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This West Virginia sheriff’s deputy killed a man. The family warned it would happen again. And it did.

Families of the two victims filed lawsuits raising serious questions about the shootings. Roane County officials deny those allegations.
This West Virginia sheriff’s deputy killed a man. The family warned it would happen again. And...
This West Virginia sheriff’s deputy killed a man. The family warned it would happen again. And it did.(Mountain State Stoplight)
Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 10:50 AM EDT
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This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter

On the last day of his life, Timmy Rhodes drove his blue Dodge pickup truck to his childhood home in Roane County.

His fiancée, Tammy Nichols, sat beside him. They were going, she later said, to pick up mail and other items. But around 4:45 p.m., a neighbor dialed 911 with a complaint.

Rhodes was spinning gravel beneath his tires and some of it hit her house, she said.

“My neighbor is out here spinning up my damn road, and I want something done about it,” she told a 911 dispatcher.

Roane County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike King arrived at the scene. Within minutes, the 28-year-old Rhodes was dead — shot in the head by the deputy.

The sheriff’s department says the shooting was warranted: that Rhodes did not comply with King’s orders and moved toward a weapon. A West Virginia State Police investigation found the shooting was justified, and a Roane County grand jury declined to indict King for killing Rhodes.

But Rhodes’ family disagrees with their conclusions and has sued King and others over the shooting.

“If there ain’t justice done today and for Timmy, it’s just going to happen again,” said Lorene Hackney, Rhodes’ grandmother, during a protest days after the shooting.

And less than two years after Hackney uttered those words, King shot and killed another man: 63-year-old Michael Nichols.

Lawyers for the Rhodes and Nichols families — from the law firms Calwell Luce diTrapano and Goodwin & Goodwin — allege in court filings King had a history of misconduct. They said in a press release he wasn’t wearing a body camera during either shooting, and cited the lack of body camera evidence in the lawsuit over Nichols’ death.

In documents filed in response to the lawsuits, King denied any wrongdoing in both shootings. In response to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act in mid-April, the West Virginia State Police said the official investigation into the second incident wasn’t complete; this week, they declined an opportunity to provide a status update. Attempts to reach the deputy through the county and his personal attorneys were unsuccessful.

Shot fired

On Feb. 22, 2019, Deputy King parked his unmarked silver Dodge pickup truck beside a garage of one of Timmy Rhodes’ neighbors in Walton, according to the deputy’s statement, which was included in the State Police investigative report about the shooting.

The two men knew each other. King had had several previous non-violent run-ins with Rhodes, none of which resulted in arrest.

But there are two distinct narratives of what happened that evening, culled from King’s official statement, 911 calls, reports from the scene of the shooting and the resulting lawsuits.

King approached Rhodes’ truck wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a bulletproof vest, and he was armed with a shotgun, according to the lawsuits filed by Tammy Nichols in Roane County Circuit Court and by Rhodes’ brother, Travis, in federal court.

In his statement, King said he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest at first, and approached Timmy Rhodes’ vehicle armed only with a holstered handgun, confident there would be no problems.

King said he called out to Rhodes, who returned to his truck.

At that point, King said he became wary: in his statement, he said he had heard of a domestic call from a couple of months before, where Rhodes allegedly was using methamphetamine and sitting on a handgun while talking to officers.

According to his family’s lawsuits, Rhodes was also wary, because of King’s alleged reputation for unnecessary force.

The deputy said he couldn’t see what Rhodes was doing inside the truck, so he put on a bulletproof vest. He said a neighbor told him to be careful, saying Rhodes had been doing a lot of shooting on the property the previous weekend. King asked the neighbor to call the dispatch center with an update on the situation; he complied.

At that point, King said, he strapped on a shotgun because of the distance between him and Rhodes. Still on the neighbor’s property, King said he yelled, “Timmy, exit your vehicle and show me your hands.”

Tammy Nichols got out and lay on the ground. Rhodes eventually did the same. King said as Rhodes got out of the truck, he shouted “I’m not going to fucking jail!” at the deputy.

Nichols’ view of her fiancé was limited to what she could see under the truck, but  according to the lawsuits, Rhodes was “scared and confused” and asked why he was being ordered around since he was “peacefully on his family’s property.”

King continued to advance on him, “aggressively screaming” that Rhodes should get on the ground, the suits say.

