West Virginia judge, county official face federal charges

FILE -In this July 2004 file photo, Mingo County Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury stands in a stairwell of the Mingo County Courthouse, in Williamson, W.Va. Federal prosecutors on Thursday, Aug 15, 2013, charged Judge Thornsbury with abusing his power and commandeering a southern West Virginia grand jury in a failed attempt to frame a romantic rival for crimes he didn't commit. (AP Photo/Chris Dorst)
August 16, 2013 8:22:25 AM PDT
A West Virginia judge is accused of having an affair with his secretary and trying to frame her husband for several crimes over five years, including drug possession, larceny and assault.

Authorities said none of the schemes panned out for Mingo County Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury, and he was charged Thursday with two counts of conspiracy.

A second county official was charged with extortion in an unrelated case in yet another blow to an area still reeling from the assassination of its sheriff in April.

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 hired by coal companies in the early 20th century.

In 1988, former sheriff Johnie Owens was convicted of selling his office for $100,000, and in February, a woman was charged with tipping people off about pending indictments while she served on the grand jury.

On the courthouse steps in Williamson, resident Angie Combs took the latest allegations in stride.

"I'm not surprised - too much corruption," she said. "This is embarrassing. It's the same old, same old."

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. We're still the good people that we are," he said.

"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."

Thornsbury, 57, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. His attorney, Steve Jory, declined comment.

The indictment said the judge wanted a friend to plant a magnetic metal box in 2008 containing drugs on a vehicle belonging to the secretary's husband, Robert Woodruff. The judge's friend didn't go through with it.

When that failed, prosecutors said the judge got a state trooper to file a false complaint against Woodruff for larceny. The judge wanted the trooper to pursue a case against Woodruff, an employee of H. Coal Co., for salvaging mine-roof drill bits and scrap from his employer, even though he had permission to do so.

Thornsbury befriended the trooper and "purposely cultivated a relationship" to influence the way he carried out his law enforcement duties, the indictment said.

The officer, who was 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.

The scheme was exposed when one of the businesses refused to cooperate.

When Robert Woodruff became the victim of an assault outside a convenience store last year by two men - one of whom brandished a handgun - the judge arranged for Woodruff to be identified as the perpetrator so he would receive "an exceptionally harsh sentence."

The county prosecutor dismissed the charges against Woodruff.

Attorney Mike Callaghan represents the secretary, Kim Woodruff, and her husband. He said they had been through a very rough time and were shocked. Callaghan represented handled the cases when Robert was accused of crimes.

"As a lawyer, I knew something was wrong," Callaghan said. "But never in my wildest dreams did I fathom the reason for the prosecution."

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said none of the men accused of helping Thornsbury in his "campaign to persecute" Robert Woodruff will be charged. However, "the investigation into Mingo County corruption is ongoing," he said.

Thornsbury has served as a circuit judge since January 1997. The state Supreme Court suspended him without pay late Thursday and suspended his law license. A replacement judge is set to report to the courthouse Friday.

Goodwin, however, is not seeking to hold Thornsbury in jail before his trial.

Thornsbury was also an assistant Mingo County prosecutor from 1981 to 1983.

Meanwhile, county commissioner and purchasing officer Dave Baisden 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 two 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, fled and pulled a gun on a pursuing deputy, authorities said.

Maynard was wounded by the deputy, and he's now facing first-degree murder charges. His trial is set for October.

The motive for the slaying has not been revealed.

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Smith contributed from Morgantown. Associated Press writer John Raby contributed from Williamson.


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