Private eye sues Mingo officials over arrest
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A private investigator who ran for sheriff in Mingo County last year sued several county officials and agencies on Wednesday, claiming county officials cooked up charges against him because they thought he was investigating former circuit judge Michael Thornsbury.
Donald Stevens and his wife, Ruby, filed the lawsuit in Kanawha Circuit Court against Thornsbury; the state Supreme Court, as the former judge's employer; former county prosecuting attorney Michael Sparks; former Williamson police chief Dave Rockel; and Rockel's employer, the city of Williamson.
The lawsuit also names the Mingo County Commission, because of the actions of three county employees: Sparks; former Sheriff Eugene Crum, who was a special investigator for the county during the events described in Stevens' suit; and William Davis, the county's former 911 director and floodplain coordinator.
In his lawsuit, filed by Charleston lawyer Kevin Thompson, Stevens says federal prosecutors told him he had been the victim of a crime by Sparks.
"Donald Ray Stevens ... received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice indicating Mr. Stevens had been the victim of a crime, deprivation of civil rights, by former Mingo County Prosecutor Defendant C. Michael Sparks," the lawsuit states.
Sparks has not been charged with any crime regarding Stevens, but is set to plead guilty next month to an unrelated federal charge.
Stevens' lawsuit claims that at Thornsbury'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.
He is suing for, among other things, lost business opportunities, moving costs and damage to his reputation. He also wants punitive damages.
Thornsbury stepped down as judge and gave up his law license earlier this month before pleading guilty in federal court to conspiring to deprive a drug dealer of his constitutional rights, in an attempt to shield Crum from federal investigators. Sparks is expected to plead guilty Nov. 18 to depriving the drug dealer of his constitutional rights.
Stevens says he was serving papers on July 31, 2012, in the West Williamson neighborhood where both Thornsbury and Davis live. Davis saw Stevens in the neighborhood and assumed he was investigating "the corrupt activities" of the judge, according to the lawsuit.
"Davis testified to a federal grand jury that Mr. Thornsbury feared that Plaintiff Donald Ray Stevens was investigating his alleged extramarital affairs," the lawsuit states.
Thornsbury -- whom the lawsuit refers to as the county's "political boss" -- ordered Crum to frame Stevens for the possession of an illegal wiretap, the lawsuit states.
Thornsbury also allegedly told Mingo Sheriff's Deputy Eric Sherrill, who was serving as court bailiff, that Stevens was having convicted felons follow the judge, according to the lawsuit. The deputy believed he was investigating a potential threat to the judge's safety, Stevens says.
"Based on sworn testimony, Mr. Thornsbury then ordered Deputy Sherrill 'to get up with Eugene,'" the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, Sherrill said he watched Crum influence a potential witness to testify against Stevens, and threaten Stevens with an indictment if Stevens didn't reveal "who hired him."
Sherrill also says he watched Crum solicit false testimony from a man about Stevens in exchange for Crum "fixing a traffic ticket." A Mingo County resident, Christina Tidwell, apparently tried to record that conversation, which happened in her ex-husband's home, according to the lawsuit.
Sherrill and then-Mingo sheriff Lonnie Hannah both said Sherrill told Hannah about the investigation and Hannah told Sherrill to stop investigating Stevens, according to the lawsuit.
Crum and Rockel then allegedly used an unlawful search warrant to search for wiretapping equipment used by Tidwell, according to Stevens' lawsuit.
The evidence found should have exonerated Stevens, the lawsuit claims. Instead, Rockel -- using information he knew was false, according to the lawsuit -- charged Stevens with wiretapping and conspiracy and attempt to possess an illegal wiretap.
Fifteen days after Stevens was arrested, he and Sparks signed a pretrial sentencing agreement -- even though Sparks knew Stevens was not guilty of any crime, the lawsuit states.
That agreement, on file in the Mingo County circuit clerk's office, says wiretapping charges would be dropped if Stevens "ceased to operate a private investigation business principally in Mingo County."
Stevens agreed because, he says, he knew he wouldn't get a fair trial.
Stevens is also suing two men, yet to be named, whom he says Crum ordered to beat him up. In March, according to the suit, Crum and Stevens met by chance in Williamson, and the newly elected sheriff told Stevens that "he was not afraid of him." Days later, Stevens says, he was assaulted by two men in his home and warned to get out of Mingo County.
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 month, after Crum's widow, Rosie, stepped down as interim sheriff.
Rockel has not been charged by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin's office in the ongoing investigation into Mingo County political corruption.
Rockel joined the Mingo sheriff's department in June after Crum's death, but was fired by Smith last month. Federal prosecutors have described Rockel as a friend and political ally of Crum, and Rosie Crum recommended Rockel as a permanent replacement for her husband.
Thornsbury and other public officials and agencies also face lawsuits from Kim Woodruff, the judge's former secretary, and her husband Robert. Federal prosecutors alleged Thornsbury tried to get Robert Woodruff thrown in jail so Kim Woodruff would have to enter into a relationship with the judge for financial reasons.
Stevens' lawsuit has been assigned to Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey.
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.