The deputy, who was “physically much bigger and stronger than Timmy,” then allegedly threatened him and said it would not bother him to “blow Timmy’s ‘fucking brains out,’”  according to the federal suit.

The only people who saw what happened next were King and Rhodes. King claimed Rhodes lay on the ground, but then didn’t stay down. He said Rhodes jumped back to his feet and reached into a front pocket, yelling “Shoot me, fucking shoot me!” The man pulled out a cell phone, King said, and the deputy advanced toward him.

Rhodes ignored his orders to get on the ground, King said, so he knocked him down. As Rhodes fell, so did the deputy. Then, King said, a scuffle ensued, calling it a “struggle for the control of [his] shotgun.”

He fired the gun point blank at Rhodes’ head.

At 5:01 p.m., John Larch, the neighbor who had just called the dispatch center for help after talking with King, dialed 911 a second time. He reported hearing a single gunshot from the deputy’s direction. Larch later told law enforcement that he could hear, but not see, what happened between Rhodes and King.

Around the same time, King called the dispatch center.

“Hey, I just shot him,” he said, breathing heavily. “I need some backup. I need an ambulance out here.”

Rhodes was pronounced dead by emergency medical services at 5:41 p.m. The cause of death: a shotgun wound to his right cheek that penetrated his skull and brain.

A toxicologist found methamphetamine, amphetamine and marijuana in his system, according to documents in the State Police investigative report.

Tammy Nichols told law enforcement in a statement shortly after the shooting that Rhodes had been awake for the previous several days — “just acting like he was out of his mind.”

He had been whispering to himself, acting paranoid and as if he knew something bad was going to happen, she said.

But lawyers representing his family say in court filings that Timmy Rhodes did not present any physical threat to King and did not attempt to take his shotgun.

“Defendant King fired his shotgun at close range, shooting Timmy in his face. Timmy was unarmed, was not lawfully under arrest, and was in a completely defenseless position,” they wrote.

After conducting the investigation, State Police said King did nothing wrong. State Police First Sgt. Jason Saurino — who works in a district that includes Roane County —  said the shooting was a “reasonable and necessary response to prevent [King] from receiving a deadly injury.” A Roane County grand jury decided not to bring any charges against King, based on Saurino’s testimony and investigation.

Other allegations

Less than a week after King shot and killed Rhodes, protesters gathered in front of the Roane County Courthouse, which houses the sheriff’s office. Holding homemade signs, they chanted “Justice for Timmy” and “Save our town, bring King down.”

Rhodes’ death was the catalyst, but the protesters said it was only the latest incident in which King was accused of using excessive force. If action wasn’t taken, they said, something similar would happen again.

At the time, several lawsuits alleged King had displayed a “pattern of negligence, misconduct, and use of excessive force,” documented by numerous complaints to the Roane County Commission and the former sheriff. The lawsuits over Rhodes’ shooting include several allegations of intimidation and one of physical assault documented by official complaints — all of which the deputy denied in court responses.

The Roane County Sheriff’s Department denied a request made under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of all complaints filed against King.

But in an email explaining the denial, an attorney representing the sheriff’s department, John R. Teare Jr., said there was only one official written complaint. The document, dated December 2017, was in regard to the alleged physical assault: a man who said King severely beat him. Teare said the complaint was determined to be unfounded.

Teare also pointed to an unwritten complaint from March 2014 that he said turned out to be false, and he said a letter sent to the county commission in April 2013 resulted in an internal investigation that revealed no misconduct from King.

Neither former Roane County Sheriff L. Todd Cole, current Roane County Sheriff R. Brian Hickman nor lawyers representing the county responded to interview requests for this story, though Hickman responded to some requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2019, in addition to the federal lawsuit over Rhodes’ death, King was sued twice over separate incidents from the previous year.

Clay County resident Brad Proctor alleged that King and State Police officers forced their way into Proctor’s residence shortly after Proctor was involved in a vehicle chase that caused King to wreck his cruiser. Proctor says he didn’t resist, but King and the others stomped on him and punched him as he lay prone on the floor, and later left him laying cuffed and shirtless in the snow for more than an hour. Lawyers for those sued deny those allegations.

Proctor also alleged the Roane County Commission had not addressed King’s conduct appropriately despite “numerous other incidents of his excessive force.” His lawsuit is set to go to trial in September; none of the commissioners returned requests for comment for this story.

