Nearly two months after catastrophic flooding in eastern Kentucky, Lois Rose stood in her yard in the town of Neon and recorded a debate on her cell phone with Letcher County Sheriff Deputy Seth Whitaker.
In the background, workers in hard hats and bright vests waited, poised to cut down a handful of oak and walnut trees that separate her land from Boone Fork, a small mountain creek.
Rose said the trees were planted by her family years ago, specifically to prevent erosion. When the creek turned into a fast-moving raging river during the flood, it appears they did just that. Earth between the water and the trees washed away and now the trees stand directly on the edge of the bank.
“What are you worried about?” the deputy said to Rose in a placating tone.
“I’ve done and lost six [feet] of this property from the flood,” Rose responded. “And then they’re cutting the trees on my side that’s holding the bank? I just want the trees left. That’s all I’m worried about honey.”
“So they’re contracted out to do this,” Whitaker said after a pause. “Now what do you think is going to happen now, with you standing here and just saying this?”
Rose repeatedly explained she called her state representative, Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton, and Gov. Andy Beshear’s office, trying to get some clarification as to what her rights were. She said it was her understanding from those conversations that workers weren’t allowed on her property. But there they stood. Her frustration is palpable in the video.
The deputy redirected Rose’s attention to show him a shop destroyed by the flood and, almost immediately, as they walked away, chainsaws started up. Minutes later, there’s the sound of wood splintering and trees crashing down.
“Oh my god!” Rose cried out at the sound. “I hate to see my trees go…”
In the video, Whitaker can be heard warning her that if she walked back and interrupted them, she could “get in trouble.” In an interview later, Rose said she took that to mean she could get arrested – just like her husband, Keith, had been the day before.
The day before, Fleming-Neon Police Chief Allen Bormes went to the Rose’s property after the department received a call directly to their office. He said the department doesn’t keep records of direct calls, so he didn’t know any specifics.
“We got there, tried to talk to him [but] he continued to be irate and shouting [and] he continued to make threats towards the workers,” Bormes said.
Bormes said he had been told by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer employee that workers had authority to cut the trees. But he never asked for proof.
“Their orders were to go and cut down any tree that poses a risk of causing flooding or anything like that,” Bormes said.
According to the arrest report, Officer Dustin Jackson tased Keith Rose after he allegedly resisted arrest and tried to flee. Rose’s lawyer, Tyler Ward, said police took him to the hospital before jail. There, they found broken bones in his hand and more in his ribs. Afterwards he spent the night in jail where he laid on a mat on the floor.
“Based on his medical condition at the time, I question whether he should have even been released from the hospital,” Ward said.
Keith Rose is diagnosed with black lung, an incurable disease that makes it hard to breathe. Lois Rose said it would be nearly impossible for him to flee. But there’s no body camera footage of the arrest – Bormes said all the department’s cameras were destroyed in the flood.
The citation, written by Jackson, also claims Keith Rose made threats towards officers. Bormes said he doesn’t recall Rose threatening them.
“He didn’t make threats towards us,” Bormes said. “That would’ve been another charge. Officer Jackson may have heard that, [but] I didn’t.”
George Minges, emergency management chief with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville district, said the agency only helps contractors identify debris FEMA would find eligible for removal. He said he was told the Rose’s trees met that criteria, although the couple disputes that.
Otherwise, Minges said the corps makes no decisions on entering land or communicating with property owners. That’s ultimately up to state agencies and the contractors they hire.
“We’re not involved in the rights of entry or any eminent domain discussions,” Minges said. “That’s not a responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We’re there to monitor and assist.”
When asked during a press conference if the state of emergency in eastern Kentucky allows contractors to go on private property doing things like cutting trees, even when owners object, Gov. Beshear deferred to Col. Jeremy Slinker, the head of Kentucky Emergency Management.
“Generally the answer to your question is no,” Slinker said. “There is a private property debris removal process. But ongoing, as you’ve heard, there’s waterway and stream debris removal going on now to remove hazardous and dangerous debris out of the waterways.”
Slinker encouraged property owners who feel “someone is too close” or about a “particular point of debris” to call a debris hotline (855-336-2337) or reach out to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet with concerns.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet also deferred to Slinker’s response when asked for comment. A cabinet spokesperson declined to clarify further.
State officials have previously said they appreciate the “willingness and understanding” of property owners to let workers access debris in streams. But they’re silent on what recourse property owners have when they don’t want workers on their property, or items from their property removed.
Keith Rose was released from jail on house arrest. and his attorney has filed a complaint with the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights.
For her part, Lois Rose realizes nothing will bring their trees back, but for them it’s the principle of the matter. She said other neighbors have been confused and felt powerless when workers remove things from their land.
“A lot of people won’t fight back and won’t stand up to them,” Rose said. “It’s not right what they have done and that they just come on people’s property and do what they want. It’s not right for them to do that.”