RUTHERFORD & MCDOWELL COUNTIES, NC —Judicial District 41 has been ravaged by drugs for decades. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable individuals in our society – the addicts, those living in poverty, and those with prior criminal histories who are easily discredited and overlooked – have been actively exploited, wrongfully imprisoned, and far too many have died unnecessarily. While, the local economy continues to be depressed with no signs of future relief, local officials have failed to address these matters publicly despite decades of repeated requests for help and demands from the community that these issues be addressed. While officials continue to engage in self-serving actions, the community has borne the consequences of their actions
In this article, RC Catalyst will provide the public with information as to why our local officials have, for so long, ignored many of these issues, with a particular emphasis on why the influx of narcotics remains unabated. The most salient factor appears to be a man named Robert VanBuskirk. Questions concerning the life and death of VanBuskirk continue to affect our judicial district today.
THE CALI CARTEL FINDS A WELCOME INTRODUCTION TO RUTHERFORD COUNTY
In 1986, VanBuskirk – a Vietnam veteran most well-known for his claims that the United States government used chemical weapons on both the enemy and its own people during the war – along with his partner Thomas Ruck, purchased Foxhaven Plantation in rural Rutherford County to expand the reach of their growing distribution of narcotics supplied by the Cali cartel in South America.
From 1986 to 1993, VanBuskirk and Ruck leveraged their cartel contacts to create what then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Russ Stoddard described as “one of the most significant smuggling operations ever . . . . [in] the United States.” Prosecutors Sue for Control of Property, Tampa Tribune.
As explained by Adams, “the drug trade [established by VanBuskirk and Ruck] evolved into an elaborate infrastructure just like other, legitimate industries – with distribution networks to the rest of the county, people who laundered money and messengers who hopped on commercial flights to return it to the Cali cartel.” SMUGGLERS: Area Favored for Landing, News-Press.
In creating these distribution networks, VanBuskirk and Ruck established major drug trafficking routes by aerial transport directly into Rutherford County Airport, as well as by creating and expanding the land transportation channels from the cartels in Atlanta, Georgia to Rutherford and McDowell Counties. Mike Sheehan, a then-Miami-based customs spokesman, predicted in the 1990’s “[t]hat infrastructure [created by VanBuskirk and Ruck] is here, and will always remain here.” His forecast proved correct, as those routes continue to operate through District 41 to this day.
VANBUSKIRK ENLISTS RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS TO DEFLECT ATTENTION FROM DRUG TRAFFICKING ENDEAVORS
In order to ensure their enterprise was not interrupted, VanBuskirk – the leader of this operation – became heavily involved with various churches and exploited prison ministries as a diversion from the underlying drug trafficking organization. VanBuskirk initially began using these tactics when connecting with Frank Costantino, who founded and ran Christian Prison Ministries and Bridges of America in Florida. Costantino was a well-known member of the Mafia and, both Costantino and VanBuskirk purported to engage in prison ministries across the country through Bill Glass Ministries. During the entirety of this relationship, VanBuskirk rapidly grew his and Ruck’s drug empire.
The same year that VanBuskirk and Ruck selected Rutherford County as their headquarters, VanBuskirk aligned himself with another notorious criminal named Jack Murphy (also known as Murf the Surf). Murphy rose to prominence in criminal circles through his theft of the J.P. Morgan gem collection, which included the largest star sapphire in the world, from New York City’s American Museum of National History, in addition to a series of heinous murders. After receiving two life sentences, Murphy had little chance of being released from prison. However, his predicament soon changed after agreeing to work with Costantino and VanBuskirk. With Costantino and VanBuskirk’s assistance, Murphy’s two life sentences ended in 1986 when he was, with no explanation, released on parole. From that point forward, Murphy worked closely with VanBuskirk and Costantino.
VanBuskirk, Costantino, and Murphy traveled the country under the guise of engaging in prison ministries while VanBuskirk aggressively grew his illegal enterprise. As described in sealed federal court documents that will not be reproduced in this article, VanBuskirk disguised the source of his wealth by peddling a false story that he had previously discovered treasure in a sunken ship. Remarkably, VanBuskirk’s charm, charisma, and contacts, along with his ties to religious organizations, was, until his death, sufficient to avoid being charged and imprisoned.
