MAYOR'S THE TALK OF THE TOWN Criminal convictions leave future in doubt Newcomer takes umbrage at crimes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HANCOCK -- It was the mayor's bad luck to be pulled over in front of Evelyn Poteet's house.

The mayor, James G. "Jimmy" Myers, was driving a truck with no license plates when one of the town's three full-time police officers pulled him over four months ago.

The mayor staggered, slurred his speech and failed three sobriety tests, police say. By the time he was hauled off to be charged with drunken driving, the town's other two full-time officers and its one part-time policeman had swept in.

This was a pretty big deal in Hancock. And there, watching everything from the shadow of her doorway, was Evelyn Poteet.

Some people in this Western Maryland town say the police should have handled this more discreetly. They say a policeman should have driven the mayor home and let it go at that. But Ms. Poteet, the mayor's outspoken antagonist, would never have let that happen.

"Oh, no," says the 70-year-old woman. "I would have exposed it."

The mayor was convicted last month of drunken driving. And that conviction for drunken driving could violate his probation last year for battery against his wife and her 15-year-old son.

The mayor of Hancock could go to jail.

Jimmy Myers is a likable guy, most people say. He's 49, has lived all his life here and owns a successful business on Main Street, Highway Petroleum, which transports gasoline, delivers home-heating oil and operates 17 service stations.

He knows everybody in town, and everybody knows him. "I love Hancock," he says. "My whole family's from here. My heritage is here. I don't mean to hurt the town."

His town has 1,970 people and two traffic lights. Except for the squealing tires of young men's cars, it is a very quiet place in the hills at the far edge of Washington County, 30 miles past Hagerstown.

"Up here nobody's in a hurry," says Dennis Fandl, who moved from Baltimore four years ago to open the town's first crab house. "You check out the death column in the local paper, and everybody's 98, 92, 88. If you ever see anybody in there 62 or 63, you know they got killed in a car accident."

There hasn't been a murder here in more than 20 years, says the police chief, Bob Sipes. He is a retired state trooper who worked 25 years out of Hagerstown. Although Hancock has never had big-time crime, he says, it was a pretty wild place 15 or 20 years ago.

"You had to fight your way into town and then fight your way out," Chief Sipes says.

A subject of discussion

Things have calmed considerably, he says. But Hancock, like any town, has its share of drunken brawls and domestic disputes.

When the mayor was charged with battery against his wife and her son in April 1991, most people in town hardly raised an eyebrow, although everyone rushed to talk about it.

"I think they considered that a spat between husband and wife more than a battery," says the police chief.

A town official, a man, who asked not to be identified, says: "The circles I run in, we laughed it off."

The mayor's wife, Sandra, alleged that he knocked her cold. She said that they argued, she slapped him, he pushed her, she pushed back, he grabbed her by the throat and pushed her over some furniture, she got up, and he knocked her into a chair. Then, she continued, she smacked him in the head with a portable telephone.

He finally punched her in the chin and knocked her out, she alleged, and then he punched her 15-year-old son in the face. Both she and her husband had been married previously.

They're separated now.

It took a jury in Hagerstown 44 minutes last October to find the mayor guilty of battery against his wife and stepson.

Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III handed down a six-month suspended jail sentence, placed the mayor on probation for two years and ordered him to contribute $2,500 to an organization in Hagerstown that assists battered women.

Now Judge Wright could send the mayor to jail for violating probation if the drunken-driving conviction stands.

The mayor's lawyer, Lewis C. Metzner of Hagerstown, says he will likely appeal the case. The mayor, he says, was not drunk when stopped at 7:55 p.m. April 24 on High Street in front of Evelyn Poteet's house. He was stopped because his International truck had no license plates; he was not driving erratically.

The mayor staggered and slurred because of a stroke he had suffered the month before, Mr. Metzner says.

Bruce Carlin agrees. He is a special assistant to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The governor sent him to Hancock in January to assist town officials after a devastating fire on Main Street.

Another viewpoint

Mr. Carlin was in town the night the mayor was pulled over. He was called to the scene. A Baltimore police officer 18 years until suffering a stroke in 1984, he says he smelled no alcohol on the mayor's breath. He says he understands why the mayor failed the sobriety tests. "If you have weakness of the left side," Mr. Carlin says, "it's kind of hard to stand on one leg for 30 seconds."

However, three Hancock police officers, including the chief, testified in court that the mayor smelled of alcohol. They produced an almost empty pint bottle of Seagrams whiskey from the front seat of the mayor's truck. The mayor refused to take a breath analysis test.

Chief Sipes says it made no difference that Ms. Poteet was watching from her doorway or that some people would criticize his arresting the mayor. "We were just performing the job we get paid to do," he says.

Last month, Washington County District Judge James Strine found the mayor guilty of drunken driving. The judge has not set a date for sentencing.

That conviction, the mayor's second in less than a year, set off Ms. Poteet. A newcomer, she is regarded suspiciously by many old-timers. But they can hardly ignore her.

"I tell you, I do have enemies," she says. "I think it's because I speak out. If I don't like something, I'm going to let somebody know it."

She moved from Baltimore six years ago after retiring as a teacher and secretary in the Baltimore County school system. She got involved right away in organizations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, church and local politics.

She never did think too much of the mayor, who was elected to a two-year term in 1988 and re-elected in 1990. He is part of the same good-ol'-boy network that has run the town for 50 or 60 years, Ms. Poteet says.

"Everybody knows he drinks"

After the mayor's arrest in front of her house, Ms. Poteet made up petitions calling for a referendum on whether the mayor should be removed from office.

"I have said this before," she says, "but I don't want this kind of person representing me in this town, county, state or country. . . . Everybody in this town knows Jimmy Myers drinks. But people for some reason or another don't want to get involved."

Ms. Poteet never circulated the petitions. It just wasn't worth it, she says, since the mayor's term expires in January. And surely he won't run again.

Or will he?

"I don't know. I'm not going to say," says Jimmy Myers, sitting in his office at Highway Petroleum.

He is a short man with a potbelly. He slurs some words -- a result of the stroke, he says. He won't talk about his court cases but says he doesn't think he'll go to jail.

"I'm not a drunk"

"Sure, I have my bad sides," he says. "But no, I'm not a drunk, that's for sure."

Everybody knows he has dispatched his company's workers and equipment to perform town work. He's the first to donate to local charities or to the resident who needs a heart transplant.

His personal problems haven't greatly disrupted town business; a town manager handles the day-to-day operation. But they have embarrassed Hancock, people say.

"His personal life has not been a good example for young people or for anybody else," says Sally Fost, one of the four council members. "He does have problems with disciplining himself."

The mayor says his personal life shouldn't be such an open book.

"I'm not like the governor or congressman," he says.

"I don't make $125,000 a year. For $67 a month, I don't get paid enough for people to look at me through a microscope."

Of course, the mayor's private life became public when he was arrested, tried and convicted. And now, despite his love for the town, the mayor of Hancock could go to jail.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
27°