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Supposed Link to Poverty Disputed by Sheriff : Crime Minimal in Rural W. Va.

February 15, 1987|JULES LOH | Associated Press

PINEVILLE, W. Va. — Gene Vance, a well-educated, well-traveled sheriff, has long been aware of the view--accepted by many as self-evident--that poverty causes crime.

"If that is so," he said, "you couldn't prove it by me. It definitely is not the case in Wyoming County, W. Va."

In fact, the experience of the entire state seems to challenge that assumption. For years, especially during the last decade with coal mining at a low point, West Virginia has ranked among the poorest states. But every year its crime rate, as determined by the FBI, is the lowest in the nation.

"I don't know that our people are any different from people elsewhere, or have any greater respect for the law," Vance said.

'Different From Big Cities'

"Our way of life is different from the big cities, of course. Not many big cities in West Virginia. None in Wyoming County. We're a close-knit population, not much moving around. Most of our families go back several generations."

For example, if your name is Vance, the folks in this corner of southern West Virginia, isolated by some of the nation's most rugged mountains, will assume that your people are the Vances out of Gilbert Creek in Mingo County. One of that family's forebears was Devil Anse Hatfield's uncle, Jim Vance, who died with a pistol in his hand during Anse's and his family's storied feud with the McCoys.

Those your people, sheriff?

"Yes. When I was a boy, I used to love to listen to old Amos Hatfield. He was the barber in Gilbert and told tales about the old days, about supplying moonshine bottles for Cap Hatfield. Cap was Anse's son. I did a college paper on the feud."

Violence Only History

Southern West Virginia has a history of violence--blood feuds, labor wars, whiskey wars, guns, dynamite.

Is that still the case, sheriff?

"No," Vance said. "Not in my experience. I don't suppose we're any more violent than other people.

"Guns are commonplace here, though. In every house in Wyoming County and the other counties around here, you will find at least one handgun, a shotgun, two or three rifles. It has always been that way. It's the way these people were raised."

From childhood, the mountaineers here were brought up to treat guns as casually as pocketknives. They treat their possession as an inherent right. The latest figures available show that prosecutors nationwide won convictions in 84% of federal trials charging firearms violations. In southern West Virginia, the figure was 68%.

Little Armed Robbery

"Guns might be used in crimes of passion, or maybe shooting an illegal deer," Vance said, "but they are not generally used in, say, an armed robbery. Not around here. I can't remember our last armed robbery.

"I can see how people might think that a man with a family to support--and no job, and a gun--might turn to crime. But that is not the way it is around here.

"In nine years, first as a magistrate and then as sheriff, I can't name a single crime--armed robbery, breaking and entering, theft, anything--that could be laid to a desperate person out of work. Not one.

"Around here, these crimes are done in hard times by the same sort of thugs who commit them in good times. There's no connection. In fact, we seem to have more lawlessness, more hell-raising when the mines are booming."

A Lean Style

Gene Vance is a lean, well-muscled man of 49. He stands 6-foot-4, ramrod straight. His uniform and those of his deputies have knife-sharp creases. They could be soldiers on parade.

Vance was born and reared in a coal camp but decided early that the life of a miner was not for him. He lied about his age and joined the Army at 17.

He completed college on an Army program, got a commission, served with the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam and then with the Military Police in Thailand when his knees became too arthritic to jump out of airplanes. He retired in 1976 with the rank of major and came home to West Virginia.

His domain, Wyoming County, is in the heart of Appalachia-- that dark and brooding ground where West Virginia abuts Virginia and Kentucky.

Wyoming County, 507 square miles, has a population of about 37,000 people in three incorporated towns--Pineville, Mullens and Oceana.

Not Much Activity

In the entire county, there are 2 7-Elevens, 1 part-time movie theater, 1 Hardee's, 1 liquor store, 2 pizza joints, 1 Sears store, 4 grocery stores, 1 pawnshop, 16 churches, 2 laundries, 4 dentists and no interstate highway.

More than half of the county's population lives in 40 or so tiny communities scattered through the countryside. Most are former coal camps, old and worn out, some isolated in hollows between mountains so steep that not even the sun can get in.

"We cover an awful lot of territory with only 15 deputies," the sheriff said. "I could use twice that many effectively. In these hills, there is no such thing as getting from one place to another in a straight line. We only have about 500 miles of blacktop roads--the rest are dirt.

"From the time I left here in 1954, until I came back in 1976, not much had changed.

"Oh, the coal trucks are bigger and the mining equipment altogether different. Law enforcement equipment and methods are better. But the offenses are pretty much the same.

Just Home Brew

"Well, there's no moonshining to speak of nowadays. I hear there are a half-dozen stills operating over in McDowell County, and I have a tip that one is working in Wyoming County. It would take too much manpower to find it even if I thought I could. Probably just for home consumption anyway, not causing any trouble.

"But the people and the way of life here are about the same.

"We know our people, their attitudes, their families, their reputations. If a crime is committed we can almost tell you who did it, or who we think did it. Proving it is something else. We just don't have much vicious behavior, though--no more than our share."

From the land of the Hatfields and McCoys, that's a message to shout from the mountaintops.

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