What We Know About the Murder of a West Virginia Coal Magnate

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Alex Poucher

Alex Poucher

Ben Hatfield after a tragedy at his coal mine in West Virginia in 2006. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Bennett K. Hatfield decorated his wife’s grave every Memorial Day for the past seven years. He won’t ever do so again. The former coal company executive was killed in broad daylight Sunday as he prepared the plot at Mountain View Memory Gardens Cemetery in southern West Virginia for the upcoming holiday. So far, three people have been arrested in connection with the bizarre shooting, which has roiled Appalachia and flummoxed industry players.

The 59-year-old was highly regarded within the fading world of American coal, but mostly known to the public for his connection to the 2006 Sago Mine disaster. Hatfield was CEO of International Coal Group, which owned the mine, when it exploded and trapped 13 miners underground. A series of miscommunications led company officials to report that a dozen people had survived, when in reality only one had. Hatfield cried during a press conference while apologizing for the error––and for not correcting it immediately, as families of the workers rejoiced for naught.

The man went on to carve out a reputation as something of a maverick in the industry, decrying the negative impact of strip-mining on rural communities and calling for modernization amid surging global antipathy for coal, according to the Charleston Gazette Mail.

After Hatfield’s girlfriend reported him missing Sunday, police tracked his cellphone to the graveyard. On Tuesday, they arrested Anthony Arriaga, a 20-year-old from Ohio, and charged him with first-degree murder. He had apparently emerged from the cemetery wearing only his underwear and paid someone $45 to take him to a Rite Aid in another county.

“Once he heard what was going on, [the driver] let us know he gave this subject a ride to Wayne County,” Mingo County Sheriff James Smith said, later adding, “We were totally lost. Him catching that ride helped us.”

After that, Arriaga allegedly told his friend Ricky Dean Peterson, who is also 20, about the murder. Peterson has now been charged with serving as an accessory after the fact and providing bogus info to cops. And on Wednesday, a third 20-year-old, Brandon Fitzpatrick, was picked up in Kentucky for questioning.

State police believe that Arriaga and Fitzpatrick were dealing drugs in the area and ran out of money. After they spotted Hattfield’s car, they decided to rob him. Arriaga’s bond has been set at $1 million. On his Facebook page, the accused states that he is a laborer who works in construction.

Friends told the Gazette-Mail Hatfield was a “complex individual” who “loved and cherished his family.” Last year, he resigned as the president and CEO of Patriot Coal, which filed for bankruptcy a second time the following month.

“It’s just absolutely unbelievable,” West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney told the paper of the killing. “I never heard anybody say anything bad about [Hatfield.] He was a true Southern gentleman.”

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