West Virginia family court corruption and incompetence

Journalist Mark Hallburn never intended on being a proponent of the West Virginia family court reform movement

This story starts, as many do, with divorce papers served by Mark Hallburn’s ex wife. At the same time Hallburn received a tip from a father who ran afoul of child protective services for rough-housing with his child at a football match. The father ended up in jail despite being cleared of all suspicion of child abuse. 

Hallburn did some digging on Judge Watkins–who treated the father harshly regarding unpaid child support while he was in jail–found dirt, and reported on it.

Then our intrepid journalist found himself in front of the very judge he was investigating. Judge Watson was presiding over Hallburn’s divorce!

Hallburn now faced bias against fathers, court corruption and judicial retaliation armed only with a burning desire to stay in his son’s life. 

This is where his story begins. But it doesn’t end here.

Mark Hallburn, longtime Publisher of PutnamLIVE.com, a local news web site, was content with reporting Putnam County news and information with an occasional editorial.

Putnam County Family Court Judge William M. “Chip” Watkins, III

Then Putnam County Family Court Judge William M. “Chip” Watkins, III, retaliated against Hallburn for inquiring after Watkins’ reason for being listed as “Not In Good Standing” with Watkins’ homeowners association.

Now, Watkins is on a four-year suspension from the bench, without pay, and Hallburn is feeling the wrath of the West Virginia court system, including facing a criminal charge for simply trying to review the financial records of the Putnam County Health Department–which is nearly a quarter of a million dollars in debt.

This tangle of judicial malfeasance started with a simple tip from a loyal reader. In November of 2011, (about the same time that Hallburn’s wife, Dolores, filed for divorce) Hallburn received a telephone call from another Putnam resident, Troy Sexton, who’d experienced some legal trouble after he picked up one of his triplets by his feet, and swung him around at a football practice. Sexton was busted on a felony for this roughhousing with his child, and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor to avoid his young children from having to testify in court. This despite Child Protective Services determining that Troy Sexton was not a child abuser.

Then-Putnam County Magistrate Kimberly M. Blair-Caruthers (who recently lost her re-election bid and is no longer Magistrate), threw the book at Sexton with a six-month jail sentence.

The sentence was reduced to 30 days upon appeal. Sexton, who is a comptroller at a local car dealer, was hauled into Watkins’ court, and, Sexton claims, treated harshly about child support during his jail sentence for child abuse that he did not commit.

At that time Sexton lived in the same subdivision as Watkins, so when Sexton received a Home Owner’s Association[HOA] letter listing Watkins as “Not In Good Standing,” Sexton called Hallburn. Sexton told Hallburn that the same judge that tossed dads into jail over owing child support was not in good standing with thie Home Owners Association, a “conflict.”

“I told Troy that ‘Not In Good Standing’ could mean a broken window, an untrimmed shrub, or a campaign sign in the yard that violated HOA rules,” recalls Hallburn. “I couldn’t simply publish that Watkins didn’t pay his bill–without verification.”

So Hallburn telephoned Watkins, at his home, and at the courtroom office. The calls were not returned.

“That’s not surprising,” says Hallburn. “Chip has a reputation for not returning calls. So I went to his office. His staff was rude. I was told that his HOA dues weren’t news, and that since I was a litigant that he wouldn’t talk to me. I advised his secretary that I didn’t leave my journalism civil rights in the lobby because I am a respondent in a divorce case that I didn’t want, and that my interview of Watkins wouldn’t talk about the divorce. I also told them that since he was my wife’s lawyer–before we married–that he must recuse himself.”

The secretary’s daughter, Lori Mitchell, is Watkins’ case manager. She threatened to have Hallburn arrested. He left the building and wrote Watkins a letter.

“I told him I wanted his side of the story,” Hallburn recalls. “I also advised Watkins that he was Dolores’ former lawyer (which, admittedly, because she took my name, he would not have known) and that he must recuse himself, so an interview with me would not be a conflict. I also told him his staff was rude.”


Watkins responded with an infamous letter where he made some mistakes: 1) He admitted being behind on his HOA dues and thanked Hallburn.  2) He invited Hallburn to file a motion for recusal. (Watkins should have automatically recused himself–a mistake) 3) Watkins said his staff reported Hallburn as being rude and called Hallburn “The south end of a north-bound horse.” That’s judge-speak for “Horses ass.” Watkins signed the letter.

