Va. Tech files lawsuit against W. Va. State Police over 1998 student disappearance records

WEST VIRGINIA — The student newspaper at Virginia TechUniversity in Blacksburg, Va., is suing the West Virginia State Police in aneffort to obtain documents about a student who went missing over a decadeago.

Caleb Fleming, a reporter with the Collegiate Times, spent the pastacademic year working on an in-depth story about Robert Kovack, a Virginia Techstudent who went missing in 1998. For his story, he wanted access to the handfulof documents and photographs in the police investigation file.

But after police denied two Freedom of Information Act requests, the paperfiled suit against the law-enforcement agency on May 19 in the Circuit Court ofKanawha County. The Collegiate Times also filed a set of writtenquestions that police are required to answer.

Kelly Furnas, editorial adviser for the Collegiate Times, said themain reason behind getting the documents is to make them public, adding hewonders whether there are any clues embedded in the documents police will notturn over.

Furnas said when the reporter initially talked to police over the phonethey seemed eager to help with the records — which they said consistedof no more than 50 pages of documents and no more than 12 photos, accordingto the suit. But after the paper filed requests seeking the documents, they weredenied in full.

“That’s the most frustrating part,” Furnas said.”It wasn’t a partial denial of the FOIA request. They didn’tsay ‘This document or this document might hurt the investigation, but youcan have the rest of them.'”

The West Virginia State Police denied the requests on the grounds that theinformation is related to an open criminal investigation. But most ofFleming’s sources told him the case was cold, Furnas added.

Virginia Lanham, counsel for the West Virginia State Police, said she couldnot comment on the situation because a lawsuit is pending and the case isactive.

But Keith Finch, a lawyer representing the Collegiate Times, saidthe state police need to turn over files because the case has gone cold and thepublic interest is vital enough.

“The point is that under the Freedom of Information Act, [the reasonbehind a request] just doesn’t matter,” Finch said. “Anybodylooking at the law would quickly realize that it’s truly an exceptionalcase in which you can say none of the documents can be disclosed.”

A decade since the Virginia Tech student vanished, the CollegiateTimes reporter decided to look into the case again after readers indicatedthey were interested in a follow-up on the investigation after the 10-yearanniversary of Kovack’s disappearance.

In September 1998, Kovack was traveling to a football game at West VirginiaUniversity in Morgantown, W.Va., according to the paper’s recent story.Days after he went missing, his Geo Tracker was found abandoned on the side of ahighway. Through numerous interviews, the reporter found a slew of questionsstill surrounding the odd disappearance.

The only thing missing from the reporter’s story, which was publishedin May, are the police records, Furnas said.

Furnas said he hopes a judge will tell police to release the files. Henoted it could be several months before a ruling — until then, theywill keep waiting.

“The entire basis of having an exemption for an open records requestwould be because you think it might compromise investigations,” Furnassaid. “We cannot fathom a circumstance where a 10-year-old cold case wouldbe hampered by releasing information.”