Inside The Crooked ‘Courthouse Gang’ Of Coal Country

Mingo County, W. Va. Judge Michael Thornsbury from a 2004 photo.
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If all goes according to plan, Oct. 2 could be a turning point in the bizarre and apparently corrupt world of West Virginia’s Mingo County.

On that day, Judge Michael Thornsbury, who was the county’s sole circuit court justice for more than 15 years, is set to to admit his role in hatching a plot with other local officials to thwart an FBI investigation into allegations involving the local sheriff’s drug habit.

This alleged conspiracy is the latest chapter in a long saga involving accusations of corruption, an extramarital affair, rape, murder, moonshine, and prescription pills in a county that is currently the focus of what one federal prosecutor described to TPM as an investigation that is just getting started.

“Our investigation of public corruption in Mingo County at this point is ongoing. At this point, it would be premature to indicate how many targets or how many subjects of the investigation might exist, but we can certainly say that the investigation is very much continuing,” said Steven Ruby, an assistant U.S. Attorney who is working on Thornsbury’s case.

Corruption is something of a tradition in Mingo, a coal mining county that is home to less than 30,000 people and located along West Virginia’s border with Kentucky. In the late 1980s, more than 50 Mingo residents who held government jobs were arrested for various illegal activities, including bribery, arson, and drug dealing. Because of this unique history, the locals have a special term for the corrupt political machinery there. It’s a name investigators are using once again to describe Thornsbury and his associates — the “courthouse gang.”

Thornsbury’s part in the alleged conspiracy is just the latest in a long list of disturbing recent revelations involving officials in Mingo. The alleged conspiracy also involves another major figure in Mingo, the late Eugene Crum, who was the county sheriff up until he was shot and killed on April 3 as he ate lunch in his parked car.

Family members of the suspect in Crum’s shooting, Tennis Maynard, have claimed Crum raped Maynard when he was a teen, which motivated the shooting. Court filings in Maynard’s case show his attorneys also plan to discuss an allegation that Crum raped a 19-year-old woman in 2002 when he was serving as police chief in a local town. That alleged rape occurred in the back of a police cruiser while two officers sat in the front seat and blared a radio to drown out the noise.

Crum, who federal prosecutors have described as having had a “close personal and political relationship with Judge Thornsbury,” was the beneficiary of the alleged conspiracy. The plot, prosecutors said, was aimed at stopping a businessman named George White from telling FBI agents about Crum’s alleged drug use and election law violations during his campaign for sheriff.

White had a business making signs and often worked with local political candidates. In 2012, when Crum was a magistrate, he enlisted White’s services in his bid to be elected sheriff. Prosecutors alleged that Crum still owed White “approximately $3,000” in January of this year and that White “insisted that it be repaid.” After this, prosecutors said, Crum “arranged for a confidential police informant to attempt to purchase three oxycodone tablets” from White. Following the painkiller sale, White was arrested.

According to White’s former attorney, Charles West, his client was “quite upset” because he felt the arrest was motivated by Crum’s debt to him. White, who had been a friend of Crum’s, also alleged that the sheriff used to purchase pain pills from him. West told TPM on Tuesday that White also said Crum used to sell him moonshine.

“He owed him some money for signs, and when he came and busted George, it really got on George’s nerves because he had provided — according to George — he had provided oxycodone, I think, to him and he had received from him illegal whiskey, moonshine,” said West. “So, he was quite upset that Eugene would do him that way.”

West said FBI agents became aware of White’s allegations against Crum and set up a meeting with him in late February. At that meeting, which West attended, White detailed his claims about Crum’s oxycodone habit and moonshine sales.

Federal prosecutors said Crum and his allies in local government became aware that White was speaking to FBI agents about Crum. The group “devised a scheme to prevent” him “from further communicating to the FBI and others incriminating information regarding Sheriff Crum,” the filing said. This alleged scheme, which prosecutors said was cooked up by Crum, Thornsbury, a local prosecutor, and a county commissioner, involved telling White that he could receive a favorable deal on the oxycodone charge if he fired West, switched to an attorney of their choosing, and stopped communicating with the FBI.

West said the county commissioner relayed this message to White’s brother, Glenn, ahead of a pretrial hearing in March.

“The brother went on down to the county commissioner’s office. … In a few minutes, Glenn, the brother, came back and said to Mr. White that they were offering him a real good deal,” West recounted. “He listened to them and I would have, too, probably if I had been in his shoes.”

West said being “fired as a condition of a plea being taken” was like being “slapped across the face.”

“The reason that they did this was because they knew that I was going to use that information,” West said, referring to White’s accusations against Crum. “I would have made sure every juror that was sitting there understood completely what I was talking about, and they knew that.”

White is currently in jail. Michael Sparks, the county prosecutor who was allegedly involved in the conspiracy has denied being part of any scheme. (He has also recused himself from the case involving the sheriff’s killing.) Sparks did not respond to a request for comment from TPM.

As part of Thornsbury’s plea deal, prosecutors will dismiss another federal case against him in which he was accused of using his position as a judge to make life hell for his ex-lover’s husband. According to the indictment in that case, which was filed last month, the action began after Thornsbury’s secretary ended their romantic relationship. One of Thornsbury’s schemes allegedly included a plan “to plant illegal drugs” in the pickup truck that belonged to the secretary’s husband. Another involved attempting to have the man “arrested for thefts he did not commit.” And yet another involved trying “to commandeer a state grand jury” in order to “oppress” the man and his family. The alleged conspiracy against Thornsbury’s romantic rival also involved multiple other local officials, including Crum, prosecutors said.

West, who has practiced law in Mingo for more than two decades, said Thornsbury, Crum, and their associates spent nearly every day plotting together.

“They did some kind of strategizing every day,” explained West. “It wasn’t unusual to see them all at a local restaurant around the judge’s table, the judge had his own table in this restaurant, and they’d be there with their friends and they’d be talking and they’d be strategizing.”

West suggested this activity was part of a widespread culture of corruption in Mingo.

“It’s a county with loads and loads of good people, and I do not know why the politicians can’t do things legally or straight,” he said.

For his part, West, who is licensed to practice law in both West Virginia and Kentucky, said he has found a solution to coping with Mingo’s corruption — spending more time across the border.

“I’ve been practicing for 24 years, so this was my home court for many, many years,” said West of the Mingo County Court, where Thornsbury once presided. “Now, I’m beginning to spend more and more time in Kentucky.”

Image via AP / Shutterstock. Composite by TPM’s Nick R. Martin

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