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West Virginia

September 24, 2013

Corruption in Mingo County justice system shreds trust in southern W.Va.

WILLIAMSON — A judge who had his own table at a now-shuttered coffee shop faces federal conspiracy charges that could send him to prison. A prosecutor is accused of “egregious misconduct” and could lose his law license. And recent allegations have tainted the legacy of a charming yet hard-charging sheriff slain three months into his much-touted war on drug dealers.

Here in southern West Virginia, a community rocked in April by the killing of Sheriff Eugene Crum is now struggling with scandals that touch every level of the Mingo County justice system.

“And it’s not over yet,” predicted Robin Evans, a longtime supporter of just about everyone involved in the tangled tales of corruption spinning out of this region on the Kentucky line where the Hatfields and McCoys feuded. “There ain’t no doubt in my mind there’s a lot more to come.”

Evans’ family has helped elect the so-called Team Mingo slate of Democrats for years. Now-suspended Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury sends them Christmas cards, he says, and Crum was a lifelong friend and “real good man” who appeared to have nothing but contempt for drugs.

The notion that he was buying drugs, as federal prosecutors now allege, is unthinkable to Evans.

“He’s dead, and he can’t defend himself, but I knew him all his life and I never knew him to be involved in it,” Evans said. “As far as we knew, it was all nice people. ... We don’t know who to trust now.”

On April 3, the 59-year-old Crum was shot in the head as he ate lunch in his car in a Williamson parking lot. He had been keeping watch on a one-time “pill mill,” a place illegally doling out prescription drugs, to be sure it didn’t reopen.

Authorities charged 37-year-old Tennis Maynard, a one-time boxing student of Crum’s. Maynard’s father first described his son as mentally disturbed and later alleged the sheriff had molested the suspect when he was a teenager. Maynard is awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

As rumors swirled about other possible motives, the FBI quietly ran them down.

Last month, federal prosecutors charged Thornsbury with an unrelated conspiracy. They say the powerful judge of 16 years had an affair with his secretary and repeatedly tried to frame her husband for crimes he didn’t commit after she broke things off. Thornsbury’s attorney has declined comment.

Prosecutors say the scheme also involved a Gilbert police officer, the 2009 state Trooper of the Year and the county’s emergency management director, whom Thornsbury allegedly appointed in a failed attempt to commandeer the grand jury.

The day the judge was indicted, federal prosecutors also alleged that County Commissioner Dave Baisden had abused his power. He’s charged with extortion, accused of threatening a business owner who refused to sell him tires for his personal vehicle at the cheaper government rate.

To barber Wesley Taylor, the only surprise is that the dealer didn’t cooperate.

“Stuff like that happens all the time around here,” he said.

Mingo County has just 26,000 residents and is shrinking steadily as the coal industry contracts. U.S. Census data show more than 2,400 people have left since 2010.

For generations, a few families controlled the coal, the wealth and the political establishment. With no new blood trickling in, their grip tightened.

Robert Rupp, a history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, says once a political machine takes over in a place like Mingo, it’s virtually impossible to oust. Especially when there are no significant alternatives.

While statewide voter registration favors Democrats 2-1, the ratio in Mingo County is 9-1.

The privileged few “have always gotten away with the things,” said Taylor, the barber. “Then they get a political job and they think the rules don’t apply to them.”

“It’s sad to say, but in Williamson and Mingo County, it’s been one scandal after another,” he said. “It’s always been that way.... Nothing that happens here is really a jaw-dropper.”

Last week, there was more.

Thornsbury was charged in a second conspiracy that prosecutors say aimed to protect Crum’s career.

A longtime magistrate, Crum was elected sheriff last fall and took office in January. He won more indictments in his first three months than his predecessors had in the previous eight years.

But federal prosecutors now say Crum had himself been buying prescription painkillers from a man who made his campaign signs. Instead of paying his $3,000 debt, prosecutors say, Crum enlisted Baisden, Thornsbury and county Prosecutor Michael Sparks in a successful scheme to imprison the man on drug charges.

Sparks has denied any wrongdoing, and neither he nor Baisden has been charged. The judge, however, is cooperating with prosecutors and is expected to plead guilty.

Sheriff’s department secretary Linette Morrison doesn’t buy the story. She’s known Crum for years, and her best friend is his widow, Rosie, who hasn’t returned messages from The Associated Press.

“I absolutely do not believe he was doing drugs,” Morrison said. “That’s not the man I knew.

“I was around him enough that if something had been going on, I’d have seen it,” she said. “It is the most ludicrous thing in the world. Eugene Crum was one of the finest men I’ve ever met.”

Charles “Butch” West, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Sparks for prosecutor last year, said skepticism about the justice system is not limited to defendants.

Before Thornsbury took office in 1997, Elliott “Spike” Maynard was the longtime circuit judge. Maynard, who later served as a state Supreme Court justice, was a “tough, tough criminal law judge,” West said. “But he was consistent.”

Under Thornsbury, “there was no consistency,” West said. “I got to a point where I really dreaded taking my clients into the courtroom and subjecting them to the kind of treatment I’d become accustomed to. A case didn’t turn on its own facts; it turned on whatever was coming out of these offices.”

Christopher Fletcher, a graduate of West Virginia University’s forensic science program, said Mingo corruption is no different from anywhere else.

“You got friends, you pay them. Whoever controls the money controls everything,” he said. “And the fact that it’s hard to make a decent living here unless you’ve got a job in mining — well, money’s a little more important when you don’t have a lot of options.”

County Commissioner Greg “Hootie” Smith said he sought election 11 years ago to clean things up.

“I am very disappointed to see embarrassment and shame brought upon our home,” he said. “It’s been very disappointing to see ... the people of Mingo County lose faith in their government again.”

The allegations, Smith said, don’t reflect the people he knows.

“But at this point I’m not going to speculate on anyone’s actions,” he said. “I’m accountable for my own.”

Now, Mingo’s unscathed leaders must regain the public’s trust.

Newly appointed Sheriff James Smith, who ran against Crum last year, rallied his 18 deputies last week to deliver that message.

“I understand why they don’t have trust for the system now,” he said. “They trusted some of these men to do the job in this courthouse.”

If the allegations prove true, he said, “They’ve let the public down.”

Smith, who vows to cooperate with the FBI and State Police, said his deputies must do everything by the book, treat people fairly and prove they’re here to help, not hurt.

“It ain’t something that words are gonna help,” he said. “We say, ‘Trust me, it’s going to be done right.’ But until they see it, people ain’t gonna believe it.”

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