Mingo 'turned upside down'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Recent federal charges in Mingo County have county residents hoping -- and maybe believing -- that decades of political corruption could come to an end.
In the past few weeks, the county's only circuit judge and a county commissioner have agreed to plead guilty to federal charges. The latest charge against the judge includes allegations that the county's prosecuting attorney and the former sheriff, who was shot to death in April, conspired to stop a federal investigation into the sheriff.
"I'm glad that the FBI, anyone, is looking into the corruption inside that courthouse," Ashley Newsome of Williamson said Thursday. "They need to start all the way at the top and get rid of everyone going down."
The arrests and indictments might not be over. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, talking about Circuit Judge's Michael Thornsbury's decision to plead guilty, said, "He has agreed to cooperate with our investigation -- and our investigation moves forward."
That leaves some residents wondering if anyone will be left to run the county once the crackdown is over.
Newly appointed Sheriff James Smith said residents are looking to him to restore the trustworthiness of the sheriff's department after federal prosecutors accused late Sheriff Eugene Crum of illegally obtaining prescription pills from a reported drug dealer, George White, when Crum was a county magistrate.
Crum, as sheriff, then conspired to stop White from providing information to the FBI, prosecutors said in the latest charge against Thornsbury, who allegedly conspired to prevent White from exercising his constitutional rights.
Crum's family denies the allegations. The sheriff was shot to death on April 3 in Williamson; a Delbarton man awaits trial on murder charges in that case.
The allegations against Crum are unsettling, Smith said. Part of rebuilding the public's trust is to cooperate with FBI agents and give them anything they need from the sheriff's department, he said.
"They'll find no roadblocks here now," Smith said. "Whatever they need, we will do it for them. We welcome them."
Smith fired the department's chief field deputy, Dave Rockel, Tuesday. Rockel, a former Williamson police chief, was described Thursday by federal prosecutors as a "close associate and political ally" of Eugene Crum. He joined the sheriff's department after Crum was killed and Crum's wife, Rosie, was named interim sheriff.
When Rosie Crum stepped down as interim sheriff, she recommended that Rockel become sheriff. Instead, county commissioners chose Smith, who said he plans to run to keep the job in the next election. Smith ran against Crum and lost to him in the Democratic primary for sheriff last year.
Thornsbury has agreed to plead guilty to the latest charge. He pleaded not guilty to charges filed against him last month by Goodwin's office. In that case, prosecutors alleged, the judge tried to get Robert Woodruff, the husband of Thornsbury's former secretary and lover, thrown in jail on trumped-up charges.
A West Virginia State Police trooper and a Gilbert police officer allegedly helped the judge in his campaign against Woodruff. The trooper, Brandon Moore, has been suspended; the Gilbert officer, Nathan Glanden, was still on the job as of last week.
The West Virginia Supreme Court has suspended Thornsbury without pay, and also suspended his law license. The court appointed John Cummings, a senior-status judge from Cabell County, to replace Thornsbury on the Mingo County bench. Thomas McHugh, a retired Supreme Court justice, is assisting Cummings.
Della Cline-Gentile, who has practiced as an attorney in Williamson for 20 years, said she's dealt with corruption for decades.
"I'm optimistic that the rest of it will be cleaned up," Cline-Gentile said. "That's really all you can do as an attorney is hope for the best, because it's been so bad."
Cline-Gentile said it has been difficult to practice law in Williamson because she wasn't in Thornsbury's favor.
"The judge directed cases to his friends," Cline-Gentile said. "If you were not in his circle, then you wouldn't get work."
Mingo County Commissioner David Baisden also has been indicted, for allegedly demanding that Appalachian Tire sell him tires at a rate only available for government vehicles. Baisden is expected to plead guilty, and County Commissioner Greg "Hootie" Smith said Thursday that Baisden must resign as part of his plea deal.
Baisden was mentioned in the alleged conspiracy that offered to give George White a light sentence if he would stop talking to federal investigators about Crum. Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks took part in that conspiracy, federal prosecutors allege.
The Supreme Court has been asked to suspend Sparks' law license until the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel concludes an investigation. Sparks said Friday that he never engaged in any misconduct, and never had enough information to report misconduct by other public officials.
Thornsbury's indictment last month alleged that he put his business partner, Jarrod Fletcher -- who was Mingo County's director of homeland security -- in charge of a county grand jury as part of his scheme to put Robert Woodruff in jail.
Fletcher was suspended without pay last month. He has not been charged.
The allegations of corruption make for a depressing situation, said Charles "Butch" West, an attorney and lifelong Mingo County resident.
"Nobody likes what's going on, everybody's world has been turned upside down in the last couple of weeks, but this is something that had to happen," said West, who was appointed Williamson mayor in 2001, when Estil "Breezy" Bevins fell ill. West served until 2003.
West was George White's first attorney -- whom Thornsbury, Crum, Baisden and Sparks allegedly wanted off the case in favor of former county prosecutor Ronald Rumora. The charge against Thornsbury claims that, once West was removed as White's attorney, White gave a statement that he never gave prescription pills to Crum.
"People here have been long-deceived," West said, "but once we get restored to some normalcy, I believe we can recover."
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1254.
Reach Travis Crum at email@example.com or 304-348-5163.