that search.

"If you let parties start suing law enforcement officers when they execute valid warrants, and this was a valid warrant, then where does that end?" Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy said. "And this is costly to the public."

The county reiterated again Friday morning in a special meeting that it did nothing wrong, and even pointed out that they think Clifford has a conflict of interest in the sniper case since he was the prosecutor when the investigation started.

Clifford fired back with a letter saying the attorney representing the county also represented him in 2003, posing another conflict.

"That's not a very well thought out position in my judgment," Hardy said. "I've practiced law 26 years; I understand what conflicts are and our issue is totally different."

Time is also ticking for Shaffer, who recently received a notice of violations to the county's nuisance ordinance.

The county planning commission says before the police search warrant was executed piles of tires, unlicensed vehicles and raw sewage were found.

"It's a health hazard; it's an environmental issue," planning director David Armstrong said. "This is something we intend to follow through."

Shaffer has been given 20 days to clean up her property.

After a third notice, she could face big fines for each day the problems aren't fixed.

UPDATE 4/15/11 @ 7:30 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Charleston city officials say they acted responsibly and shouldn't have to pay for damage to a woman's home in Sissonville after police dug for evidence connected to the 2003 sniper shootings.

From a meth lab to a dig for evidence, Sandra Shaffer's property has been a source of questions, but now it's turning into a battle over damages.

"What happened was overzealous," Shaffer's attorney Mike Clifford said.

County leaders defended their actions, and now city leaders are doing the same.

Legally, Charleston's mayor and police chief say a sealed search warrant allowed them to dig on Shaffer's property.

"We were doing our job," Chief Brent Webster said. "If I had any reason to believe officers were acting overzealous or disrespectful, then obviously I'd step in."

Clifford already has filed an insurance claim for damages with both the county and the city.

Officials argue Clifford shouldn't even be involved since he was the county's prosecuting attorney when the sniper shootings happened.

"If the claim is turned down, which I anticipate it will be, then he's going to have to make a decision," Mayor Danny Jones said. "If he sues, and I don't think he'll do that, but if there is a case, he'll pass it off."

Jones defends the police department, citing the sealed search warrant and three trailers condemned for meth before police ever started digging.

"That place is a drug colony," Jones said.

David Armstrong, the county's planning director, released dozens of photos he says prove the property was in disarray before the property was condemned for meth-making materials.

Pictures show tires by the dozens, piles of debris and nearly a dozen unlicensed cars.

Plus, county officials say raw sewage ran through a pipe and emptied directly into the woods.

County leaders fired back at a commission meeting and may even file a complaint with the West Virginia State Bar, but Clifford doesn't buy it.

"They're posturing in an attempt to swing the public over to their side on this thing," Clifford said. "It all comes down to a woman whose house was torn apart by police officials."

"You try to handle that as delicately as possible," Webster said. "At the end of the day, you have the legal right to be there, and we took the necessary steps to try and accomplish our goals."

UPDATE 4/14/11 @ 11:30 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – Kanawha County leaders say they don’t think they should have to pay for damage done to a Sissonville woman’s home after police searched the area for evidence connected to the 2003 sniper shootings.

After more than a week of digging for clues, Sandra Shaffer claims her property was destroyed. Her attorney, Mike Clifford, sent letters to Charleston and Kanawha County leaders Wednesday asking them to notify their liability carriers that Shaffer planned to file a claim.

Clifford says police "tore her house to bits. It's on its side as we speak. One whole side's taken out."

But, county leaders don't think Clifford should even be involved.

Clifford was the county’s prosecuting attorney when the sniper shootings happened. County officials say that creates a conflict of interest. They say they may even file a complaint with the West Virginia State Bar.

David Armstrong, the county’s planning director, released several pictures to WSAZ.com that he says prove the property was in very bad shape before police ever arrived and had to be condemned because of meth labs on the site.

Shaffer's property was condemned after police found three trailers with meth-making materials inside.

The pictures taken before the digging operation began also show tires by the dozens, piles and piles of debris thrown down a hillside and nearly a dozen unlicensed cars.

Plus, county officials say raw sewage ran through a pipe and emptied directly into the woods.

"I think it's an outrageous grab for money, quite frankly," says Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford.

Members of the Kanawha County Commission say they don’t think Clifford should even be involved in the case.

"We really believe that this particular lawyer who's wanting money from the county taxpayers again, does have a conflict of interest," says Commission President Kent Carper.

