Corruption scandals shred trust in southern W.Va.

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 10:31 a.m. MDT

This undated photo shows Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum. Crum was gunned down Wednesday, April 3, 2013 in the spot where he usually parked and ate lunch in Williamson, W.Va.

Williamson Daily News, Rachel Baldwin, Associated Press

WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — A judge who had his own table at a now-shuttered coffee shop faces federal conspiracy charges that could send him to prison. A prosecutor is accused of "egregious misconduct" and could lose his law license. And recent allegations have tainted the legacy of a charming yet hard-charging sheriff slain three months into his much-touted war on drug dealers.

Here in southern West Virginia, a community rocked in April by the killing of Sheriff Eugene Crum is now struggling with scandals that touch every level of the Mingo County justice system.

"And it's not over yet," predicted Robin Evans, a longtime supporter of just about everyone involved in the tangled tales of corruption spinning out of this region on the Kentucky line where the Hatfields and McCoys feuded. "There ain't no doubt in my mind there's a lot more to come."

Evans' family has helped elect the so-called Team Mingo slate of Democrats for years. Now-suspended Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury sends them Christmas cards, he says, and Crum was a lifelong friend and "real good man" who appeared to have nothing but contempt for drugs.

The notion that he was buying drugs, as federal prosecutors now allege, is unthinkable to Evans.

"He's dead, and he can't defend himself, but I knew him all his life and I never knew him to be involved in it," Evans said. "As far as we knew, it was all nice people. ... We don't know who to trust now."

On April 3, the 59-year-old Crum was shot in the head as he ate lunch in his car in a Williamson parking lot. He had been keeping watch on a one-time "pill mill," a place illegally doling out prescription drugs, to be sure it didn't reopen.

Authorities charged 37-year-old Tennis Maynard, a one-time boxing student of Crum's. Maynard's father first described his son as mentally disturbed and later alleged the sheriff had molested the suspect when he was a teenager. Maynard is awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

As rumors swirled about other possible motives, the FBI quietly ran them down.

Last month, federal prosecutors charged Thornsbury with an unrelated conspiracy. They say the powerful judge of 16 years had an affair with his secretary and repeatedly tried to frame her husband for crimes he didn't commit after she broke things off. Thornsbury's attorney has declined comment.

Prosecutors say the scheme also involved a Gilbert police officer, the 2009 state Trooper of the Year and the county's emergency management director, whom Thornsbury allegedly appointed in a failed attempt to commandeer the grand jury.

The day the judge was indicted, federal prosecutors also alleged that County Commissioner Dave Baisden had abused his power. He's charged with extortion, accused of threatening a business owner who refused to sell him tires for his personal vehicle at the cheaper government rate.

To barber Wesley Taylor, the only surprise is that the dealer didn't cooperate.

"Stuff like that happens all the time around here," he said.

Mingo County has just 26,000 residents and is shrinking steadily as the coal industry contracts. U.S. Census data show more than 2,400 people have left since 2010.

For generations, a few families controlled the coal, the wealth and the political establishment. With no new blood trickling in, their grip tightened.

Robert Rupp, a history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, says once a political machine takes over in a place like Mingo, it's virtually impossible to oust. Especially when there are no significant alternatives.

While statewide voter registration favors Democrats 2-1, the ratio in Mingo County is 9-1.

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