VANBUSKIRK SECURES FAVORS AND OTHER LEVERAGE FROM LOCAL OFFICIALS TO INSULATE HIS ENDEAVORS FROM INTERFERENCE BY LAW ENFORCEMENT
When VanBuskirk and Ruck first arrived in Rutherford County, VanBuskirk and another individual engaged in a property exchange in which VanBuskirk traded land for over a dozen vehicles, after which VanBuskirk quickly learned had been obtained through fraud that had been detected by the actual vehicle owners. VanBuskirk instructed other parties to address the matter by unlawful, threatening, and/or physical means.
VanBuskirk began approaching local officials, businessmen, and attorneys offering favors to ensure these individuals were beholden to him when, and if, VanBuskirk ever needed their assistance in promoting and protecting his enterprise. Those efforts would soon pay dividends.
Initially, VanBuskirk secured protection from various local law enforcement agencies. One such connection involved former Polk County Sheriff Boyce Lee Carswell. Sheriff Carswell provided officers from his department to patrol and protect VanBuskirk and Ruck at their Foxhaven Plantation compound. After being approached by an officer working for the FBI, however, the presence of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office dissipated.
By 1990, multiple federal entities had detected VanBuskirk and Ruck’s activities. In early 1993, the FBI, DEA, US Customs and Border Patrol, Coast Guard, along with assistance from local police and the SBI raided Foxhaven Plantation. In doing so, these entities began seizing a troves of collector cars, weapons, gold Krugerrands (a South African currency most often used for money laundering of drug and other proceeds), records revealing details of VanBuskirk and Ruck’s operation, and other items of interest from Foxhaven Plantation, as well as multiple airplanes from Rutherford County Airport.
As explained to RC Catalyst by one of the individuals participating in the raid on the condition of anonymity for purposes of ensuring this individual’s safety, the records included a ledger of handwritten names of individuals, including government officials, attorneys, businessmen, and others. Based on financial payments and/or contributions, as well as other forms of assistance, VanBuskirk ensured he could leverage favors from these individuals to shield him from the consequences of his illegal activities.
The particularly significant names included in the ledger include current Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Tommy Davis, former Chief District Court Judge Randy Pool, former Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Zoro Guice (in previous District 29), former Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Mark Powell (in previous District 29B), now-disbarred Attorney Marvin Sparrow, Ranson “Firpo” Epley (a former sheriff’s deputy who worked closely with former Sheriff Damon Huskey), former Polk County Sheriff Boyce Lee Carswell, and former North Carolina Governor Candidate and former North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton.
As this individual, along with others assisting in the raid, were reviewing the ledger, a remarkable turn of events occurred. Suddenly, the federal agents involved instructed all team members that a federal judge had just instructed all seizure and investigation efforts must stop and that the team members were required to immediately vacate the premises, as VanBuskirk’s counsel had allegedly agreed to a plea agreement with the government. All records, including the ledger were left on site.
Approximately 24-48 hours later, VanBuskirk’s attorney announced that VanBuskirk would not, in fact, be accepting the proposed deal. When the various law enforcement agencies returned, all records were gone, along with most assets that were in the process of being seized.
According to another reliable source speaking on the condition of anonymity, current Resident Superior Court Judge Tommy Davis’ father, who was a federal magistrate judge, i.e., Judge Toliver Davis, had deliberately interfered with the seizure process by ensuring at least three warrants were rescinded and/or rejected. While it is unclear whether one of those attempts resulted in the sudden discontinuance of the raid identified above, it appears that VanBuskirk utilized his leverage over individuals in the ledger to avoid both his enterprise and the careers of all individuals in the ledger from coming to a swift end.
ROBERT VANBUSKIRK ESCAPES FEDERAL PRISON TIME AND UTILIZES CONTACTS TO SECURE PLEA DEAL IN WHICH HE PROVIDES INFORMATION TO ENSURE CONVICTION OF THOMAS RUCK
After the raid on Foxhaven Plantation, VanBuskirk did ultimately accept a plea deal in which he agreed to provide information as to his business associate Thomas Ruck. VanBuskirk served no prison time and Ruck was charged with multiple federal violations. Realizing that he had few options, Ruck fled.
