After the shooting deaths of the Kirkersville Police chief and two others at a nursing home, the Licking County village spent months without a police force.
A year after the massacre, the nursing home has reopened and there's a new chief in town, but his criminal record and work history have divided the community.
James Hughes, Jr., the new police chief, has only been on the job a few weeks. He's the third chief Kirkersville has named within a year.
WOSU obtained Hughes’ personnel records from Fairfield County, where he worked as a deputy in 2012 and 2013. An investigation found Hughes had an improper relationship with a former female inmate after she was released from the Fairfield County Jail. Hughes received a two-week suspension without pay and was transferred, but kept his job.
In 2013, Hughes pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct in Whitehall. The police report says Hughes got into an argument with workers at a fast food restaurant over his order and then spat at the drive-thru window.
When speaking to Whitehall Police, Hughes referred to the employees in vulgar, racist terms. According to the report, Hughes said of the fast food workers, "F--k hose ignorant n-----s."
WOSU asked Hughes about his guilty plea, and by phone he said, “I don’t have any comment. That’s in the past.” Then he hung up.
Kirkersville Mayor Terry Ashcraft declined to talk about Hughes’ record. But he defended Hughes, saying the media is only getting one side of the story. Ashcraft says he had received a letter from a Fairfield County Sheriff’s official describing Hughes as a good employee.
“It’s working out real good,” Ashcraft says. “We’re just going to expand the hours and get more protection. But, they’re doing a good job.”
Brian Zets, the chief legal advisor for Kirkersville, says that he was not part of Hughes’ hiring process and has not seen the application. Zets says that Hughes did admit to wrongdoing.
“I know that the mayor was part of the hiring process and the mayor told me specifically that the chief did disclose fully that information about the Mayor’s court matter,” Zets says.
Business owner Judy Casto has lived in Kirkersville for 24 years. She read about Hughes’ controversial law enforcement background in the local newspaper.
“We’re not happy with not having somebody positive and wants to know the people in the town and friendly like the past chief that we had,” Casto says.
But some residents say the criticism is simply nit-picking.
“I heard that they’ve got a new police chief. I have not met him,” says Nattie Groves, owner of CRS Carpets. "I don’t know anything about him, other than some scuttlebutt that you hear people say that you can’t verify whether it’s right, whether it’s wrong.”
Hughes takes over the job of Police Chief from Jeff Finley, who was named last October but resigned just five months later. Finley told the Newark Advocate that Ashcraft was verbally abusive and created a hostile work environment.
Ashcraft says it's time to move on.
"There's still some ongoing investigation and I won't discuss it," Ashcraft says. "I know there's some comments made about me, none of it was true. It was all made up, but there's stuff going on that I won't discuss at this time."
The Pine Kirk Nursing Home—where Thomas Hartless is suspected of fatally shooting home nurse Marlina Medrano, nurse's aide Cindy Krantz and Chief Steven DiSario before killing himself—recently reopened.
Resident Brian Milam, who lives two doors down from the home, says that was a one-time thing. He says he doesn’t worry about his safety and plans to stay in Kirkersville.
“You know everybody’s cautious," Milan says. "But, it’s such a quiet little town, everybody knows everybody. I love it here. I’m not leaving.”
Kirkersville recently unveiled a memorial bench right outside the police department—where James Hughes, Jr. now reports to duty.