Linus Thuston defends deals that keep child rapists out of prison, denies threats, downplays discipline
CHANUTE — Neosho County prosecutor Linus Thuston makes no apologies for cutting deals with child rapists, expanding the use of diversions to pad his office budget, or using his power at the top of the county’s criminal justice system to benefit his private practice clients.
He presides over a kingdom of fear in this rural southeast Kansas county with a population of about 16,000. Outspoken community leaders are frustrated with Thuston’s behavior — and with state authorities who appear reluctant to intervene.
Thuston, a church deacon and Army National Guard veteran, dismisses questions about conflicts of interest, saying people who dislike him just have an ax to grind. He said he has cooperated with a criminal investigation into his actions by the state’s top law enforcement agency. And when he was facing the possibility of losing his law license last year, he made a promise to God that he would dedicate himself to his faith.
“There are things I could say about my accusers, but I’m supposed to really be trying to hold my peace and let the Lord fight my battles,” Thuston said. “And so, in the past, I tell you I would have been very aggressive in my defenses. But I’m a changed person.”
Kansas Reflector gathered thousands of pages of documents, including some that are confidential, and conducted interviews with numerous sources over the course of a six-month investigation into concerns about Thuston.
The current and former Neosho County sheriffs say “justice is for sale” in the form of diversion agreements approved by Thuston, sometimes for felony crimes. The county commission doesn’t trust Thuston’s handling of finances. The Disciplinary Administrator’s Office, which reviews complaints against attorneys for the Kansas Supreme Court, has determined three times that Thuston committed ethics violations but allowed him to keep practicing law.
His critics have circulated a photo on Facebook from the 1988 Chanute High School yearbook, which features this quote from Thuston next to his senior photo: “Take advantage of everyone, because if you don’t, who will?”
Sheriff Greg Taylor met with the Attorney General’s Office in September to discuss the findings of a criminal investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that began in November and expanded over the summer.
Deputy attorney general Steven Karrer is reviewing “certain matters in Neosho County,” said John Milburn, the agency’s spokesman.
“The investigation is ongoing and no prosecutorial decisions have been made,” Milburn said.
In February, a disciplinary panel determined Thuston had been negligent in his duties but pointed to eight letters of support from people in the community, including one from the longtime county health director, Teresa Starr.
But Starr said she didn’t write the letter. After it was brought to her attention this summer, she cooperated with a disciplinary office investigation into the letter. She said Thuston retaliated by calling her staff to inquire about her mental health.
Now, she said, Thuston wants to make a plea deal with the man who violently raped her last year. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 18.
“Why am I mostly concerned about Linus? I’m the one that was raped. So if he lets him go, there is nothing I can do about it,” Starr said. “Except I had to hire a lawyer to make sure my best interest is done. … They’ve not called (even) one of my witnesses. They haven’t even asked me who my witnesses are. But they’re going to put me on the stand in a couple of weeks and they’re going to interrogate me like I’m the stripper from Pat’s Lounge.”
In an interview for this story, Thuston said he wrote the letter and Starr signed it. Thuston said he was committed to convicting the man who attacked her.
“There would be nothing that would ever stop me from trying to get justice for that case,” Thuston said. “I consider Teresa to still be a friend of mine, and as I’ve told other people, I love Teresa.”
Thuston’s supporters include clients, local attorneys and a retired judge.
“It’s easy to look at things from the outside and be critical when you don’t have all the facts, and a lot of the things that have been raised as questions are things where people know rumor, innuendo, but don’t really know what all the facts are,” Thuston said.
Justice for sale
Annual diversion fund collections in Neosho County increased by 800% after Thuston won election as county attorney in 2012.
A “diversion” allows defendants to avoid the consequences of a criminal conviction by paying a fee and staying out of further legal trouble. Thuston’s office has granted diversions that vary in cost from $500 for raping a 5-year-old to $10,000 to settle drug charges.
The sheriff’s office and family members of victims have expressed outrage over Thuston’s use of diversion agreements.
Jim Keath, who served as Neosho County sheriff for more than 20 years, said he decided not to seek reelection in 2020 because he didn’t want to fight Thuston for another four years. Keath moved to Oklahoma, where he now works in real estate.
“Justice is for sale in Neosho County,” Keath said. “Justice has been for sale for as long as he’s been county attorney.”
