CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Suspended Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy in a scheme to protect the reputation of the county sheriff who later was slain in an unrelated shooting.
Thornsbury entered the plea hours after his attorney, Stephen Jory, said the judge submitted a resignation letter to the state Supreme Court, and that he has consented to disbarment in a letter to the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The one-sentence letter is addressed to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin but was delivered to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. It reads only, “Please accept this letter as my resignation as Judge of the Thirtieth Judicial Circuit in Mingo County, West Virginia.”
U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston scheduled sentencing for Jan. 13. Thornsbury faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Thornsbury, wearing a dark, striped suit and tie with a blue shirt, gave mostly short answers to Johnston’s questions, including his response when the judge asked how he would plead.
“Guilty,” Thornsbury said. He did not comment after the hearing.
Thornsbury, 57, was accused of participating in a scheme to protect the Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum from revelations he’d bought drugs from a campaign sign-maker.
Prosecutors allege Thornsbury and others offered a lighter sentence if the man fired his lawyer and hired one they preferred.
Crum was fatally shot in April as he ate lunch in his parked vehicle in downtown Williamson.
In exchange for a guilty plea, prosecutors said they would dismiss charges against Thornsbury in a separate case in which the judge repeatedly tried to frame his former secretary’s husband for false crimes to eliminate him as a romantic rival.
In the conspiracy case, federal prosecutors said Thornsbury plotted with Mingo County Prosecutor Michael Sparks, Crum and county commissioner David Baisden to spare Crum from paying a $3,000 debt and to protect his career.
Crum didn’t want to pay campaign-sign maker George White. White is serving one to 15 years under a plea agreement that prosecutors say he was forced to accept after being ordered to fire his own attorney and accept one chosen by Thornsbury.
“For a judge to violate someone’s constitutional rights is really beyond the pale,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said after the hearing Wednesday. But to violate someone’s rights in order to obstruct a federal investigation, that’s really unthinkable. Elected officials shouldn’t be treated differently than anyone else.”
Sparks, who denies any wrongdoing, hasn’t been charged but faces an Oct. 16 hearing before the state Supreme Court on a motion by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel to suspend his law license.
The group that investigates alleged misconduct by lawyers claims Sparks lied to the high court last month when he said he didn’t know about alleged corruption by Thornsbury. The office said a sealed affidavit by FBI Special Agent Joseph Ciccarelli reveals that Sparks admitted he knew about the crimes that Thornsbury is now charged with committing.
Sparks has continued to deny any misconduct or crimes and has requested more time to fully respond to the latest allegations.
Earlier this week, the former secretary, Kimberly Woodruff, and her husband, Robert, filed separate lawsuits against Thornsbury after mediation efforts with him and seven other defendants failed. Kimberly Woodruff’s lawsuit says her boss relentlessly pursued her, professed his love in a letter, then plotted against her husband when she refused repeated demands for a sexual relationship.
Federal prosecutors have billed Kim Woodruff’s relationship with the judge as an affair, but her lawyers said it went unconsummated.
According to federal prosecutors, Thornsbury tried to frame Robert Woodruff between 2008 and 2012 for crimes including drug possession, larceny and assault. The schemes involved a state trooper, the county emergency services director, and a friend and business partner of the judge, but none of them panned out, federal prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say the judge first tried to plant a box of drugs in Robert Woodruff’s car, then got a trooper to pursue a criminal case against Woodruff for salvaging mine-roof drill bits and scrap from the company he worked for, even though he had permission to do so.
They also allege that Thornsbury tapped a friend, the county’s emergency services director, to improperly serve as foreman of the Mingo County grand jury.
Prosecutors say the judge wrote subpoenas and had the grand jury issue them to help get private information about Woodruff. They said that scheme was exposed when one of the businesses refused to cooperate.
And when Robert Woodruff became the victim of an assault outside a convenience store last year by two men, the judge arranged for Woodruff to be identified as the perpetrator, according to prosecutors.
Among those in the packed courtroom Wednesday were Crum’s widow, Rosie; attorney Michael Callaghan, who represents the Woodruffs; and Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants, who is handling the prosecution of Eugene Crum shooting suspect Tennis Maynard.
Maynard is accused of shooting Crum twice in the head and is scheduled for trial in December.
On Tuesday, Baisden pleaded guilty to a federal extortion charge. He 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, faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he’s sentenced Jan. 14.
Goodwin said the federal investigation of Mingo County remains ongoing.
“I fully anticipate that there will be further developments,” he said.