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West Virginia Circuit Judge Arrested for Framing Romantic Rival, Rigging Grand Jury

U.S. Attorney’s Office August 15, 2013
  • Southern District of West Virginia (304) 345-2200

CHARLESTON, WV—Mingo County, West Virginia Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury has been arrested on a federal criminal charge, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced today. Thornsbury is charged with conspiring to have a romantic rival illegally arrested and manipulating a state grand jury to pursue criminal charges against the same romantic rival. The charge was revealed in a federal grand jury indictment unsealed today.

Judge Thornsbury is charged with conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of a victim identified as “R.W.,” who was the husband of Thornsbury’s secretary. In early 2008, the indictment alleges, Thornsbury began a romantic relationship with his secretary, identified as “K.W.,” which she broke off in June of that year. After K.W. ended the relationship, Thornsbury instructed a co-conspirator to plant illegal drugs underneath R.W.’s pickup truck and then arranged for police to stop R.W. and search for the drugs. The co-conspirator tasked with planting the drugs backed out of the plan at the last minute, thwarting Thornsbury’s scheme.

Thornsbury then tried a different approach, the indictment alleges. R.W. worked at a coal preparation plant, where newly mined coal was processed before shipping. One of the plant’s functions was to remove scrap metal that had fallen into the coal during mining. Thornsbury learned that R.W.’s supervisors had given him permission to salvage scrap items, including drill bits, that were found amid coal at the plant, which were simply discarded if R.W. did not collect them.

Thornsbury secretly instructed a West Virginia state trooper to file a criminal complaint that falsely alleged R.W. was stealing the scrap material from his employer. The trooper resisted, telling Thornsbury that R.W. was allowed to salvage the scrap, but ultimately yielded to Thornsbury’s demands, filing a false criminal complaint that led to R.W.’s arrest for grand larceny in December 2008.

In January 2009, a new Mingo County grand jury was empanelled. According to the indictment, Thornsbury decided to use it to pursue his campaign against R.W. As the county’s sole circuit judge, Thornsbury was empowered to choose the foreperson of the new grand jury. He selected Jarrod Fletcher, Mingo County’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, with whom Thornsbury co-owned a commercial real estate business and a wine shop. Thornsbury and Fletcher were also joint debtors on $1.8 million in loans they had taken out to finance their businesses. The business relationship between Thornsbury and Fletcher was not widely known, however, and Thornsbury did not disclose it when he made Fletcher the grand jury foreperson.

By installing Fletcher as grand jury foreperson, Thornsbury was able to secretly co-opt the grand jury’s authority and use it to victimize R.W. In January 2009, Thornsbury created a set of purported grand jury subpoenas that ordered various local companies, including R.W.’s employer, to surrender private documents concerning R.W. He had Fletcher sign these purported subpoenas and send them out in the name of the grand jury. Thornsbury planned to ultimately use the grand jury to charge R.W. criminally.

In March 2009, one of the recipients of Thornsbury’s so-called subpoenas, identified in the indictment as “DBC Inc.,” asked for more time to respond. Thornsbury entered a court order denying that request, without disclosing that he himself had ghostwritten the subpoena or that he was disqualified from any participation in the criminal case against R.W.

Most of the companies targeted by Thornsbury’s subpoenas handed over the documents demanded, believing that the subpoenas were legitimate. DBC Inc., however, waged a legal battle against the subpoena it received and eventually discovered the deep business ties between Thornsbury and Fletcher. When DBC Inc. publicly revealed those ties in a court filing, Thornsbury was forced to abandon his plan to use the grand jury against R.W.

Several years later, in 2012, R.W. was involved in an argument outside a convenience store with two other men. One of the men took a swing at R.W., and the other one drew a gun. The police were called, and the two other men were charged with assault.

Nearly a month after the altercation, however, the charges against the two other men were dismissed, and R.W. was charged with assault and battery. Thornsbury, through a messenger, told the county prosecutor to ensure that R.W. received a sentence of six months’ confinement, an extraordinarily harsh punishment even if R.W. had been guilty. Prosecutors in turn offered R.W. a plea agreement that would have confined him for six months. R.W. refused it, and on the eve of trial, the prosecutor dismissed the case, stating that after reviewing the evidence against R.W., he believed the prosecution was not in the interest of justice.

The indictment charges Thornsbury with conspiring to violate R.W.’s right against unreasonable arrest, guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and his right not to be deprived of his liberty without due process of law, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The indictment also charges that Thornsbury conspired against the companies targeted by the purported grand jury subpoena, specifically, against their Fourteenth Amendment right not to be deprived of their property without due process of law.

Thornsbury, 57, has served as Mingo County’s sole circuit judge since 1997.

The FBI and the West Virginia State Police are conducting the investigation. Counsel to the U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby is in charge of the prosecution.

An indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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