Thuston defeated an opponent in the 2012 GOP primary and hasn’t faced a challenger in any election since.
Thuston’s office has approved at least two diversions and one plea deal for three men accused of sex crimes with children between the ages of 4 and 14.
In 2015, Thuston’s office offered a diversion agreement to Edgar Anaya-Alvarez, who was charged the year before with three felony sex crimes involving a 14-year-old girl.
Documents obtained by Kansas Reflector include a Chanute police officer’s narrative report about the crimes. The girl said Anaya-Alvarez, who was 22, had pressured her into a series of sex acts in a parking lot, at his house and in the back seat of a car — sometimes in front of her older sister.
The older sister provided the officer with text messages she had exchanged with Anaya-Alvarez’s wife.
“It’s illegal he’s ****ing my 14 year old sister that’s gross I’m sorry,” the older sister told the wife.
“Idk what ima do but plz dnt call the cops ima **** him up n tell him,” the wife wrote. “plz I’ve got two baby boys I dnt want there dad to go to jail.”
Anaya-Alvarez paid $1,500 for a diversion. The agreement required Anaya-Alvarez to acknowledge he had unlawful sex with the girl and to stay out of legal trouble for 12 months.
In April of this year, police arrested Anaya-Alvarez in a drug bust that uncovered thousands of Xanax pills, 71 packages of edible cannabis products, a rifle and a handgun. He now faces five felony charges.
Taylor, the current sheriff, complained about the diversion during a county commission meeting shortly after the bust. He also revealed the KBI had been reviewing criminal complaints about Thuston.
Thuston said the 14-year-old girl was unwilling to testify against Anaya-Alvarez.
In another case, Vernon Presley, 59, was charged in 2018 with rape and aggravated criminal sodomy of a 5-year-old girl. Court documents show he paid $500 for a diversion.
Thuston said a therapist recommended he not place the 5-year-old girl on the witness stand.
“There may be some circumstances that may limit the ability for the case to be prosecuted, where some people would have dismissed cases,” Thuston said. “To at least hold the people accountable, we have offered diversion as opposed to a dismissal. Because then, with a diversion, they stipulate to the facts as alleged in the complaint, waive their rights to trial, waive their rights to appeal, and should they not comply with the terms of the diversion, it’s a trial based on those stipulated facts.”
Taylor, in an interview for this story, said he understood the need for diversions in cases that involve first-time offenders and misdemeanor crimes. But he said it was “extremely upsetting” that Thuston was willing to grant diversions “where there’s actual victims, human victims, especially children.”
“I can’t comprehend that,” Taylor said. “I don’t understand that at all. Since things have deteriorated, we have a hard time getting cases prosecuted.”
Charles Speck, who was 45, avoided prison after being charged in 2017 with aggravated indecent liberties with a 4-year-old girl. That charge was dropped as part of a plea deal. Instead of serving a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence for the child sex crime, Speck received 12 months probation for the amended charge of lewd and lascivious behavior.
The girl’s parents filed a complaint against Thuston and his deputy attorney at the time, David Clark, with the Disciplinary Administrator’s Office. The parents were upset the prosecutors didn’t notify them of the plea deal before it was presented in court.
“The reasoning Mr. Clark gave for allowing Mr. Speck to take a plea was because our daughter is only four, her testimony would not be considered competent in court,” the father wrote in the complaint.
The disciplinary administrator concluded Thuston had violated the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct in the case, but a three-attorney review panel disagreed.
In another case, Timothy Slansky was arrested and charged with rape in 2015. Two years later, Thuston agreed to drop the rape charge as part of a plea bargain in a separate burglary case.
The rape victim objected to the plea bargain, the Chanute Tribune reported. In a statement to the court, she said Slansky “broke into my home, found me in the shower and abusively raped me.” She said this is not how the criminal justice system is supposed to work.
Taylor, the sheriff, expressed similar views in an interview in early October.
“I’ve really had a hard time with having faith in the judicial system the way it is here,” Taylor said.
Neosho County commissioners have such little trust in Thuston, they won’t even let him have an office credit card.
Commissioners Nic Galemore and Paul Westoff have complained in public meetings about the way Thuston uses the diversion fund to expand his office budget. They discovered earlier this year that Thuston had connected his personal PayPal account to an office credit card. Thuston also turned in redacted transaction statements, the Chanute Tribune reported, in an attempt to avoid scrutiny for a pricey trip to Seattle for training.
