The "copter caper" of 1979 has provoked more political mudslinging and local gossip in this tourist town than any event since John Brown's slave rebellion in 1859.
A pistol-packing judge, wearing a trench coat over pajamas, is accused of unlawfully barging into a private home two years ago brandishing an unlicensed .38 caliber revolver. The judge said he was looking for a helicopter pilot who had landed in a field nearby. When asked for a search warrant, according to witnesses, the judge held up his gun.
"This is America. I am the law and this is my warrant," witnesses claim the judge announced as he pointed his gun at the incredulous homeowners.
The judge and the police who were with him that night tell a different version of the raid. Both tales are magnificently bizarre. And both were upstaged last week by courtroom escapades at the start of separate trials on five misdemeanor charges against Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Pierre Dostert.
Thus far there have been legal pyrotechnics, old-fashioned shouting matches and a trial-shopping walkout by the defendant and his lawyer from the Charles Town courthouse -- the same one in which John Brown was sentenced to the hanged. Judge Doster, 47, a former Washington lawyer, threatened to jail the special magistrate hearing the cases against him. Dostert then had himself rushed by ambulance from the courthouse to a local hospital after a dramatic courtroom announcement that he was suffering a heart attack.
The latest and most unexpected turn in this legal melodrama occurred Friday when Dostert, from his hospital bed, signed a court order removing the two prosecutors and the presiding magistrate from his own case.
"That's junk. It's not even fit for toilet paper," said Special Magistrate Alvie Qualls, pointing to the injunction that Dostert had applied for as a petitioner and then granted to himself as a judge."I have never seen anything like it."
The legal maneuvers and colorful personalities have, to say the least, intrigued the residents in West Virginia's quiet eastern panhandle, better known for tourism and horse racing. In the souvenir shops of Harpers Ferry and the law offices of Charles Town five miles south, the Columbia space shuttle and a Pulitzer impostor cannot compete with the daily news of the latest trial shenanigans. Local reaction seems to lie somewhere between anger and mirth.
"Sometimes I forget the intensity of the situation, because of all the comedy," says Audrey Preissler, the 48-year-old Harpers Ferry artist whose home was the scene of the copter caper.
Preissler told her story in three separate trials last week. She had just served dinner on the evening of March 25, 1979 to her husband, son and three guests who had arrived by helicopter, when a Harpers Ferry policeman knocked on the door. He wanted to arrest the pilot for illegally landing the helicopter within town limits, said Preissler, who refused to turn him over without a warrant. The policeman returned minutes later with reinforcements, including Judge Dostert.
"No sooner had we unlocked the door than they shoved it open and barged in," said Preissler, a New York-born painter who moved to Harpers Ferry 10 years ago. She testified that after the police and Dostert forced their way into the house, she saw Dostert put his gun to her husband Detlev's chest.
"I don't know anything about guns but I remember it was small, pewter and deadly," she said. "Those men had sport that night."
Other witnesses, however, told a different story. Harpers Ferry police chief William Gallinaro, who was present during the incident, testified that Preissler's version was "completely a lie." Two other police officers, as well as two of Preissler's neighbors, testified they did not see Dostert enter the house or display a gun.
In the four years since he was elected, Dostert has established a reputation as an unorthodox, law-and-order judge. Critics, among them many lawyers who practice before him, say Dostert's erratic and often-overturned rulings had made the area a laughingstock in state legal circles. But supporters praise the judge as open, outspoken, and one of the few elected officials with the gumption to cut through unnecessary red tape.
Dostert presents curious contrasts. The same man who plays the organ and sings in his church choir also reportedly keeps his gun in the hollowed center of Roberts Rules of Order.
Last year, Dostert was suspended by the state Supreme Court for six months without pay as a result of the copter caper. But two juries last week refused to convict the judge in his own courtroom. On Tuesday, Dostert was found not guilty of trespassing. Thursday a mistrial was declared on the charge of brandishing a weapon, after the six-member jury declared there was not enough evidence for a verdict.