During the following years where Ruck evaded capture, he remained on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted List. Ruck did not, however, discontinue his participation in the trafficking organization that he and VanBuskirk had built. While on the run, multiple sources have confirmed that Ruck continued to fly into Rutherford County Airport with large amounts of cash and interacted with many of the local officials that remain in high level government positions to this day.
ROBERT VANBUSKIRK REALIGNS PRISON MINISTRY AFFILIATIONS TO CONTINUE DRUG TRAFFICKING AND MONEY LAUNDERING ACTIVITIES
In 2011, however, Ruck was apprehended and sentenced to a federal prison in Florida (because all records involving Ruck’s case are sealed, RC Catalyst has not yet been able to confirm the length of Ruck’s original sentence). Thereafter, VanBuskirk was able to continue with his previous activities and began participating in a different prison ministry called Kairos Prison Ministry. Undeterred by the previous events, VanBuskirk maintained his relationships with Costantino and Murphy, as well as many of the local officials identified above, including Resident Superior Court Judge Tommy Davis, former Judge Randy Pool, former Attorney Marvin Sparrow, Attorney Chris Callahan, and former Polk County Sheriff Boyce Lee Carswell.
VanBuskirk also established a relationship with a man named Duane Crithfield who participated in Kairos Prison Ministries. In addition to VanBuskirk’s other mechanisms for laundering drug proceeds, Crithfield offered a different skillset. The most alluring aspects of Crithfield’s services included the use of high-level offshore financial enterprises and investment vehicles to launder money and evade federal taxes. Enticed by what appeared as a safer laundering tool, VanBuskirk began working with Crithfield to extend his money laundering options.
In early 2013, however, Crithfield’s activities were discovered by multiple federal agencies and he was charged with multiple federal crimes. As Crithfield was apprehended, US Customs seized one of his aircrafts that contained, according to Tina VanBuskirk, approximately $10 million of VanBuskirk’s assets. This event created a rift between VanBuskirk and Crithfield from that point forward, as Crithfield utilized some of these assets to pay restitution to victims in both this case and another federal case filed against Crithfield during the same time period.
VANBUSKIRK’S CRIMINAL NETWORK BEGINS TO DISSOLVE AND THE STAGE IS SET FOR THE END
While VanBuskirk was particularly adept at maintaining and reorganizing his connections, as well as locating new affiliates, a number of troubling developments began to occur.
In 2006, VanBuskirk’s long-time connection Frank Costantino suddenly died under suspicious circumstances.
In 2009, VanBuskirk and his wife Tina VanBuskirk separated and VanBuskirk became increasingly concerned with several individuals associated with Tina VanBuskirk regarding his assets and enterprise.
Additionally, on May 2, 2011, Ruck was released from prison. In response, VanBuskirk, on May 18, 2011, filed a court document indicating that his assistance with federal agents to ensure Ruck’s conviction had been leaked to Ruck. Upon discovering VanBuskirk’s cooperation, Ruck relayed a message to VanBuskirk expressing his anger and threatening to “come get his land back without paying for it.” VanBuskirk also indicated that his former colleague Cameron Flack was holding a vehicle worth $100,000.00, in addition to $14 million, for Ruck.
Finally, as Crithfield was awaiting trial for the federal charges related to the case in which VanBuskirk had become angry about approximately $10 million of his assets being seized, Critchfield suddenly secured a special release from custody from the federal court. That release allowed Crithfield to fly to Asheville, North Carolina, where he had previously conducted business with VanBuskirk, beginning in March of 2014.
Notably, VanBuskirk, Critchfield, and Jeff Leider – another Kairos member and owner of Leider Auto Sales located in Hendersonville, North Carolina – were all aware of a large bus that VanBuskirk had filled with millions of dollars’ worth of gold Krugerrand and being housed on the lot of Leider Auto Sales.
VanBuskirk was fearful of Tina VanBuskirk’s affiliates seeking to obtain his assets, Costantino was no longer able to assist VanBuskirk in any way, Ruck was furious after discovering VanBuskirk’s Cooperation with federal agents, and Crithfield’s relationship with VanBuskirk was no longer existent – with Crithfield suddenly needing large injections of cash to subsidize his restitution payments that would soon be ordered by the court after his upcoming trial. VanBuskirk’s options began to look bleak.