The commission unanimously voted in April to suspend credit cards used by the county attorney’s office, requiring Thuston to submit invoices for approval instead. Thuston responded by asking the commission to nearly double his budget.
Galemore has battled Thuston over financial issues since at least 2014, when Thuston also served as the general counsel to the commission. The commission fired Thuston for refusing to cooperate with drafting a credit card policy, the Chanute Tribune reported. Thuston continued to hold his elected position as the county’s top prosecutor.
Thuston has told the commission he has sole discretion on how to spend the money in his budget, including funds collected through diversions. Galemore accused him of using the money for extravagant office expenses.
“He uses his diversion fund kind of as a slush fund for him to buy whatever he wants,” Galemore said in an interview for this story.
“If you can come up with enough money,” Galemore added, “you can get out of whatever you want to get out of.”
Thuston said the money is spent on police training, body cameras and other equipment, and medical exams for sexual assault victims. He also said his office gets the money from diversion agreements — as opposed to the state collecting court fines from convictions.
County financial audits show Thuston’s predecessor as county attorney, Melissa Dugan, collected $19,377 in diversions in 2011 and $21,591 in 2012. During Thuston’s first year in office, he collected $84,799 in diversion payments. The amounts escalated through 2016, when collections reached $179,178.
Thuston’s published policy is to grant diversions for $1,500 for a level 4-5 drug felony, $1,000 for a level 7-10 felony, $550 for a DUI, $425 for misdemeanor and alcohol-related traffic offenses, and $75 for minor traffic infractions. Court records show Thuston’s office sometimes offers a diversion for more serious crimes and at a higher cost.
Niccolis Wiltse was charged in 2013 with intent to distribute marijuana, a level 2 felony, and in 2015 with misdemeanor drug possession. Thuston gave him a diversion for the two cases in exchange for a fee of $10,000. Thuston said there were extenuating circumstances that he isn’t allowed to make public.
Sharon Brett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said she had never heard of a diversion fee being that high. She also said she has never heard of someone receiving a diversion for a person felony, such as a child sex crime.
County prosecutors have discretion to determine how they want to use diversions in their jurisdictions, she said, but they should establish clear standards and stick to them.
“When you are granting diversion to somebody, and you’re charging them a really high fee for the privilege of being on diversion rather than going to jail, that changes who is getting diversion, as a whole,” Brett said. “It is essentially making diversion off-limits for individuals who don’t have the financial resources to afford it.”
The conspicuous cost of Wiltse’s diversion prompted District Judge Daniel Creitz to ask the sheriff’s office to investigate Thuston. At the time, Keath was sheriff and Taylor was undersheriff.
The sheriff’s office compiled 26 allegations of misconduct by Thuston, which was reported in 2017 to the Disciplinary Administrator’s Office.
“We filed a huge amount of formal complaints to the disciplinary administrator’s board, which is frankly a joke. Wow,” Keath said.
Gayle Larkin, who became the disciplinary administrator last year, said the office takes every complaint seriously.
“It’s just a matter of whether we can establish a rule violation,” Larkin said.
The disciplinary office did not find clear and convincing evidence of any violations by Thuston based on the information the sheriff’s office gathered.
Coincidentally, Thuston’s career was spared by a diversion agreement granted to him by the disciplinary board in 2002.
Thuston, after winning election as county attorney in 1996, had overbilled the county for legal fees by $25,380, expensed $656.70 for paintball guns and ammo, and dropped criminal charges in exchange for $800 worth of office equipment. As part of the diversion agreement, he had to pay restitution and his law license was placed on probation for eight years.
Thuston lost his reelection bid in 2000 and remained out of office until 2012. Dugan, who didn’t seek reelection that year, stepped down shortly after Thuston won the August primary, and then-Gov. Sam Brownback appointed Thuston to the open seat.
Thuston operates a private law practice while also working as a prosecutor, repeatedly raising questions about conflicts of interest.
Kansas Reflector obtained documents from a 2021 investigation by the Disciplinary Administrator’s Office of Thuston’s conduct in a custody dispute between Becky Chandler and the father of her children. Police testimony and transcripts of dispatch calls, among other records, reveal how Thuston orchestrated Chandler’s arrest for the benefit of the father, who enlisted Thuston’s services as a private attorney.