The third trial, which was interrupted by Dostert's hospitalization, involves the most serious charge: posessing a gun without a license. West Virginia law requires that anyone obtaining a pistol license advertise the application in a local newspaper and post $300 bond. Violation of the law requires a mandatory six-month jail term and a fine of up to $500.
Dostert claims he issued himself a gun license secretly because he feared public knowledge of it might lead to his assassination by a sniper using a high-powered rifle. On Saturday, Qualls declared a mistrial on the firearm possession count because of Dostert's illness and postponed any further court action until May 20.
The Dostert trials developed peculiar traits almost from the start. Last Tuesday morning, Dostert did not appear in the Charles Town court as directed because he was hearing cases in another county. Magistrate Qualls wanted to proceed without Dostert, but defense attorney Richard Douglas and special prosecutors Andrew Fusco and Thomas Newbraugh refused to present their cases until Dostert arrived at 1:30 p.m.
Wednesday, while the jury was visiting the scene of the helicopter incident, a former mayor and current council member of Harpers Ferry, Bradley Nash, drove up and began talking with jurors. The jurors were under strict instructions not to converse with anyone. Dostert objected to the presence of Nash, telling his longtime political and personal enemy to leave. When Jefferson County Sheriff Don Giardina took Nash by the arm to escort him from the scene, Nash resisted and said loudly, according to witnesses: "I don't take orders from that son of a bitch."
The following day, the defense asked for a continuance so the state's Supreme Court justices could be subpoenaed. When the request was denied, defense attorney Douglas and his client Dostert stood up and calmly walked out of the second-floor courtroom, leaving behind a shocked jury and judge. Qualls called for a 20-minute recess to consult the law books back at his Towne House Motel room. When he came back, he issued an order for Dostert's return.
Dostert returned, but without Douglas, who by then had informed Qualls that he would no longer represent Dostert on the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm. Qualls ordered the trial to continue, with Dostert representing himself. But Dostert refused to cross examine witnesses.
"I consider myself under false arrest and I'll see you behind bars," said Dostert to Qualls. Dostert then complained that he was suffering from "arhythmia," or irregular heartbeat, and needed medical attention.
Dostert immediately was taken by ambulance to Jefferson Memorial Hospital, where he remains under observation in stable condition.
"Each day I say to myself, 'What can possibly happen today to top what happened yesterday?'" said John League, a reporter for the Morning Herald of Hagerstown, Md., one of four area newspapers that last week carried front-page stories of the trial every day.
When reporters discovered the unusual injunction order Friday afternoon, they rushed to the Towne House Motel just outside of town, where Magistrate Qualls was writing notes in his room beside a large bottle of antacid.
"If you have a cigar and you need to light it up, go ahead and use that," said the 51-years-old Qualls, nodding toward the injunction order. Qualls, a soft-spoken son of a grocer who was first elected justice of the peace for Cabell County in 1961, conceded that he has never before been involved in such a complex and hostile proceeding.
"I'm glad to walk down the street . . . or talk to anybody in the courthouse," said Qualls, for fear that the conversation might become the subject of an appeal. "But I'm not backing down."
Defense attorney Douglas, after visiting Dostert in the hospital to get his signature on the injunction order, said his client is just as determined to fight it out.
"Regardless of how many trials and how many appeals it takes, he'll be in it 'till the end," said Douglas.
With two counts of assault still pending against Dostert, two counts of obstructing an arrest pending against Detlev Preissler and his 23-year-old son Derek, and a $1.5 million civil suit brought by the Preissler, the copter caper could be in West Virginia courts for many years to come. And that prospect has alarmed at least some Jefferson County taxpayers.
"We have to be dismayed that our system of justice pursues these minor midsemeanors so intensely," said an editorial last week in a Charles Town newspaper. "We are tired of the efforts on all levels to continue this fiasco . . . we are tired of the entire 'copter case' . . . which can only spell the expenditure of thousands of taxpayer dollars. In short, get it over with . . . and let's get on with more important business.