VANBUSKIRK FALLS VICTIM TO CONSEQUENCES OF HIS ACTIONS AND HIS ASSOCIATES MOVE TO CONCEAL THEIR INVOLVEMENT
From May 15, 2014 to May 20, 2014, VanBuskirk was scheduled to attend a four-day Kairos Prison Ministry weekend. Attorney Chris Callahan made arrangements for VanBuskirk to reside at former Judge Randy Pool’s home during the weekend, along with several other Kairos members.
On May 16, 2014, former Judge Pool placed a call to McDowell County authorities at 5:44 am claiming that VanBuskirk had just fallen down the stairs. According to the 911 CAD report, two EMS vehicles arrived on the scene. Although the report identifies at least two paramedics arriving in the ambulance and, presumably at least one other individual arriving in the second EMS vehicle, two Marion Police Officers also responded to the scene approximately twenty-four minutes after the original call. VanBuskirk was then taken by helicopter to Mission Hospital where he laid unconscious for five days before passing away.
Former Judge Randy Pool never came to the hospital during this entire period. Attorney Chris Callahan who had made all sleeping accommodations for the weekend refused to disclose the other Kairos members that resided at former Judge Randy Pool’s home that weekend. According to Tina VanBuskirk, Attorney Chris Callahan only revealed the names of these other Kairos members after being confronted by Jack Murphy – the man who was suddenly paroled while serving two life sentences after joining Costantino and VanBuskirk’s efforts.
As Attorney Callahan was attempting to evade questions regarding these individuals by quickly leaving the hospital, he was unable to board the elevator before Murphy gave chase and aggressively demanded that Attorney Callahan provide this information. At that point, Attorney Callahan relented and agreed to provide the other Kairos members’ names.
Tina VanBuskirk attempted to contact both men. Neither agreed to come to the hospital and only one was willing to speak on the phone. During that call, the Kairos member identified by Attorney Callahan gave few details about what occurred at former Judge Pool’s home and only provided a cryptic and ambiguous statement that “I wish I had stayed several minutes longer.”
No other clarification was provided former Judge Pool for the other Kairos members staying at his home as to what caused VanBuskirk’s injury and ultimate death.
In addition to the silence from former Judge Pool, Attorney Callahan, and the other Kairos members staying at former Judge Pool’s home, the Marion Police Department claimed to have made no police report regarding the incident. Moreover, the Marion Police Department claimed that the two officers that arrived at the scene only did so to drive the ambulance while two paramedics attended to VanBuskirk in the back of the ambulance. However, according to 911 records, there were three emergency services persons at the scene – one of which would have been able to drive the ambulance while the other two paramedics attended to VanBuskirk in the back of the ambulance.
Tina VanBuskirk made repeated attempts to speak with any of the local officials on the scene and to be provided with the 911 tapes. All officers at the Marion Police Department, however, made repeated efforts to avoid speaking with Tina VanBuskirk.
Finally, Tina VanBuskirk was able to speak with an officer at the Marion Police Department who claimed that no 911 tapes existed. In continuing to seek information as to VanBuskirk’s death, Tina VanBuskirk went to the police department in person. However, she was again prevented from speaking with the officers on the scene and was informed that both were on vacation. Despite Tina VanBuskirk’s request that the officers call her immediately upon returning, neither officer did so.
Most notable, however, is that VanBuskirk’s death certificate and medical examiner report were both falsified by identifying the location of the incident as being at VanBuskirk’s home – not the home of former Judge Randy Pool at 501 E. Glenview St., Marion, NC 28752. The death certificate was filed in Buncombe County, North Carolina by the funeral home. (This is a correction to the original article – July 23). The medical examiner report actually includes two separate colors of ink – black ink for the entirety of the document and green ink to falsify the location of the incident. The death certificate was signed by Dr. Robert Moffatt.
No newspaper reports were ever published about VanBuskirk’s death. RC Catalyst spoke with a wide range of individuals in the community and almost no one knew of the suspicious details of VanBuskirk’s death. Of those who did, all but two believed that VanBuskirk had sustained the lethal injuries at his own home rather than the home of former Judge Randy Pool.
ATTEMPTS TO CONCEAL VANBUSKIRK’S FATE AND INVOLVEMENT OF LOCAL OFFICIALS BEGINS TO UNRAVEL
Tina VanBuskirk made repeated attempts to have the death certificate corrected to reflect the correct address for where the incident occurred. However, she was met with resistance by every employee she spoke with at the coroner’s office. After continuing to demand a correction, Dr. Robert Moffatt personally called Tina VanBuskirk and informed her that nothing could be done to correct the mistake and that the error was of no significance.
