The judge, packing a pistol and wearing a trench coat over his pajamas, came out of the night last March and barged into a sprawling, gray stone home. c
"This is America. I am the judge. I am the law and this is my warrant," witnesses claim the judge announced as he poked his pistol in the chest of the incredulous homeowner.
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Pierre E. Dostert denies saying any such thing. He claims he kept his gun in his pocket. According to the judge, he was simply assisting police arrest a man who illegally landed a helicopter inside the town.
What actually happened here in the hilly eastern panhandle of West Virginia, during what residents now call the "copter caper," may become known today. The judge faces an unprecedented disciplinary hearing today before a state judicial review board in the same courthouse where abolitionist John Brown was sentenced to hang 120 years old.
The hearing marks the strange peak of what Dostert's friends and foes agree has been a most unusual judgeship.
Dostert, 46, a former Washington lawyer elected judge here three years ago, has stated that his major interest is "punishment." To keep the county prosecutor in line, the judge fined him $50 this summer.
The judge disparagingly refers to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which frequently overturns his rulings, as "the supremes."
Dostert's unorthodox style has delighted many folks here in this rural apple-growing county that seems much farther away from Washington than 60 miles.
"The judge is the only one around here who bucks the redtape," said Dominic "Wells" Fargo, an insurance salesman in nearby Charles Town.
Charles Town Police Chief Bert Rickard calls Dostert a "good man who says what's on his mind, regardless of who it hurts or who it hits."
Yet lawyers and others here who've gone before the judge claim Dostert is at best "erratic" in his rulings and at worst "absolutely incompetent."
"Dostert does anything he damn pleases in his courtroom and he becomes outraged if anyone objects. The bar here in the panhandle has become the laughing stock of West Virginia because of him," said one senior lawyer who has practiced law here for 40 years.
The lawyer, who asked not to be quoted because he feared Dostert's revenge in the courtroom, echoed the sentiments of seven other lawyers interviewed here this week.
Dostert himself refused to be interviewed.
Longtime acquaintances describe the judge as an intelligent man who tries to be fair in his courtroom, but who frequently lets his temper get the best of him. The judge is also "a man who can't keep his nose out of anything," according to county prosecutor Robert R. Skinner.
The West Virginia Judicial Inquiry Commission alleges that on March 25, 1979, the night of the "copter caper," Dostert failed to follow a judicial canon requiring that "a judge should be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it."
That night, Harpers Ferry police called Dostert to help them arrest a helicopter pilot who police said violated a town ordinance by landing his craft in a vacant lot here. The pilot was eating dinner in the home of Detlev and Audrey Preissler, who had refused to turn over the pilot without first seeing an arrest warrant.
It was at that point, according to Audrey Preissler, that Dostert emerged from behind the town policemen and said his gun was his arrest warrant.
Police handcuffed Detlev Preissler, his son Eric and the helicopter pilot. As they were being taken to a police car Preissler said he yelled to his wife "to call the state police and/or The Washington Post" for help.
Audrey Preissler said that after her husband, her son and the pilot were taken to the police station, she offered Dostert a cup of coffee "to try and calm the situation." The judge knocked the coffee out of her hand onto the floor, breaking the cup, she said.
Dostert later told local reporters that he "declined" the coffee because his doctor had prohibited him from drinking it.
Furious over the incident, Audrey Preissler, an artist, has done life-sized paintings of the arresting police officer and Dostert with his pistol, paintings she displays in a gallery adjoining her house in Harpers Ferry.
In the hearing today, Dostert will answer charges that he violated judicial ethics by carrying a pistol without a license and by interfering with the prosecution of those arrested in the copter caper.
Jefferson County prosecutor Skinner, a longtime personal and political enemy of Dostert, has refused to prosecute Preissler and his son on charges of obstructing an officer. Skinner says the arrest of the Preisslers was illegal and urged that the case against them be dropped.
"The more you stir a bucket of s---, the more it smells," Skinner has said.
Skinner adds that it is unusual, to say the least, that a circuit judge would get involved in a misdemeanor arrest."
Upon hearing that Skinner would not prosecute, Dostert tried to remove Skinner from the case and appoint his own special prosecutor. The state Judicial Inquiry Commission has termed the judge's action a violation of judicial ethics.
Dostert's lawyer, Richard Douglas, says that the judge will argue in court today that the prosecutor's remarks to the press (about stirring the bucket) were sufficient grounds for removal from the case.
As for the license to carry a handgun, Douglas said the judge wrote himself a valid license to carry the gun before the copter caper occurred.
West Virginia law requires that someone obtaining a pistol license in the state advertise his application in a local newspaper and post a $3000 bond.The investigating commission is expected to claim today Dostert did neither.
The state's strict handgun law, which grew out of bloody violence in the coalfields at the turn of the century, requires a mandatory six months in jail for anyone found guilty of carrying a handgun without a license.