“Thuston’s authority as Neosho County attorney, particularly with police departments and other agencies that a county attorney regularly advises and works closely with, does not disappear when he wears the hat of private attorney,” the disciplinary panel wrote in a ruling issued in February.
The disciplinary administrator recommended an indefinite suspension of Thuston’s law license. But the three attorneys who reviewed the case — Lee Smithyman, Darcy Williamson and David Rebein — unanimously agreed Thuston should receive an informal admonishment instead.
In an interview, Thuston said he didn’t do anything improper.
“They found the lowest level of discipline that an attorney can get on something that was pretty much a technical issue,” Thuston said.
Chandler fled her ex-husband in December 2017, taking their two children with her from Chanute to Glendale, Arizona. An Arizona court granted her and the children a protection from abuse order. A higher court affirmed the order over the father’s objections.
Thuston instructed the father to make a police report in Chanute for the felony crime of aggravated interference with parental custody.
Chanute police officer Lukas Henderson initially declined to take a report because he considered the custody dispute to be a civil matter. He reluctantly complied, “since this is coming from people bigger than me,” according to the disciplinary panel’s ruling.
Thuston’s deputy prosecutor filed criminal charges against Chandler.
A Neosho County District Court judge issued a warrant for Chandler’s arrest when she failed to show up for an appearance. Thuston was present at the prosecutor’s table when the warrant was issued.
When Thuston found out Chandler was visiting family in Chanute, he told local police her protection order wasn’t valid. He ordered police to take the kids and give them to the father. He called dispatch to say there was a warrant out for Chandler and explained where police could find her. He spent several minutes on the phone with the arresting officer.
Thuston insisted to the disciplinary board he had nothing to do with the criminal case.
Chandler, who had no trust in the justice system, eventually entered into a diversion agreement to avoid the felony crime for fleeing with her children. Thuston then filed a motion on the basis of the diversion agreement to grant custody to the father.
She hasn’t seen her kids in more than a year.
“There’s no contact, no nothing,” Chandler said. The father “just tells me I’m a terrible mom. It breaks my heart that someone could think that ill of their own kids’ mom. I haven’t done anything to hurt my kids. I love my kids with all my heart. My kids are my world.”
The disciplinary panel reviewed Thuston’s actions in the case and concluded in February that Thuston had violated an ethics rule regarding a conflict of interest between government and private employment.
However, the panel determined his misconduct wasn’t motivated by selfishness but out of a desire to help his client. And the panel was moved by his letters of support.
“The hearing panel acknowledges substantial evidence of Mr. Thuston’s good reputation in his community,” the panel wrote.
Steven Staker, a public defender in southeast Kansas, praised Thuston for his National Guard service in his letter of support.
Staker said Thuston is a “faithful public servant” and “a driving force behind the ‘Taco Tuesday’ lunch gatherings of prosecutors and defense counsel at the Neosho County Community College cafeteria.”
“Linus is certainly a gifted litigator and a formidable courtroom adversary, but he has consistently maintained a reasonable and just approach to his duties as a prosecutor,” Staker said.
The panel referred to Thuston’s actions in the custody dispute as “an isolated instance of negligence.”
In an interview for this story, Larkin, the disciplinary administrator, said Thuston also received an informal admonishment in 2002. In that case, which was reported by the Kansas Attorney General’s Office, Thuston had called a sheriff in a neighboring county and didn’t make his role clear. As a result, Larkin said, he received information that he wouldn’t “have been privy to” as a private attorney.
Thuston’s use of public office has been questioned in at least one other case.
In 2015, Todd Kidwell struck and killed Glenda Taylor with his truck along a highway in Crawford County. Taylor, a Washburn University art teacher, was riding a bicycle.
The Colorado-based Hottman Law Office, in an analysis published on its website, said it was curious that Thuston served as a defense attorney for Kidwell while also prosecuting a speeding ticket issued to Kidwell.
Kidwell agreed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for killing Taylor. One of the factors at sentencing was whether Kidwell was likely to continue to be a threat to others on the road. After killing Taylor, Kidwell was ticketed for driving 84 mph in a 55 mph zone in Neosho County. Thuston, as the county attorney, reduced the ticket to a nonmoving violation.