Commissioner Dave Hardy adds, "To be privy to this entire investigation in 2003 and 2004, and then turn around in 2011 and try to file a lawsuit is repugnant."

Commissioners heard from Gary Pullin Thursday night. He’s hired by the county’s insurance company to represent this county in this type of case.

Pullin says the county should have immunity in this type of case since the sheriff’s department was acting under court order.

Rutherford adds his department’s involvement was “less than minimal.”

As for Clifford’s role in the case, Pullin says, "There's clearly a conflict."

But, clifford doesn't see it that way.

Iit shows me that they're worried, concerned and desperate," Clifford says.

Shaffer hasn't filed a lawsuit, but county officials believe Clifford’s letter sent Wednesday indicates that will happen.

“We're not going to pay any money for this. The county didn't do anything wrong to begin with," says Carper.

Clifford says, "This is simply a property damage case. If the county commission, or the sheriff, or the chief of police want to make it something more than that, then that's up to them."

County leaders say they worry this could raise their insurance rates, which would ultimately cost taxpayers.

UPDATE 4/14/11 @ 6:50 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Trash, raw sewage and meth-making materials were all found on a large piece of property in Sissonville that's still the sight of many questions as police dig for answers in connection to the 2003 sniper shootings.

The Kanawha County Planning Commission says the proof is in the pictures as Sandra Shafer's property on Hughert Drive was condemned upon finding multiple violations of the county's nuisance ordinance.

That's before police began digging for evidence, however, Shaffer's still wanting compensation for her losses.

"It's sickening," Sandra Shaffer said. "It's just absolutely sickening to see everything you've worked for your entire life to be laying out in a mud hole."

Sandra Shaffer says her life has been turned upside down after her property was searched and condemned.

County officials say this was home to meth labs.

"This is not the first meth lab this office has handled at that property," Kanawha County Planning Director David Armstrong said. "When one the materials are found that are consistent with operating a clandestine meth lab, that gives us the authority to go in and condemn the structure."

Three trailers were found with meth-making materials including one where it was cooked and another housing the final product.

That's not all as pictures show tires by the dozens, piles and piles of debris thrown down a hillside and nearly a dozen unlicensed cars.

Plus, raw sewage running through a pipe and emptied directly into the woods.

"She's homeless," Shaffer's attorney Mike Clifford said. "Regardless of what shape that property was in before hand, she was living in it."

Clifford says her home was torn apart after it was condemned, forcing them to file a claim with the city and county's insurance companies.

"I would suspect and suppose and suspect that there will be compensation for her for the damages caused," Clifford said.

The county says the before pictures tell the true story that the damage was already done.

Armstrong says 80 percent of meth labs have to be demolished anyway, since the price to clean up a home doesn't come cheap.

Clifford is now waiting to hear what the insurance companies will do and won't rule out further legal action.

KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The owner of the rural property outside of Sissonville where police had been digging for clues into the 2003 sniper-style murders is speaking out. Sandra Shaffer claims police destroyed everything she owned during the search, saying she has been left with nothing.

"It's sickening," Shaffer said. "Everything you've worked for your whole life -- in a mud hole."

Shaffer's Kanawha County property looks more like a dump. The house she used to call home appears to be on the verge of collapse, and many of her personal items have been thrown into a big pile.

Shaffer claims police destroyed her property following two weeks of searching for clues. But after apparently finishing that search, Shaffer says police left her with nothing.

"There's no grass, no trees, it's just nothing," Shaffer said. "There's just wall to wall mud."

Shaffer says she's now forced to find living arraignments because her home was condemned.

According to sources, Shaffer's home was condemned before the digging got underway.

Sources tell WSAZ.com the home was condemned when investigators found meth making materials in Shaffer's home.

"I've got 38 years of housekeeping setting in a mud hole with trailers, lawn mowers and trees," Shaffer said. "It looks like they just moved it over and stirred it like a salad."

Shaffer's attorney says his client worked with police throughout the investigation, and in return, was left with a giant mess.

"They destroyed one trailer and knocked the other one off their foundation," Michael Clifford said. "Then, they bring in someone to condemn the property.

"It's totally unnecessary. All they had to do is ask. I have a client who was more than willing to cooperate."

Shaffer says even if police can solve the murders through their investigation of her property, it won't be worth the mess she's left to deal with.

"I think they went a little bit above what they needed to do," Shaffer said. "They crossed the line."

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