Investigator says Thornsbury fears prompted charges
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A private investigator who ran for sheriff in Mingo County last year says county officials cooked up charges against him because they believed he was investigating Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury.
Donald Stevens filed a 30-day notice with the state Supreme Court on Friday, saying he planned to sue them because of Thornsbury's conduct. Stevens says that at the judge's behest, Mingo officials had him arrested and gave him the choice of going to jail or signing an agreement saying he would move his investigation business out of the county.
Kevin Thompson, Stevens' lawyer, said the lawsuit would echo federal prosecutors' allegations that Thornsbury trumped up charges for personal gain.
Last month, federal prosecutors alleged Thornsbury tried to get the husband of the judge's ex-lover and secretary unfairly sent to jail. Last week, they charged Thornsbury with conspiring to keep a drug dealer from giving information to federal investigators about former Mingo Sheriff Eugene Crum. Thornsbury has agreed to plead guilty to the latter charge, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said last week.
"I completely believe [Stevens]. I've known Judge Thornsbury to be corrupt for some time now," Thompson told the Gazette on Monday.
Stevens' notice to the state Supreme Court says, "Laboring under the false impression that Mr. Stevens was investigating him, Judge Thornsbury concocted and then caused the execution of a scheme to imprison Mr. Stevens for more than 10 years on a false charge of attempted possession of an illegal wiretap."
Stevens was arrested Oct. 15 of last year and charged with two felonies. According to a criminal complaint filed by then-Williamson Police Chief Dave Rockel, Stevens tried to obtain a recording of a phone conversation among Crum, who was then a special investigator for the Williamson Police Department and was about to be elected sheriff; Eric Sherrill, a deputy in the Mingo sheriff's department; and another man, James Cline.
According to the complaint, the conversation was illegally recorded by two other people, Christopher Cline and Christina Tidwell. Both of them have pleaded guilty to drug charges as part of plea bargains that dropped wiretapping charges against them, according to an employee in the Mingo circuit clerk's office.
Rockel wrote in the complaint that Stevens approached Tidwell, asked for a copy of the recording and gave her equipment to make a copy.
Fifteen days after Stevens was arrested, he and Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks signed a pretrial sentencing agreement. That agreement, on file in the Mingo County circuit clerk's office, says the wiretapping charges would be dropped if Stevens "ceased to operate a private investigation business principally in Mingo County."
The case was originally assigned to county Magistrate Dee Sidebottom, then transferred to another magistrate, Dallas Toler, according to documents in the circuit clerk's office. Toler took office when Crum resigned as a magistrate to run for sheriff.
Stevens, 56, of Lenore, finished a distant third in last year's Democratic primary behind Crum and James Smith. Crum was shot to death in April in downtown Williamson. Smith was appointed as Mingo sheriff last week.
Stevens told the Gazette on Monday that before Crum was elected, he would often help conduct investigations for the sheriff's department and routinely helped out at the county's public defender office.
According to Stevens' lawsuit notice sent to the Supreme Court, at about the beginning of August, Thornsbury instructed Sherill, Crum, Rockel and the county's former flood plain director, William Davis, to frame Stevens for attempted possession of an illegal wiretap.
Stevens said Davis saw him in Thornsbury's neighborhood, and that's where the assumption he was investigating the judge came from. But Stevens said he was only there serving an eviction notice at a nearby insurance business.
To avoid imprisonment, Stevens complied with the "forced" pre-trial deal from Sparks, the notice alleges.
In March, after he closed his Williamson office, Stevens had an encounter with Crum, according to the notice. Crum, who was now sheriff, allegedly told Stevens that he "was not afraid of him."
A few days later, on March 13, Stevens was "brutally attacked" at his residence by two people, according to the notice.
"During the beating, the assailants told Mr. Stevens that he 'had been warned to get out of Mingo County,'" according to the notice.
Rockel, who joined the Mingo sheriff's department in June after Crum's death, was fired by Smith last week. Federal prosecutors have described him as a friend and political ally of Crum, and Rosie Crum, who took over as interim sheriff after her husband was killed, recommended Rockel as a permanent replacement.
Sherrill still works at the sheriff's department, a courthouse employee said. Davis, the county's former 911 director and floodplain coordinator, signed a proffer agreement with federal prosecutors, which provides some protection against prosecution, according to federal court documents.
The state Office of Disciplinary Counsel has asked the Supreme Court to suspend Sparks' law license for his involvement in Thornsbury's alleged conspiracies. Sparks says he never engaged in any misconduct and never had enough information to report alleged misconduct by other public officials. Sparks said in an email on Monday that the Stevens case is still subject to federal investigation.
"Since I am a potential witness, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time," Sparks said.
Thompson, Stevens' lawyer, said Stevens also plans to sue Sparks, the city of Williamson because of Rockel's involvement, and the Mingo County Commission because they funded Crum's work as a special investigator.
After the initial indictment of Thornsbury last month, the lawyer for the judge's ex-secretary and her husband said he would sue the Supreme Court and other public agencies. More recently, he said he would wait until after a mediation.
In August 2009, Thompson represented citizens suing Massey Energy in a major coal-slurry pollution case. Thornsbury was ordered by the state Supreme Court to step down from that case.
Thornsbury had refused to voluntarily step aside in the case after lawyers for residents who were suing Massey alleged the judge frequently socialized with former Massey CEO Don Blankenship. Thompson outlined how Thornsbury had in 1985, while in private practice, defended Massey's Rawl Sales subsidiary in a blasting damage case.
"So I have personal knowledge that Judge Thornsbury was a corrupt and dangerous man," Thompson said Monday.
When Stevens was charged, Thompson said, "I tried to help him find a criminal attorney. I told him, 'listen, if I'm in front of Thornsbury on your behalf you're doing the max, because the judge hates me.' So I tried to help him find a criminal attorney."
Williamson lawyer Jane Moran represented Stevens during his criminal case last year. She would not comment Monday, but Thompson said she was the only lawyer in the area who would take the case.
"Jane Moran is one tough lawyer and she's the only person we could get to take it -- she knew Stevens had no chance," Thompson said. "If he hadn't signed the agreement, he'd be sitting in jail right now."
He said Stevens has been talking with federal prosecutors, who said Monday they couldn't comment.
"I have no idea what their plans are," Thompson said of the prosecutors. "I hope they would fully prosecute the judge for everything, but I understand that might not be efficient. If they've got him for something and he rolls on someone else, they don't need to file 50 different charges." Goodwin has said the investigation in Mingo County continues.
Although the charges against him were dropped, Stevens said Monday, his career has been destroyed.
"A lot of days I'll go to my office [now in Logan County] and just sit there. When you ruin a private investigator's career, it's the same with law enforcement, nobody will trust you," he said in a telephone interview.
Stevens said he sold all of his furniture and his car to afford an attorney. The lawsuit will ask for $1 million in damages.
He moved to the area about 10 years ago from Ohio. His wife is from Mingo County.
"I had no supporters and paid for my own campaign [for sheriff]. ... I told people I believed you couldn't get a fair trial here," Stevens said.
He plans to be vindicated.
"I usually pick and choose my battles, but they forced this one on me. And I wasn't about to -- I still ain't about to let it go," he said.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.