'Magically' appearing evidence in Mingo case investigated
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating the possible mishandling of evidence in a case at the heart of the recent Mingo County corruption saga.
Charges were dismissed Monday against George White, a Delbarton sign maker linked to county officials who have pleaded guilty to various corruption charges.
Hours later, a box of evidence, some of which could have possibly been used against White, was delivered to the sheriff's office by a former deputy who was fired last fall.
About 2:30 p.m. Monday, former chief field deputy Dave Rockel walked into the office with a box full of evidence, Sheriff James Smith said.
"I've been here for 14 years, and I've never seen nothing like that before," said Smith, a longtime lawman who was recently appointed to the post.
"It shocked us when he came in. We just took it, I logged it in my evidence (locker) and I contacted the FBI, to see what they wanted to do with it."
Rockel also was the former Williamson police chief. Smith fired him as a deputy in September. It's against department policy to take files home at all, let alone keep them for months after leaving, Smith said.
A federal investigator confirmed an investigation is underway.
"We've been informed of irregularities involving the handling of evidence in the George White case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said. "We're investigating it."
Special Prosecutor Keith Randolph said he received a call earlier Monday that the evidence might suddenly turn up.
He said the call came about 90 minutes before the start of a hearing scheduled to officially dismiss White's drug-related charges.
The call came from a man claiming to be an attorney for Rockel, Randolph said.
"It does nothing more than to create more suspicion surrounding the case, I think," Randolph said. "As if there wasn't enough already there."
A man identified as Rockel's attorney did not return a phone message left by the Daily Mail.
Despite learning there might be evidence - including a recording of an alleged drug sale made by White - Randolph chose to move forward with the dismissal.
"As a matter of fact, I think the fact that stuff shows up on the day of the hearing that's going to decide the case, I think that creates a bigger issue for the state," Randolph said.
Last week, Randolph filed a motion to dismiss White's charges, which stemmed from cases against a former prosecutor and a former circuit judge.
Former Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury and former Prosecutor Michael Sparks pleaded guilty to deprive White of his right to the attorney of his choice in an attempt to thwart an FBI investigation into slain Sheriff Eugene Crum.
Crum allegedly owed White $3,000 for materials provided during Crum's eventually successful campaign for sheriff in 2012. Federal prosecutors say that instead of paying White, Crum had him arrested on a drug charge.
Crum and Rockel, then Williamson's police chief, knew of a controlled drug purchase made by a confidential informant in early 2013, according to court documents. There was also audio of the purchase, according to investigators.
Following guilty pleas from Thornsbury and Sparks, White and his attorneys were awarded a new trial on the drug charges.
After Randolph was appointed to the White case - following Sparks' resignation - he requested evidence from all manner of law enforcement and the prosecutor's office.
Randolph said he received some information from the prosecutor's office, including a recording of the alleged purchase.
But he considered the recording to be inaudible, a fact that played a role in his decision to seek dismissal of the case.
Randolph was never able to find an original recording or any information on the confidential informant, both of which were supposed to be in the possession of Williamson police. They weren't.
"To this day, no one, neither Rockel nor Williamson Police Department, has provided me with any of that," he said.
Current Williamson Police Chief Barry Blair referred comment on the case to federal investigators.
"I've only been here seven months and I don't have a dog in that hunt," Blair said.
Randolph has yet to see any of the evidence Rockel produced. Neither has David Barney, one of White's attorneys. Both said they don't think the new evidence would have made an impact in White's case.
"There is evidence that just magically appeared out of nowhere that was not at the disposal of Prosecutor Keith Randolph throughout this process?" Barney said Tuesday.
Barney also said he thought Randolph knew about the information Rockel produced before Monday, but Randolph said that's a misunderstanding.
Barney pointed to issues with chain of custody in Randolph's request for a dismissal. He said that was proof Randolph knew Rockel's possession of evidence for months would make defense attorneys furious.
While Randolph agreed the chain of custody from Rockel was questionable, he said he was referring to different chain of custody issues for evidence. Other evidence in the case is still missing, Randolph pointed out.
Both said there are issues with evidence showing up moments before a trial.
Barney paused when asked why the evidence was presented hours before the dismissal, or whether such timing was a coincidence.
"This whole case has been odd," Barney said.
"I think this has more to do with Dave Rockel attempting to rehabilitate his image."
In addition to Thornsbury and Sparks, former Commissioner Dave Baisden and former magistrate Dallas Toler are behind bars in connection to federal charges.
Baisden received up to 20 months imprisonment after pleading guilty to attempted extortion. Toler was out on bond after pleading guilty to a federal voter registration crime, but he recently had his bond revoked after he was arrested for allegedly helping orchestrate cocaine deals.
Smith said Rockel's production of evidence looks bad, and could hurt efforts to restore the public's trust in Mingo County. It's important to note the same people accused of wrongdoing are part of the former "regime," Smith said.
In the meantime, Barney said life goes on for White. Despite the recent death of his sister, White is generally happy and ready to move on with his life, Barney said.
White plans to eventually reopen his sign shop, Barney said, noting that election season is around the corner.