A short time later, in a separate incident, Lori Mitchell was accused of being rude in a Writ of Prohibition filed by Terry K. Hamm, a former employee of the new Putnam County Circuit Judge Joseph K. “Joe” Reeder, who was also Hallburn’s lawyer before running for office. (Hallburn reports he has never met Hamm).

Hallburn turned the Watkins letter, which was written in December, over to West Virginia Record free-lance reporter Lawrence J. Smith, who telephoned Watkins a few months later.

Free-lance reporter Lawrence J. Smith

“I was too close to the story,” says Hallburn. “I wanted Smith to report about the letter from Watkins.”

Hallburn also filed a complaint with the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission about Watkins’ refusal to recuse himself from the case. In addition, Hallburn’s motion to recuse was opposed by Watkins, who was eventually removed from the case by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Because Watkins is the only Family Court Judge in Putnam County (population about 60,000) the case was assigned to controversial Kanawha County Judge Michael J. “Mike” Kelly. (Remember Kelly’s name)

Watkins makes another mistake: He threatens Smith on a recorded voice mail, with a lawsuit–something that stunned Hallburn. Smith says, “I’ve been a journalist since I was the only guy at a radio station when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. I never thought I’d see the day that a judge–knowing he is being recorded–would threaten a reporter.”

That’s exactly what Watkins did.

“By then, I’d moved to South Carolina, in early March, 2012” says Hallburn. “I’d forgotten about Watkins. But when Lawrence says he was threatened, I told him to take the audio to Troy, who’d become a YouTube sensation (Troy From West Virginia) with a series of home-made videos. I also told Lawrence to take a picture of Watkins’ house, and I published the article about the threat.” It is important to note that the article was published May 22, 2013–six months after Hallburn contacted Watkins about his Home Owners Association predicament.

Enter Hurricane Bible Church Pastor Arthur D. Hage. The quiet old-school preacher was struggling over his divorce from his wife, Lillian, and had several hearings before Watkins. One of those hearings was May 21, 2013. Watkins saw Hage speak with Smith as Hage exited the courtroom. The next day, when Watkins saw the PutnamLIVE.com article, complete with the photo of his home, Watkins went ballistic, and verbally shredded Hage, in a truly astonishing performance recorded on court camera.

“For reasons none of us understand,” Hallburn recalls. “Watkins accused Hage of being involved with the publication of the article including the photo of Watkins’ home. Keep in mind that Watkins knew I was questioning his HOA dues and contacted Watkins in November of 2012. People have asked how Hage could sit there and take Watkins’ abuse. Two reasons: 1) Hage was stunned. 2) Hage literally knew nothing about the article and had no idea of why Watkins was screaming at him.”

The video went viral. Watkins was seen on Kelly’s Court on Fox News, the Huffington Post, was mentioned in The London Daily Mail, and discussed on The Glenn Beck Show–in addition to local West Virginia news sources that initially ignored it.

During Watkins’ rant, he claims that his home was repeatedly vandalized. However, Smith’s research failed to turn up any crime reports.

West Virginia Supreme Court Administrator Steven D. Canterbury said he would not press charges against Watkins saying “Everyone can have a bad day.”

So Hallburn published more videos. In one, Watkins sends 62-year-old amputee Robert R. “Bob” Harper, Sr., to jail for failing to pay child support. (Harper spent 21 days and contracted tuberculosis behind bars.) There’s only one problem: Harper proved that he paid the support. In another, Watkins screams at Tammy Jo Lambert, saying, “Shut up, you stupid woman” and tells her to “Shut her fat face.”

In one video, Watkins slanders Hallburn and Sexton, calling Hallburn a “Certified nut case” and Sexton a “Child abuser.” Of course, neither are true and Watkins is protected by judicial immunity. Not even West Virginia judges are immune from Watkins’ comments: he rips several of them in a session that looks like it came from a corner bar rather than a courtroom. Amazingly, in another video, Watkins slaps Margaret Farmer with a restraining order, while she and her lawyer were absent! That’s against court rules. But when Farmer filed a complaint with the West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission, it was dismissed.

Eventually Sexton produced a satirical montage video (NSFW) of Watkins screaming at people in his courtroom.[1]

When Watkins came up for a disciplinary hearing, Farmer and Sexton were not allowed to testify because no charges were filed on their behalf by the J.I.C.

However, charges were filed against Watkins on behalf of Harper, Nancy Black, Lambert, and Mary Wysong, who Watkins told, from the bench, to give up eating lunch every day.

While the so-called disciplinary system shut down Farmer and Sexton from speaking in Watkins’ hearing, Harper and Hallburn were allowed to talk. What happened made West Virginia history and put Hallburn in the cross-hairs of the legal system.