The judge declined to consider evidence about the tickets during the sentencing hearing. Kidwell received 60 days in jail.
The conflict of interest in the Taylor case was among examples of misconduct reported by the sheriff’s office and dismissed by the disciplinary office in 2017.
Thuston said he found salvation in the Lord last year as he awaited a ruling in the disciplinary case and braced for the possibility of losing his law license.
“I made a commitment to God that if he would deliver in that situation, that I would spread his gospel at a greater level,” Thuston said. “And vows to God are ones that I take very, very seriously. And so I have been moving in that direction.”
Thuston said he is transitioning into a greater role and higher calling in the ministry.
“I pray for those people that dislike me or whatever,” Thuston said. “I pray for them, but I’m also willing enough to know that I’m not perfect. The Bible says all have fallen short. And so I am constantly asking the Lord to forgive me for mistakes that I’ve made.”
Galemore, the county commissioner, was upset that the county paid nearly $60,000 in attorney fees to defend Thuston in the disciplinary case that concluded in February.
Galemore obtained a copy of the disciplinary case file and was surprised to see Starr, the county health director, had provided a letter of support. Galemore confronted Starr about the letter and, after learning it was faked, reported it to the sheriff as a crime.
Starr, the county health director, said she was shocked to learn the letter had been submitted.
“I don’t even know why he would use me,” Starr said. “That doesn’t make sense. I’m not a lawyer. I’m not anybody powerful. I’m just me. Health department administrator.”
The letter’s font and design don’t match her usual letters, Starr said, and the letter includes language she would never use. She said she didn’t sign the letter, as Thuston contends.
The letter says the Chanute Police Department depends on Thuston to review search warrants. It says Thuston is an example of what a public servant should be.
After Starr talked to the sheriff and an investigator from the disciplinary office, she said Thuston called and said, “Do you remember writing that letter for me?”
“And I’m like, ‘I don’t. I do not remember,’” Starr said. “Well, he also called my staff before and after that and tried to discuss my mental health, saying I was not healthy mentally. I was breaking down. Started asking about my attitude. Was I off the handle? What can they see in me? So he was trying to establish a mental health breakdown on my part.”
Starr said she wants Thuston to recuse himself from prosecuting Jerry Dean Sager, who is charged with rape, kidnapping and possession of illegal drugs in a Feb. 25, 2021, attack on Starr. Court records show Starr hired Dugan, the former county prosecutor, to represent her.
The letter “has caused such a ruckus,” Starr said, “I’m afraid he’ll just let him go.” She said Thuston wants to make a plea bargain in the case.
Starr said Thuston “has the power to hurt you if he wants,” and “he keeps getting away with it.”
The KBI investigated the letter and Thuston’s interactions with Starr, along with other criminal activity reported by the sheriff’s office.
The investigation includes the accusation of a threat by Thuston that was reported by Westhoff, the county commissioner. Westhoff received a DUI last year, and he said during a county commission meeting in July that Thuston had sent a message through Westhoff’s attorney to “back off.”
Thuston, in an interview, denied making the threat.
“I took it as a threat about either my DUI or running for commissioner again,” Westhoff said during the commission meeting, the Chanute Tribune reported. “The AG knows about it anyway.”
Taylor said in an interview in April that he had forwarded six criminal cases to the KBI in November. He said there was probable cause that Thuston committed perjury, refused to stop for a sheriff’s deputy, misused public funds, misused his public office, and misused the National Crime Information Center system to run a criminal check for personal reasons.
Taylor met with the Attorney General’s Office in September but said he can’t discuss the open criminal investigation.
In an interview in early October, Taylor said his office also has received reports from people who feel like they were intimidated by Thuston.
“I don’t think he’s dumb enough to tell people, ‘Hey, I’m going to physically cause you harm,’” Taylor said. “I think they feel that underlying because of who he is, because of his position, because he’s very narcissistic. He has to inform everybody that he’s the chief law enforcement official. If you call his office, that’s what you’ll get on the answering machine.”
The sheriff said he is bothered by Thuston’s use of diversion agreements and refusal to take responsibility for his actions.
“Enforcing the law shouldn’t be a money-making thing for the county,” Taylor said. “To me, that’s just asking for corruption within the county. And I guess we’ll see what the Attorney General’s Office has to decide over those cases.”
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
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