In a deposition in the Proctor lawsuit, King said former Sheriff Cole had never reprimanded him over complaints from people he interacted with.

Also in 2019, David Idleman, a former school bus driver, alleged he was assaulted by King and State Police, who approached him while sitting in his car to tell him he had a headlight out. He says he ended up in handcuffs and was assaulted without cause, knocked unconscious and given a concussion as well as other injuries, according to The Times Record, a Roane County newspaper. He also says he was left with PTSD, and he gave up his job and moved out of West Virginia to avoid retaliation from police. He settled the suit for $60,000 this spring.

King and the two state troopers named in the suit denied Idleman’s allegations.

And then, in 2021, another lawsuit: this one filed by Melissa Fields, after her father, Michael Nichols, was killed by King in October 2020.

“I don’t want [King] to hurt no more families,” she said earlier this year. “No one else needs to go through this. No one. And I’m scared that it’s going to happen again if we don’t put a stop to it.”

The shooting of Michael Nichols

Twenty months to the day after King shot Timmy Rhodes in Walton, the deputy got a phone call asking for help.

On the evening of Oct. 22, 2020, a Gandeeville resident called King’s cellphone while he was off duty. King then contacted 911 dispatchers, according to the call log from that evening. He said a subject — Michael Nichols — was “geeking out” and “trying to break in on a couple women,” but did not have much more information. King asked two officers to call him back; when the dispatcher told him they were unavailable, he asked the dispatcher to send them to Nichols’ house in Gandeeville.

King also headed to Nichols’ property.

Most of the details available about the Nichols shooting come from the lawsuit Fields filed in federal court. The State Police investigation into the incident is ongoing; Roane County officials would not comment, citing the pending investigation.

Nichols (who was not related to Timmy Rhodes’ fiancée Tammy Nichols) was a slight, older man who lived alone and owned no firearms, according to the lawsuit. He was on the porch when King pulled up and would have been well-lit by a large street lamp overhead that “would have made it easy to see that Michael presented no imposing threat to anyone.”

According to the lawsuit, Nichols would have questioned why King, who arrived without a warrant and uniform, was “arguably trespassing” on his property. Even if the man presented a threat in King’s mind — which the lawsuit emphasizes he “absolutely did not and was physically incapable of doing” — it would have been because of the deputy’s “utter failure to follow protocols and wholly unnecessary escalation of an alleged routine disturbance.”

What happened next is still unclear. But when it was over, Nichols was dead — and the lawsuit alleges there was no justification for the use of force.

In her lawsuit, Fields alleges King shot Nichols three times: once in the chest, once at a downward angle through his side into his pelvis, and once by placing his gun barrel against Nichols’ cheek and shooting him through the face downward into his chest.

Nichols was either doubled over or sitting on the ground when King fired at least two of his shots, the lawsuit alleges.

There was no sign of physical struggle between King and Nichols at the scene or on Nichols’ deceased body, according to the lawsuit.

Because of King’s failure to inform 911 of his whereabouts or the circumstances surrounding the events, the lawsuit alleges, dispatchers were unable to send medics quickly to the scene.

According to the call log of the incident, which the lawsuit says exhibits the “chaotic circus” of those being sued, the neighbor called the 911 dispatch center about a half hour after King’s initial call to 911, saying that an officer said shots were fired and an ambulance was needed. A dispatcher called the neighbor back to get more information about what happened.

“My husband said the officer hollered, ‘Call 911,’ and that he needed an EMS because he had shot somebody,” the neighbor said to the dispatcher.

She said the officer had come because she and her husband had had issues with Nichols.

“He was coked out of his head,” she said. “He came over here, he was talking out of his head, he told my husband he was third in command, was going to do dirty stuff to his sister, and all this.

“It was like he was trying to pick a fight,” she said, according to the call. Then, she was cut off mid-explanation by the dispatcher, who was trying to figure out whether the officer shot Nichols or if Nichols shot himself. The dispatcher seemed unsure which officer was even at the property.

“[Nichols is] still alive,” the neighbor later said. “If you send someone, he’s still alive.”

Fields alleges that Cole, the former sheriff, and the Roane County Commission have failed to offer any specific justification or explanation to the Nichols’ family about his death.

The former sheriff  and the Roane commission resorted to a “vague suggestion” that Nichols allegedly “moved toward a weapon,”the suit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, Fields believes the “weapon” Nichols allegedly moved toward may be an old BB gun that was wedged under the porch railing and used as a decorative railing spindle.