When Harper spoke, Watkins rudely ignored him–despite being seated just a few feet away.

So when Hallburn spoke, from across the courtroom, he first ripped the JIC, calling it “A supreme failure” for the six-month delay in holding a disciplinary hearing–saying it was “A sham.”

Then Hallburn politely asked Watkins to “Turn around and face me like a man.” Watkins did, very briefly, then kicked his feet up, rolled his eyes, and crossed his arms like a middle-school punk.

Disciplinary Committee.

The disciplinary committee sat and watched Watkins melt down in his courtroom chair. However, the committee and hearing judge refused to release Watkins’ mental evaluation that was done for this case.

Special prosecutor Rachel Fletcher Cipoletti

After the hearing concluded, Special prosecutor Rachel Fletcher Cipoletti announced that she and Watkins had previously agreed to a 90-day suspension, a suspension that would be “stayed” or canceled, should Watkins perform well under special supervision during his next 90 days on the bench.

However, the disciplinary hearing board had another idea. Specifically citing Watkins’ reaction to Hallburn’s testimony, it recommended a four-year suspension without pay, for the remainder of Watkins’ term in office, through December 31, 2016.

Despite the testimony of Watkins lawyer, Robert Paul Martin, before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, in March of 2013, the four-year-suspension was upheld, removing Watkins from the bench, and likely ending his career as a judge.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

Before that hearing, Fletcher Cipoletti flip-flopped on her 90-day suspension agreement and sided with the committee’s recommendation that Watkins be suspended for the remainder of his four-year-term.

Hallburn also revealed that Watkins’ lawyer had been arrested for Public Intoxication and Obstruction (misdemeanors) at a West Virginia University football game shortly before the November 27, 2012 hearing.

Meanwhile, Hallburn was feeling the wrath of the judicial system for taking down a judge.

In early 2012, appointed Judge Michael J. Kelly stripped Hallburn of more than 70-percent custody of his five-year-old son, Matthew. There were no allegations of abuse, no accusations of molestation, no accusations of drug use. Kelly simply punished Mark Hallburn’s little son Matthew for no reason–except for the obvious, the need to get revenge at his father.The journalist had brought Watkins’ admitted misconduct to the attention of the world, and Kelly obviously did not appreciate seeing a fellow judge under scrutiny by the press.

Hallburn says: “Kelly violated our civil rights by refusing to allow Matthew to visit me in South Carolina. [Kelly] even refused to allow Matthew to go to Myrtle Beach on Spring Break. Even worse, Kelly refused to allow me to have Father’s Day with my son–because it was Dolores’ weekend-despite me giving Matthew to her for Mother’s Day on my weekend.”


When Hallburn correctly protested Judge Michael Kelly’s misconduct to then West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis E. Ketchum, instead of doing the right thing, Ketchum pissed on The First Amendment’s “Right to redress government grievances” and issued an Administrative Order that Hallburn not contact the high court to complain about Kelly’s misconduct.


Hallburn’s mother, Nancy Hallburn

But wait, there’s more: When Hallburn’s mother, Nancy, became terminally ill, in May of 2012, Kelly refused to allow Matthew to have a final visit with his grandmother.

The office of Putnam Circuit Clerk Ronnie Matthews lost the budget that Hallburn provided at Kelly’s request. This was Kelly’s excuse for denying the final visit. However, in a classic “Gotcha” move, Hallburn had re-submitted the budget in the Father’s Day visitation motion that Kelly denied. The lying judge is busted. When Hallburn complained about the “lost” budget, Kelly retaliated by issuing an order telling Hallburn not to contact Matthew’s office about Hallburn’s case.

Hallburn filed a complaint against Kelly about his malicious refusal of the final visit only to have the JIC refuse to press charges against the bad judge.

“The JIC needs to be disbanded,” says Hallburn. “We need an independent Civilian Review Board to replace the JIC.”

Because Hallburn was under an 11-month-long “temporary” order when Kelly refused to let Matthew visit his grandmother, and because temporary orders are not appealable under West Virginia Family Court rules, Nancy died, August 5, 2012, without a final visit with her grandson. Matthew’s only visit with her was when he was 10 months old, in 2008. Because of Kelly’s misconduct, little Matthew has no recollection of his grandmother. Yet Kelly has him living with his other grandmother, Dolores’ mother, Margaret, every day.

