From Caring Dad to Dead in Custody: Highway Mystery Rattles West Virginia

·7 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Flickr Commons/Pixabay/Courtesy of Sarah Hartman-Exline
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Flickr Commons/Pixabay/Courtesy of Sarah Hartman-Exline

After over six weeks of waiting, over 100 calls to West Virginia State Police, and even an announcement by the governor, it can feel as if everyone but the family of Edmond “Eddie” Exline knows how he died.

On Monday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, in announcing a sweeping investigation into misconduct within the West Virginia State Police, highlighted the case by vaguely suggesting he had seen “very concerning” video of Exline’s arrest. The following day the ousted head of the state police called what was heard in a body-cam video “horrible.”

But the family has received little information beyond what they read in the papers—and is decrying what they say is a failure of West Virginia State Police to properly protect the mentally ill.

“The state is failing this family of just common courtesy of giving us some information,” Tina Balzhiser, the mother of Exline’s son, said in a message to The Daily Beast. “We have found every single thing out from the newspapers. We can’t even get information from the state. His son has had one phone call from one police investigator.”

West Virginia State Police declined to comment to The Daily Beast, citing an ongoing investigation.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Edmond Exline and his son.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">via Tina Balzhiser/GoFundMe</div>

Edmond Exline and his son.

via Tina Balzhiser/GoFundMe

What little they have learned is disturbing: that Exline, a 45-year-old caring father who loved to farm and ride motorcycles, and who later struggled with mental illness, died in the custody of a state police agency now at the center of a scandalous misconduct investigation.

“Nobody wishes to get that knock on the door at two o'clock in the morning and then to not have answers for weeks later. That’s what hurts,” said Sarah Hartman-Exline, Edmond’s sister-in-law, who called for better training for officers. “Because he was a human, and no one deserves to die like that on the side of an interstate.”

According to an initial release by West Virginia State Police, at 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 12, a single state trooper responded to reports that an individual was walking along a highway near Martinsburg, West Virginia. That person, Exline, was later confirmed to be dead.

According to Hartman-Exline, she and her husband first found out about Exline’s death when they received a loud knock on their door around 2 a.m.

A Maryland State Trooper told them that their brother had died, but little more, and that they should expect to hear from West Virginia State Police. (The family lives on both sides of the border.)

Instead, Exline’s brothers, son, and other relatives endured two days of silence.

Family members say they called state police over 100 times for nearly 50 hours before they received any information—and had to depend on newspaper articles to start to pick up the pieces of how their loved one ended up in the morgue.

“They were kind of taking turns, you know,” said John-Mark Atkinson, the lawyer representing Hartman-Exline and her husband James Exline. “Because it's just exhausting calling, calling, calling so they'd rotate who would call.”

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Initial details they learned through newspaper articles were frustratingly vague: that a struggle occurred after a trooper found Exline walking along the highway and before Exline became unresponsive.

Eventually, after hours of desperately hounding the agency for further information, Hartman-Exline finally was able to speak to a trooper from neighboring Charles Town, who shared more details from the encounter: that two other officers responded to the scene; that there was a struggle to the ground to get Exline handcuffed; that cops were out of touch with dispatch for five minutes; and that once he was cuffed in the car, Exline was taken back out of the car so cops could try to revive him.

On Monday, a WVSP officer from Charles Town confirmed to ABC News that Exline was tased during the encounter, and the former top cop in the West Virginia State Police told listeners at Metro News that three officers were on leave and a criminal investigation had been launched.

But although multiple officials have copped to the existence of video—which could tell, once and for all, what really happened during the deadly encounter—state police have yet to release it.

“What I've seen the video is not great because it's at night time on a Sunday night but the audio is horrible,” former state police Superintendent Jan Cahill told talk radio host Hoppy Kercheval in an interview after his exit from the agency. “And I won't go into the details because it's an active investigation.”

The growing cloud over what really happened that day is darkened by a history in Berkeley County of alleged police brutality by state troopers. In 2018, police were caught on video allegedly beating a teenager in the same county, and state cops have recently become the subject of an expanding misconduct probe after an anonymous letter was sent to lawmakers—prompting, it seems, Exline’s case to cross the governor’s desk.

On Monday, Justice admitted he, too, had seen the video, and called the case “very very concerning.”

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Exline, relatives said, grew up on a farm right over the border from the eastern panhandle of West Virginia with his four brothers, where he learned to love working with the earth and, later, to ride motorcycles.

“They were spoiled. There you go. They were spoiled,” said Hartman-Exline. “They got what they wanted and… up until they were adults, you know, them boys lived with [their mother] the rest of her life.”

Exline’s father, a trucker and a Vietnam veteran, struggled with mental illness, the family explained.

Eventually, Exline’s mind also began to fight against him as well, and he was first diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in the mid-2000s, according to a GoFundMe posted by Balzhiser.

“The Exline family has been plagued with mental illness. If it's not been PTSD or paranoid schizophrenia or just something throughout the family,” said Hartman-Exline. At one point, she said, “you know, we had to love him from a distance.”

Despite multiple run-ins with the law, including domestic violence-related allegations, Balzhiser said that Exline’s actions were driven by his illness and the failures of society to protect those who are sick.

He was “the best dad that he knew how to be,” Balzhiser told The Daily Beast, a sentiment echoed by his son.

Exline helped teach his son to farm and ride a bike and how to work on cars, and never missed a baseball game, family members said.

“And if there is anything in this world that my son knows it’s that his dad loved him and his dad did not deserve to die by the very hands that should be protecting him,” Balzhiser said.

State authorities still have yet to release Exline’s body to family or any basic information about his cause of death to family or the press.

“We need to hold not only the wv state police responsible but the United States we need to work as a country and get long term facilities nationwide for our mentally ill,” Balzhiser wrote to The Daily Beast, also explaining in her GoFundMe that “anyone who knows this disease would know once they are on meds they think they are better and stop taking the meds.”

“We put these mentally ills in hospitals long enough to make them seem a little normal then throw them back out on the streets. It don’t work and it’s just getting worse,” Balzhiser told The Daily Beast. “The system fails our mentally ill. The [West Virginia] state police have failed our community.”

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