WILLIAMSON, W.Va. (AP) — Even in southern West Virginia, where corruption is as much as a part of life as coal, people are shocked by allegations that a judge commandeered the legal system in a years-long attempt to frame a romantic rival for crimes he didn’t commit.
Federal prosecutors indicted Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury on two counts of conspiracy Thursday, just hours after indicting County Commissioner Dave Baisden on extortion charges. Thornsbury attorney Steve Jory declined comment while Baisden’s attorney did not return messages.
The state Supreme Court has suspended Thornsbury and his law license, and a replacement judge was set to take over his caseload Friday.
Both officials are free while awaiting trial, but the indictments were painful news in a community still reeling from the assassination of its sheriff in April.
“It’s hard for me to believe, because I personally know the judge. I know him as a personal friend. I’ve been to his home. I know his kids,” said Williamson minister Butch Gregory.
Gregory’s wife, Louise, hired Thornsbury as her lawyer long before he became the county’s only judge in 1997.
“As a married man, he should have known better,” she said. “I don’t really trust nobody out here anymore.”
The indictment says Thornsbury tried between 2008 and 2012 to frame Robert Woodruff for crimes including drug possession, larceny and assault. The judge had been having an affair with his secretary — Woodruff’s wife, Kim — and he tried to eliminate the competition after she tried to break things off, it says.
The schemes involved a state trooper, the county emergency services director and another man, the indictment says, but none of them panned out.
Thornsbury faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, and a lawyer for the Woodruffs says he can also expect a civil lawsuit.
“My client should never have been placed under the stress of being charged criminally,” said Charleston attorney Mike Callaghan, “nor should he have spent time in jail for crimes he did not commit.
“As a lawyer, I knew something was wrong,” he said. “But never in my wildest dreams did I fathom the reason for the prosecution.”
The indictment said Thornsbury, 57, wanted a friend to plant a magnetic metal box containing drugs on Robert Woodruff’s vehicle in 2008. The friend didn’t go through with it.
When that failed, prosecutors said the judge got the trooper to file a false complaint against Robert Woodruff for larceny. The judge wanted the trooper to pursue a case against Woodruff for salvaging mine-roof drill bits and scrap from the company he worked for, even though he had permission to do so.
Thornsbury had befriended the trooper and “purposely cultivated a relationship” to influence how he carried out his duties, the indictment said.
The officer, named trooper of the year in 2009, was placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation, said State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous.
County Prosecutor Michael Sparks intervened in the larceny case. He knew of the affair and “recognized that the criminal charges against Woodruff were improper,” the indictment said.
The late sheriff, Eugene Crum, was working as magistrate at the time and dismissed the larceny case.
Thornsbury also tapped a friend, the county’s emergency services director, to become the grand jury foreman, according to the indictment.
The judge allegedly wrote subpoenas and had the grand jury issue them to help get private information about Woodruff. That scheme was exposed when one of the businesses refused to cooperate.
And when Robert Woodruff became the victim of an assault outside a convenience store last year by two men, the judge arranged for Woodruff to be identified as the perpetrator.
The county prosecutor dismissed the charges.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said none of the men accused of helping Thornsbury in his “campaign to persecute” Woodruff will be charged. However, he said, “the investigation into Mingo County corruption is ongoing.”
Mingo County, a coalfields community of about 27,000 people on the state’s southern border with Kentucky, has a long history of violence and government corruption.
It’s the home of the legendary feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families, and was dubbed “Bloody Mingo” when unionizing miners battled security agents and coal companies in the early 20th century.
On the courthouse steps in Williamson, resident Angie Combs took the latest allegations of corruption in stride, embarrassed but not surprised.
“It’s the same old, same old,” she said.
In 1988, former sheriff Johnie Owens was convicted of selling his office for $100,000.
In 2002, the county clerk resigned to avoid prosecution over matters the prosecutor had been investigating, including use of a government credit card for personal reasons and overcharging for expenses.
In 2007, the prosecutor was admonished by the State Bar for subpoenas his office issued for a county commissioner’s financial records.
And in February, a woman was charged with tipping people off about indictments while she served on the grand jury.
“The people of Mingo County are long overdue deliverance from the evils of government corruption,” said Pittsburgh attorney Bruce Stanley, a native who has filed cases in Thornsbury’s court. “After multiple generations of scandals, is it any wonder that southern West Virginia fatalism is so firmly entrenched? Why should they place faith in anyone who claims to be a community leader?”
But restaurant owner Peirce Whitt said the charges against his friend the judge were about a person, not a place.
“It has nothing to do with Mingo County or the people in Mingo County,” he said. “We’re still the good people that we are.
“I’m sure if you go anyplace, you could find a bad person,” Whitt said. “And that’s not to say Judge Thornsbury is a bad person, because he hasn’t been proven guilty yet.”
Meanwhile, Baisden, the county commissioner, was accused of trying to buy tires for his personal vehicle at a government discount, then terminating the county’s contract with Appalachian Tire when it refused to cooperate. Baisden, 66, was released on $10,000 bond and ordered not to discuss the case with any witnesses, including his fellow commissioners.
In April, Mingo County’s sheriff was shot twice in the head while parked in his cruiser, in a spot in downtown Williamson where Crum frequently had lunch.
The suspect, Tennis Melvin Maynard, is facing first-degree murder charges. The motive for the slaying has not been revealed.
Smith reported from Morgantown, W.Va. Associated Press writer Pam Ramsey contributed to this report from Charleston, W.Va.