PRESTONSBURG — A grand jury has been given the task of determining whether to continue prosecuting the witness retaliation case against the step-son of the embattled former mayor of Martin.
Meanwhile, a federal judge will consider whether the man’s actions constitute a violation of his probation.
James S. Robinson, 40, of Martin, step-son of former Mayor Ruth Thomasine Robinson, appeared Friday in Floyd District Court, to hear the case against him, then appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court, in Pikeville, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office sought to have him declared in violation of his probation from a 2010 conviction.
James Robinson is charged in Floyd District Court with wanton endangerment and two counts of retaliating against a witness in a legal proceeding.
In 2010, he pleaded guilty to a charge of providing false information to federal authorities in an attempt to improperly obtain unemployment benefits. Following that plea, he was sentenced to five years of probation.
Former Mayor Robinson was indicted Oct. 23, along with three other people. The four face charges related to an alleged scheme to defraud the Social Security disability program.
In Friday’s hearing, District Judge Eric Hall heard testimony alleging that James Robinson had attempted to intimidate two witnesses who had testified against his step-mother. John Emit Thompson, an investigator with the state Attorney General’s Office, was the only witness called. Thompson then repeated much of his testimony on Tuesday, when called to testify in the probation violation hearing.
Thompson testified that he and an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation had interviewed two witnesses who reported the alleged retaliation.
Thompson said the first witness, Josh Hale, who works at McDonald’s of Martin, was manning the drive-thru window between 7:30 and 8 p.m., on Oct. 24, when James Robinson came through as a customer. As James Robinson paid for his order, he allegedly told Hale, “You better watch your ass.”
Thompson said Hale also reported rumors he had heard, including that bounties had been placed on those who had testified against the defendants in the disability fraud case and that James Robinson had a list of every person who had testified. However, Thompson seemed to dismiss those rumors.
“Those kinds of rumors in a case like this are pretty common,” Thompson said in response to questioning from Assistant County Attorney Tyler Greene. “But the face-to-face contact is what we were most concerned about.”
The second witness, Cory Stevens, is also an employee of McDonald’s but was a customer in the drive-thru lane at the same McDonald’s later that evening. Thompson said Stevens was at the second drive-thru window picking up an order, when James Robinson drove around the building at a slow rate of speed, then swerved his pickup truck toward Stevens’ vehicle and blocked it in.
“He said he had to pull out and get out of there real quickly,” Thompson testified on Friday. “He didn’t know what was about to happen.”
Thompson testified he also interviewed a McDonald’s regional manager and reviewed video footage taken at the restaurant, but said the manager was not present at the time of the alleged incidents and the video cameras pointed only at the store’s cash registers and did not show the alleged incidents.
During cross-examination in both hearings, James Robinson’s attorney, Bill Slone, appeared to be laying the groundwork for his defense, asking Thompson whether his client had made any other statements that could be considered threatening to the first witness or if slowly driving toward another vehicle would have been “likely to cause death or serious physical injury” had the two vehicles collided. In both instances, Thompson replied in the negative.
Slone also appeared to question how threatened Hale felt, after Thompson testified Tuesday that Hale did not report the confrontation to his supervisor.
“So, he was threatened to the point he was in fear of his life, and he didn’t report it to his manager?” Slone asked Thompson.
“That is correct,” Thompson replied.
Slone also pointed out that the evidence in the case did not include any corroborating witness accounts and relied solely on the statements of two coworkers. He then pointed out that Stevens had once worked for James Robinson and had been fired from his job.
Following Friday’s testimony, Judge Hall ruled that there was probable cause to send the case to a grand jury for consideration. The grand jury, which meets in secret, will likely hear additional evidence and decide whether James Robinson should be indicted on the charges.
Hall also set a $10,000 unsecured bond in the case, but ordered that James Robinson be held under home incarceration until federal authorities had a chance to review the case.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing in federal court, Magistrate Judge Edward Atkins ruled that there was probable cause to have a full hearing on whether James Robinson had committed a probation violation. That hearing will be held Nov. 19, in Lexington, before U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar.
Following Atkins’ ruling, Slone and Asst. U.S. Attorney Sam Dotson then began arguing their positions on whether James Robinson should be released from incarceration, pending the hearing.
While Slone argued that James Robinson was not a flight risk, Dotson said that was not the issue that most concerned him.
“I don’t believe Mr. Robinson is a flight risk …” Dotson said. “I do believe he poses a danger to others.”
Atkins said he agreed with Dotson’s assessment and ordered James Robinson to be held, pending his Nov. 19 hearing.