It had been there for quite some time, and would have been familiar to King, who had visited Nichols’ residence before, the lawsuit argues. The BB gun was removed by King or other officers after Nichols was killed, according to the lawsuit.

It was “obviously not a threat in the unlikely event it could have even been seen by Deputy King from his position when he shot Michael,” the lawsuit says.

In an interview with Mountain State Spotlight, Fields said her father had been arrested in the past for drug-related crimes. She said he began using drugs after he was prescribed opioids following an injury. He eventually got treatment and was clean for three years, she said, but had relapsed.

After the shooting, the sheriff placed King on administrative leave pending the State Police investigation, according to multiple media reports. The Roane County Sheriff’s office wouldn’t comment this week on whether that remains the case.

Roane County 911 Manager Melissa Gilbert said that, according to her records, King last responded to a call on Oct. 22, 2020, the same day Nichols was killed.

No body cam

The lawyers representing Rhodes’ and Nichols’ families say King was not wearing a body camera during either shooting.

The Roane County sheriff’'s department body camera policy, which took effect in 2016, requires officers to activate the cameras “during the course of an encounter with the public that becomes adversarial after the initial contact.” Officers assigned body cameras must use them unless authorized not to by the sheriff or the deputy chief, and if an officer doesn’t activate the body camera, they must document why, according to the policy.

Mountain State Spotlight sent the sheriff’s department a FOIA request for any body camera footage of the Rhodes or Nichols shootings. Sheriff Hickman, who took office in January, said the department “is not in possession” of such footage. Asked whether that meant King wasn’t wearing a body camera, he replied in late January, “I have read your most recent email and will respond in a timely manner.” As of this story’s publication, he had not responded.

Hickman also didn’t respond to a FOIA request asking for documentation of why King’s camera was not in use during the shootings. Roane County Prosecutor Josh Downey, responding to a later request to the county commission, said no such documentation exists.

“Many questions could have been easily answered had King used his department-assigned body camera,” lawyers for Melissa Fields wrote in a February press release. “However, even after King failed to use his body camera during the Rhodes shooting, King was permitted back out on patrol, without his camera, and shot yet another unarmed man.”

The lawsuits allege that the former sheriff and the Roane County Commission have failed to enforce the policy.

In the August 2020 deposition King gave for the Proctor lawsuit, the deputy confirmed he had a body camera. But he says he goes around in plain clothes because of the work he does, “so it would be hard to wear a body cam.”

“I’m the drug unit,” he later added, saying part of his job is doing drug buys and working with confidential informants for information on burglaries and people suspected of committing crimes.

In former Sheriff Cole’s deposition for the Proctor case, he agreed when asked by a lawyer that it was “odd” there was no evidence King had used his camera in  some previous encounters, according to The Times Record.

A trial date for the lawsuit filed by Tammy Nichols for the shooting of Timmy Rhodes has not been set. All of the judges in the 5th Judicial Circuit — Jackson, Calhoun, Mason and Roane counties — recused themselves from the case. It has been transferred to Kanawha County.

But the trial for the federal suit filed by Travis Rhodes is set to begin on Feb. 22, 2022, according to a scheduling order. Melissa Fields’ lawsuit over the Michael Nichols shooting is expected to go to trial seven weeks later.

‘A lot of life ahead’

On a warm spring afternoon in April, Tyler Nichols could hear the trickling of Coleman Fork from Michael Nichols’ front porch in Gandeeville. It mixed with the wind, which swayed tree branches tipped with the lime green of budding leaves.

The sound, from the creek he used to fish with his grandfather, followed Tyler as he walked off the porch and around the property, pointing out his grandfather’s knick-knacks and projects, and recalling the good times they had together.

“A lot of memories here in this little holler,” he said, tears in his eyes.

One memory he’d rather not revisit: finding a pool of blood on the front porch the morning after Deputy Mike King shot and killed Nichols.

Michael Nichols had had his problems, Tyler said, and he had been open about them; he had even been trying to get help.

“He was a father to me,” he said. “He had his days, like everybody else, but he was a good man.”

Now, his grandfather’s ashes rest around his house and at a nearby family cemetery.

Tyler ended his walk back at the front porch, the same place his grandfather’s life ended less than a year before.

“He had a lot of life ahead of him still.”

Reporter Eric Eyre contributed to this story.

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