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White's guilty plea in Mingo case thrown out

WILLIAMSON, W.Va. -- A judge on Friday threw out the guilty plea of the man whose arrest began a chain of events that brought down Mingo County's circuit judge and prosecuting attorney.

Circuit Judge John Cummings vacated the plea by George White at a hearing Friday morning in Mingo Circuit Court.

"There's no alternative but to set aside the conviction previously imposed," Cummings said.

The judge did not dismiss the charges against White, and said a date would be set to arraign White, 65, of Delbarton, again on the charges.

White asked the judge on Oct. 31 to throw out the guilty plea. He has been out of jail since Nov. 15, when the judge released him until ruling on the motion.

Earlier this week, Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Keith Randolph, the special prosecutor in White's case, said he wouldn't oppose White's motion to have the plea vacated.

Cummings lauded Randolph at Friday's hearing.

"I'd like to thank you," the judge told him. "Many prosecutors wouldn't have the candor or guts to do what you've done."

White was arrested after allegedly selling drugs to an undercover officer sent in by then-Mingo Sheriff Eugene Crum. According to federal prosecutors, White then began talking to investigators about providing prescription drugs to Crum.

When Crum found out, prosecutors say, he and other county officials -- including then-Mingo prosecutor Michael Sparks and then-county commissioner David Baisden -- hatched a plan to keep White quiet. They said he would get a light sentence if he switched lawyers and stopped talking to investigators.

White did switch lawyers and pleaded guilty to drug charges in front of the county's then-circuit judge, Michael Thornsbury -- who signed off on the scheme to thwart the investigation into Crum, according to federal prosecutors.

Sparks has pleaded guilty in federal court to violating White's constitutional rights -- by not allowing him to choose his own lawyer -- and Thornsbury has pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate White's rights. Sparks and Thornsbury resigned as part of their plea deals with federal prosecutors.

Outside the Mingo County courthouse Friday, White -- who is free on $25,000 bail -- said, "It's not over yet. Since everybody blasts me so much, I'm not the person everybody thinks I am."

He then got into a car with his brother and drove away.

Randolph said after the hearing that he would look at the evidence that led to White's indictment.

"The first thing I think I need to do . . . is to look into the nature and circumstances of the indictment and the presentation of them to the grand jury, and we'll make a determination whether to proceed on that or start anew," Randolph said.

"When I say start anew, we can actually take the steps to dismiss the indictment and re-present it -- if the evidence supports that," he said.

Crum was shot to death on April 3, as the sheriff sat in his cruiser in Williamson. An affidavit for a search warrant that was unsealed in October revealed that FBI agents were investigating Crum for several months before his death.

During Crum's campaign for sheriff last year, he bought several thousand dollars worth of signs and other promotional items on credit from White's sign shop in Delbarton, according to federal prosecutors.

After Crum was elected sheriff, instead of paying a $3,000 bill to White, Crum allegedly sent an undercover police officer to the shop, where he bought three oxycodone tablets from White, according to federal prosecutors.

Crum and then-Williamson police chief Dave Rockel filed the police report on White's arrest. White was indicted on charges of possession of controlled substances with intent to deliver shortly after Crum and Rockel searched his business around Jan. 30.

Rockel retired as Williamson police chief and joined the Mingo County Sheriff's Department as chief field deputy in June. However, new Mingo Sheriff James Smith fired Rockel in September, shortly after Smith was appointed.

After White's arrest, federal investigators approached White's lawyer, former Williamson mayor Charles "Butch" West, and asked to talk to White about allegations that he provided drugs to Crum. White told FBI agents that, on "multiple occasions prior to his arrest, he unlawfully provided Crum with prescription narcotic pills at Crum's request," according to federal court documents.

After firing West -- at the request of Sparks, Baisden and Crum -- White hired attorney Ron Rumora. Rumora said last week he didn't know about the scheme to keep White quiet until federal prosecutors charged Thornsbury.

White then entered into a plea agreement offered by Sparks that dropped three of five charges and would allow his sentences to run at the same time, according to prosecutors. Also, Sparks reduced White's bail amount from $20,000 to $10,000, Sparks admitted.

White pleaded guilty April 8 to delivery of oxycodone and possession of oxycodone and morphine with an attempt to deliver.

Thornsbury was told about the scheme and agreed with it, the former judge admitted at his plea hearing. Thornsbury sentenced White in May to 1 to 15 years on both charges and ordered the sentences to run at the same time.

After White was released from jail, he rehired West and also hired Charleston attorney David Barney.

"Certainly, we are happy with the judge setting aside the plea," Barney said outside the courthouse Friday. "We were a little disappointed that the judge didn't just dismiss all the charges, given all the evidence that was before the court."

West added, "the same Constitution governs us that governs people from coast to coast . . . it's better for a thousand crooks to be set free than for one [innocent] man to go to jail."

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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