As VanBuskirk’s body was being prepared for the funeral, Tina VanBuskirk informed the funeral director of Dr. Moffatt’s refusal to correct the death certificate. The funeral director immediately contacted Dr. Moffat demanding the correction be made. Dr. Moffett only agreed to correct the death certificate after the funeral home director threatened to report Dr. Moffett to the North Carolina Board of Medical Examiners.
Most concerning, however, is that the gold-filled bus housed at Jeff Leider’s shop vanished during this same time period and Jeff Leider would not provide any information as to where it was relocated. Recall, the bus was filled with millions of dollars’ worth of gold Krugerrands and was being housed at Jeff Leider’s (a fellow Kairos member) auto shop.
FORMER CHIEF DISTRICT COURT RANDY POOL’S MISCONDUCT BEGINS TO REVEAL THE DEATH AND CORRUPTION THAT HAD BEEN CONCEALED FOR YEARS
As former Judge Pool’s widespread sexual exploitation of vulnerable women (that will be fully detailed in a subsequent article, along with others’ participation in former Judge Pool’s efforts) began surfacing, his decision to target VanBuskirk’s daughter-in-law, Ashley VanBuskirk, proved to the be the final mistake needed to expose over forty-years of corruption (recall that one of Daemon Huskey’s closest officers was identified in the VanBuskirk ledger), including those of the individuals mentioned above and former Judge Randy Pool.
As previously reported, former Judge Randy Pool’s efforts to extort sexual compliance from Ashley VanBuskirk resulted in Ashley VanBuskirk speaking publicly about former Judge Pool’s criminal behavior. The messages produced by Ashley VanBuskirk revealed that former Judge Randy Pool was not only soliciting additional women by utilizing his role as a sitting judge, but also demonstrated that former Judge Randy Pool was threatening multiple women that if they disclosed his conduct that he would ensure they were charged with extortion.
Rather than address former Judge Pool’s misconduct, District Attorney Ted Bell opted to charge another of former Judge Pool’s victims with extortion, while simultaneously ignoring his obligations to the countless women who have been harmed by former Judge Pool’s conduct.
After District Attorney Ted Bell filed these charges, which, as relayed to RC Catalyst by multiple other victims of former Judge Pool instilled such fear that they will not publicly come forward, Attorney Chris Callahan proceeded to directly threaten Ashley VanBuskirk, telling her that she “would back off of the Pool story if she knew what was good for her.”
Tina VanBuskirk has repeatedly stated that VanBuskirk and District Attorney Ted Bell had a strong relationship and both assisted one another based on their similar military backgrounds (and possibly other favors from VanBuskirk as provided to the other individuals described above).
Despite mounting public pressure for District Attorney Ted Bell to perform his most basic obligations to address the unlawful actions of former Judge Randy Pool, Representative David Rogers, and members of the Judicial Council (see previous articles in this series), District Attorney Ted Bell has taken no actions. Rather, District Attorney Ted Bell – the sole elected official vested with the responsibility and authority to address these issues on behalf of the citizens of this district – continues to stand silent.
Based on the broad sketch of what has transpired in our local government and why, the question of why District Attorney Ted Bell has taken no actions is of particular concern.
In the forthcoming articles discussing the full scope of former Judge Randy Pool’s coordinated and methodical exploitation of his victims, which involved multiple other individuals (some of whom have been identified in the previous articles in this series), District Attorney’s inaction will become increasingly salient.
Whether any of the elected officials involved in the actions discussed in this series to date will chose to address the issues identified in this series, voluntarily relinquish the positions they have abused, or respond to the public that elected them remains to be seen. However, RC Catalyst will continue to provide information to the public as to the full scope of the local officials’ conduct, as well as the consequences this community has endured as a result.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited at the agreement of the author and a party whose name appeared in the original version. It is the policy of the author to seek to inform the public based upon good faith adherence to journalistic ethics, and upon being contacted by the named party, the author has agreed to remove the party’s name from the article as it does not serve to substantially change the underlying content while still informing the public. (July 2021)