Incredibly, in this courtroom video, Judge Michael Kelly states that no four-year-old would appreciate a visit with his grandmother. Kelly said it. Hallburn published the video. Unlike West Virginia judges, videotapes don’t lie.

The West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission refuses to release complaints, or even complaint numbers about Mountain State judges–calling the elected officials “employees.” Smith has filed a lawsuit about this issue. However, even he concedes that the odds of a judge ruling that this information must be made public is slim. Judges protect each other.

In addition, reporters are not allowed to cover West Virginia Family Law court hearings, effectively protecting judges.

“Thankfully Hage, Harper, Lambert and Wysong released their videos,” says Hallburn. “These people are heroes. Without them, Canterbury would never have filed any complaints against Watkins and Watkins would still be screaming at people from his bench while waving his Bible.”

A federal civil rights complaint, filed by Hallburn against Kelly, was also rejected.

The West Virginia legislature proved inadequate for redress. Hallburn met with WV Senate Judiciary Chair Corey Palumbo, Senator Chris Walters and Delegates Tim Armstead, Brady Paxton, Josh Stowers (whose uncle handled Hallburn’s appeal) Jeff Eldridge, and Doug Skaff prior to and during the 2013 legislative session. None of them took the necessary action to reform the broken Mountain State Family Law system.

In the final order Kelly retaliated and stripped Hallburn of all overnight visits, continued to hold Matthew hostage in West Virginia by banning out-of-state trips, doubled Hallburn’s child support, and refused to provide him with a single cent of the $65,000 that he put into the marital home over 12 years. Kelly also ordered Hallburn to pay Dolores’ lawyer nearly $8,000 because Hallburn filed motions for Matthew to travel out-of-state and to visit his dying grandmother.

Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers

Hallburn appealed to Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers, who chipped away at Kelly’s audacious ruling and restored overnight visits (only every-other weekend) and allows Matthew to travel outside of West Virginia–but not overnight.

“The poor kid can’t go to Myrtle Beach, Disney World, or visit his family in California,” says Hallburn. “My niece is getting married in July, near Los Angeles, and Matthew cannot go.” “I was also forced to move back to West Virginia after having left the state, just so I could have my overnight visits with my son,” he added.

Hallburn appealed his case to the West Virginia Supreme Court June 5, 2013. It has been accepted for a hearing, but not until October. Meanwhile Mark and Matthew only get to see each other every other weekend and talk on the telephone for 10 minutes each Thursday night. And Hallburn has had to turn his whole life upside-down, moving back to West Virginia from after having moved to nearby South Carolina, just to have those every-other-weekend overnights.


One other thing: Judge Kelly wants Hallburn to come into his courtroom for a contempt hearing July 15, 2013, while Hallburn has already informed Kelly that he will be in California for his niece, Melissa’s wedding. In a further show of bias, Kelly moved the hearing from July 1, 2013, simply because Dolores, Hallburn’s ex-, will be on vacation.

Hallburn even filed a lawsuit against Kelly. But West Virginia Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin refused to recuse Kelly despite this lawsuit. And the court has failed to set a hearing date for that lawsuit.

“If the suit isn’t heard, Kelly wins,” says Hallburn. “By not holding a hearing, the judges are protecting the misconduct of one of their own.”

West Virginia Courts have been called a Judicial Hellhole for years. AVfM’s extensive coverage of judge Lori B. Jackson of West Virginia has already made West Virginia famous for its corrupt Family Court judges. The mistreatment and abuse of Mark and Matthew Hallburn prove that nothing much has changed, and West Virginia appears to be full of corrupt, incompetent judges like Lori Betler Jackson and Michael Kelly.

Please expect further coverage of the case of judicial persecution of Hallburn here on AVfM, as Hallburn attempts to appeal all this and expose judicial misconduct in his home state to the world. Hallburn is working alone, unable to afford legal representation, against a massively corrupt system clearly filled with croneyism and collusion. But we will do our best to provide further updates on his case, including scrutinizing Justice Brent D. Benjamin and his role in all this, as well as quite a bit more about the general hijinx of the West Virginia legal establishment, with the hopes that some brave lawyer in West Virginia will be willing to step up and assist Hallburn against this machine that routinely grinds children and their fathers into hamburger.

AVfM is not done reporting on the persecution of little Matthew and his father Mark. Stay tuned.


[1] The video linked insinuates certain things regarding Judge Watkins that the AVfM news team cannot confirm. It’s linked here in order to offer an overview on the Judge’s behavior in court.

Note: Thanks to Della Burton and Asha James for their fact-checking and contributions to this story. –DE

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