Michael Thornsbury acted more like a Third World dictator than a West Virginia county judge, a federal judge said Monday before sentencing him to more than four years in prison.
Thornsbury, who served as Mingo County’s only circuit judge for 17 years, pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to deprive a man of his constitutional rights in order to protect a political ally.
Federal sentencing guidelines recommended a sentence of 30 to 37 months, but U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston went above those guidelines in sentencing Thornsbury to 50 months. Johnston said the sentence would have been 60 months if Thornsbury, 57, hadn’t helped federal prosecutors in other cases.
“There are no words I can express to you to adequately describe the depth of my remorse,” Thornsbury said, before Johnston handed down the sentence.
To protect Mingo County’s sheriff, Eugene Crum, Thornsbury went along with a plan to keep George White from providing federal investigators with information that White had sold prescription pills to Crum.
“There’s three laws in West Virginia,” White, 65, said to Johnston on Monday. “Federal, state law and Mingo County law — and Mingo County law I fear a whole lot more than federal or state — because anything is possible under that law.”
Crum owed White for several thousand dollars’ worth of signs and other promotional campaign items on credit from White’s sign shop in Delbarton. Instead of paying White’s $3,000 bill, Crum allegedly sent an undercover police officer to buy prescription pills from White.
After his arrest, White hired former Williamson Mayor Charles “Butch” West as his attorney. West planned to argue that Crum had arrested White over a personal vendetta. White had “a winning defense,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told Johnston on Monday. “He probably would have been set free.”
After finding out what White planned to say about Crum, then-County Commissioner David Baisden, then-Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks and Crum devised a scheme to get White to switch attorneys in exchange for a lighter sentence from Thornsbury, according to federal prosecutors.
Thornsbury went along with the plan and sentenced White to up to 15 years in prison. White said in court that he had been told he faced up to 40 years in prison otherwise. Before he was charged by federal prosecutors, Thornsbury had scheduled a hearing to reconsider White’s sentence.
White spent about 240 days in jail before Senior Status Circuit Judge John Cummings, who was appointed to fill in for Thornsbury, vacated White’s conviction and dismissed the charges with prejudice earlier this year. White described to Johnston sleeping on a thin mat on the floor in jail and getting into several fights with other prisoners.
Crum was shot to death in his police cruiser in April 2013. Sparks and Baisden have since resigned as part of plea deals with federal prosecutors. Their guilty pleas are in large part thanks to Thornsbury’s cooperation, prosecutors said.
“If I weren’t standing here in the middle of it, I wouldn’t believe it,” Ruby said of the entire Mingo County situation.
As part of the deal with Thornsbury, prosecutors are dropping a separate charge of violating another man’s constitutional rights. That case focused on Robert Woodruff, the husband of Thornsbury’s former secretary. Prosecutors said Thornsbury put his business partner in charge of a Mingo grand jury as foreman, plotted to plant drugs on Woodruff and tried to get him sent to jail with the help of a State Police trooper. Thornsbury allegedly hoped that if Robert Woodruff was in jail, Kim Woodruff would be forced to restart an affair with him for financial reasons.
When Thornsbury set his romantic sights on Kim Woodruff, the ex-judge abused his power to “destroy” and “persecute” her husband, Johnston said.
“The court system in Mingo County no longer existed for him. You made it a malevolent force bent on his destruction. Where could he go? To him, liberty ended. The Constitution became a dead letter for him,” Johnston said.
“You corruptly contorted the justice system into a weapon to be wielded against a romantic rival. That is the kind of thing one might expect, though still condemn, in the regime of some Third World dictator. It is an ugly insult to the United States Constitution.”
George White, Robert Woodruff and Kim Woodruff each are suing Thornsbury as well as various state agencies.
Thornsbury’s conduct was “shocking and appalling,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said. “It really cried out for a stiff sentence, and I hope four years is enough to send the deterrent message that needs to be sent.
“I also hope this will be a call to action for us all, really, to do everything we can so that this kind of Boss Hogg-style activity is a thing of the past, because we really can’t afford it to be a part of our future.”
Ruby told Johnston that he needed to send a message to deter future corruption in Mingo County. Prosecutors wrote in court documents that the Mingo investigation continues and that Thornsbury’s cooperation could play a role in future charges.
“It’s not just George White who lost faith in the justice system,” Ruby said. “It’s the whole county.”
Thornsbury asked Johnston to send him to a prison in Florida or Alabama, near family members. He and his attorneys, Steve Jory and William Slicer, told Johnston that Thornsbury losing his law license and judgeship were already a substantial punishment.
“My dad was a coal miner. He gave everything he had for me to become a lawyer,” Thornsbury said, fighting tears. “He told me, at all costs keep your good name. I lost that.”
White told Johnston he recently tried to restart his sign shop, but didn’t get any business. He fears for his life in Mingo County, he told the federal judge.
This has “basically killed everything I’ve ever worked for,” he said.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.