MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — A southern West Virginia sheriff assassinated on the job was hailed as a hero at his funeral in April for crusading against the scourge of illegal drugs destroying his community. He had filed more drug indictments in his first three months than in the previous eight years.
But a federal conspiracy charge filed Thursday against the longtime local judge suggests that carefully cultivated public image was a facade, and that late Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum had himself been buying prescription painkillers from a man who made his campaign signs.
The news shocked the head of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association, who said the allegation "flies in the face of what we do."
Nearly 400 deputies, troopers and officers from several states attended Crum's funeral after he was killed in a shooting apparently unrelated to the conspiracy. Association director Rodney Miller said many may now feel "a bit of betrayal."
"It's a rarity," Miller said. "But good people go bad sometimes."
The revelations came from federal prosecutors, who charged suspended Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury in a conspiracy they say was cooked up to protect Crum's reputation and career.
The conspiracy laid out in court documents also involves a local prosecutor and a commissioner in Mingo County, a coalfields community along the Kentucky border that's long been plagued by corruption.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the goal of the plot was to stop a confidential informant from telling the FBI about his drug deals with Crum by putting the dealer behind bars.
Thornsbury was charged with one count of conspiracy in a document called an information, signaling he is cooperating with federal prosecutors. On Thursday, prosecutors asked a judge to schedule a plea hearing for Thornsbury.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Thornsbury's attorney, Stephen Jory, declined comment.
The U.S. attorney's office declined to say whether prosecutor Michael Sparks or County Commissioner Dave Baisden will be charged. Sparks did not immediately return messages from The Associated Press but told the Williamson Daily News he's "shocked beyond belief" by the allegations.
"I had absolutely nothing to do with this," he told the paper, suggesting that Thornsbury is lying "to exact vengeance against me in retaliation for my cooperation with his federal investigation."
The state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, meanwhile, moved to have his law license suspended, citing "egregious misconduct."
The sheriff's widow, Rosie Crum, did not immediately respond to a message left at her home. She briefly served as sheriff after her husband's death.
Bruce Stanley, a Mingo County native and Pittsburgh attorney who has appeared many times before Thornsbury, said he hopes the corruption probe continues.
"One can only hope that the U.S. attorney keeps digging," he said, "though it's quite possible he might reach China before he gets to the bottom of the corruption afflicting southern West Virginia."
Thornsbury had been the county's only judge since 1997, before was indicted last month and accused of abusing his power in a separate case. Prosecutors say the judge had an affair with his secretary and tried to frame her husband repeatedly between 2008 and 2012 after she broke things off.
He is accused of enlisting the help of a state trooper and commandeering the grand jury, and was set to stand trial next month. Prosecutors didn't say how the new case will affect those charges.
The new charge against the judge paints a picture of a tightknit team ganging up on a local sign maker identified as G.W. in the court documents.
Attorney Charles S. West confirmed G.W. was his longtime client and the owner of White's Sign Co. in Delbarton, George Ruben White.
The slain sheriff, who was also a longtime magistrate, was elected last fall on a campaign to clean up a pervasive drug problem. While campaigning, he bought signs and other materials from White and still owed him $3,000 when he took office in January, the court document says.
When White demanded payment, prosecutors say, Crum sent a confidential informant to buy the prescription painkiller oxycodone from him. Prosecutors say White was arrested Feb. 1.
White then hired West, who was running for county prosecutor at the time, and met with FBI agents. The U.S. attorney's office says White told the agents he had sold narcotics to Crum "on multiple occasions" while he was the magistrate.
Crum and prosecutor Sparks then went to the judge and told him White had incriminated the sheriff. They let White know that if he fired his attorney he could get a lighter sentence, prosecutors say.
West said he had never experienced anything like this in 24 years of criminal defense work.
"Hit me right across the face with it. I didn't know it was coming," West said.
He said he would have used every piece of evidence he had to help White, who is now serving one to 15 years for two counts of manufacturing or delivering narcotics.
Crum, 59, died in a parking lot as he ate lunch in his car. He was keeping watch on a former "pill mill," a place that had been shut down for illegally dispensing prescription drugs, to be sure it didn't reopen.
Tennis Melvin Maynard, a onetime boxing student of Crum's, is charged with first-degree murder and awaiting trial. Maynard's family claims the former sheriff had molested him and that the prosecutor's office ignored his reports. Sparks has denied those claims.
On Wednesday, Sparks recused himself from Maynard's case, citing only "an emerging conflict of interest."