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By Kathy Ropp
A former Conway attorney says having several hundred thousand dollars embezzled from his law firm coupled with mental illness sent him into a downward spiral that resulted in his trying to hire a hit man to kill a former law partner.
Irby Walker, 59, of the 2500 block of Jordanville Road, Conway was sentenced to three years in jail and five years probation with instructions to continue with his medications and to have no contact with his target attorney Douglas Thornton. Walker pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit felony murder in Charleston Monday afternoon.
About 25 people, including media, traveled to Charleston for the court proceeding after all local judges chose not to hear the matter.
After the lengthy court proceeding, 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Greg Hembree said the case was a difficult one to sentence, but said Circuit Judge Roger Young was “right on track.”
Walker could have gotten 10 years on the charge, which is a misdemeanor.
At least one member of the Thornton family, Doug Thornton’s son, Chace Thornton, was disappointed with the sentence.
“I just don’t think it’s long enough,” he said. “Three years for trying to kill three people doesn’t seem like enough…I don’t think anything my dad did was bad enough to have somebody try to kill him,” he said.
Doug Thornton said he didn’t think Walker made a sincere attempt at apologizing during his comments to the judge. He said he still doesn’t know Walker’s motives.
“It was bizarre,” he said, adding that the whole incident has disrupted his family and impacted his business.
“Some comments, I don’t know where they came from. I think he’s still thinking irrationally,” Thornton said after hearing Walker’s side of the story.
Walker and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Martin told the judge that Walker has suffered from mental illness since he was young, but was determined to do well in life and pressed forward with college and law school.
He said he talked with Walker, his wife and others, viewed a surveillance tape made by police and listened to another in which Walker talked with a police informant about paying him $10,000 to have Thornton killed. At one point, he tells the “hit man” to kill everybody in Thornton’s office, but then backs up and asks him not to kill one of the secretaries.
Martin said Walker had early mood disturbances, but until 2005 was able to function. At about that time, he started having trouble with his family and office staff and asked his doctor for help.
The doctor prescribed an anti-depressant with an anti-anxiety element. By 2009 Walker realized that he needed a psychiatrist due to his irritability, hyperactivity and trouble sleeping.
That doctor diagnosed him with adult attention deficit disorder and prescribed a psychostimulant for Walker.
Walker thought he saw himself getting better when he began taking the medicine so he asked for and got more medicine as he moved toward a clear manic episode, Martin said, adding that Walker had a total personality change.
The forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Walker’s problem as bipolar disorder and said Walker didn’t appreciate the ease with which he would be nabbed for such a “ludicrous” plan.
After his arrest, Walker checked himself into the Palmetto Lowcountry system in a depressive state made worse by his having been arrested.
Doctors there prescribed Seraquel (for bipolar disorder) for him and he is still taking it, along with Zoloft (for depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder) and medications for blood pressure, enlarged prostate and gastroesophageal reflux.
Walker also underwent outpatient treatment with the Palmetto system and until Monday afternoon had been visiting the clinic on a regular basis.
Martin told Young that having the wrong medication contributed to Walker’s actions, but he also said that Walker knew the difference in right and wrong at the time of the incident and was deemed competent to stand trial.
Walker’s attorney Frank McMaster of Columbia told Young that Walker’s life began crushing down on him after he learned that a trusted employee had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from his office accounts, he developed problems with the IRS, his accounts were frozen, he couldn’t meet his payroll and he began having personal problems within his family.
“Irby Walker in some fashion began to see Mr. Thornton as the driving force behind his problems,” McMaster said.
(The Horry County public index shows charges pending against Jessamine B. Johnson for breach of trust with fraudulent intent, $5,000 or more, and criminal conspiracy.)
McMaster said Walker’s family, Thornton and his family have all suffered because of Walker’s actions, and Walker’s problems will probably haunt him for the rest of his life.
Walker will not ever be allowed to practice law again and has no way to earn a living. He was also personally responsible for replacing the lost money and didn’t have the money to cover it, according to testimony.
In fact, he didn’t have enough money to pay the hit man. He had agreed to pay $5,000 before the job and another $5,000 after the job, but he could only come up with $500 in cash. He gave that to the informant that he believed to be a hit man and then wrote him two checks for the rest of the fee.
“From this point on he’s probably going to be remembered as that crazy lawyer who tried to hire someone to kill anther lawyer…He’s going to be stuck with that for the rest of his life,” McMaster said.
Walker’s wife of 34 years said her husband is the kindest, gentlest man she’s ever known. She said she noticed some months before the incident that her husband was having some problems. She knew he wasn’t himself. She says he hit a rapid downward spiral after the office money turned up missing.
“He’s a good and decent, honorable man,” she said.
Solicitor Greg Hembree called the incident a tragic and serious case and said it could have turned out even worse than it did.
He said Thornton was suspended from the practice of law at one point and after he was reinstated Walker invited him to share an office with him.
At some point they parted ways and animosity remained.
Walker then turned to a friend who hung around his office. Hembree says Walker thought the friend had “mob connections” so he talked with him about taking care of Thornton.
Walker’s friend thought he was serious and eventually decided he couldn’t blow off his request. That’s when he warned Thornton about Walker’s plans. Thornton went to Horry County police who set up the friend as a confidential informant who then filmed and taped his conversation with Walker.
Hembree called the tapes “nothing less than chilling.”
Hembree said Walker made a full confession as soon as police confronted him.
Thornton said ever since Walker was arrested a common question has been, what did he do to make Walker so mad?
“Doug must have done something,” Thornton quoted others as saying.
He said he had his law license suspended for six months and one day, but it took five years to finally get it back. He said Walker was supposed to help him get it back, but he eventually handled the problem himself after Walker tarried.
After being in Walker’s office for three or four months, Thornton said he began to notice a lot of angry clients and other things going on there.
He said he talked with Walker about the problems and he seemed receptive, but his wife and daughter who worked in the office got mad so he backed off.
He said he paid Walker about $3,500 a month rent for the office. He referred to one situation in which a client was very angry because she lost custody of a child because Walker hadn’t filed papers he was supposed to.
He said he told one woman and her mother than Walker’s behavior in their case had been unethical.
He said no one in Walker’s family, Walker himself or his friends had made any attempt to apologize to him.
“He intended for me to be killed and he intended to get away with it…He would have been happy as a clam and I am convinced of that,” Thornton said.
He expressed concern that time in jail might make things worse and Walker might get out and try harder next time.
Young also wasn’t impressed with Walker’s attempts to apologize. Until Walker’s final comment to the court when he said he was sorry, Young said Walker’s apology was the worst he ever heard. He said all Walker talked about when he addressed the court was himself.
After almost two hours of listening to the case, Young said he still didn’t understand why Walker thought he needed to have Thornton killed.
“This is a serious crime in my way of thinking. You should have known better,” Young told Walker, adding that as a lawyer Walker should be held to a higher standard.
Young said he took into consideration that mental instability factored into the crime, but said he felt that Walker had more things he wanted to tell him about how Thornton had brought about what happened.
“I tell you that bothers me,” he said.
The legal misconduct admitted to by Conway attorney Irby Walker included his trying to hire a hit man to murder Conway attorney Doug Thornton, according to Monday’s ruling.
Walker pleaded guilty to the solicitation and was sentenced to three years in prison last year and ordered to undergo mental health counseling.
Walker and Thornton shared an office when they represented opposing sides in a divorce, the situation that at least contributed to Walker seeking someone to kill Thornton, according to testimony at Walker’s trial.
Additionally, according to records from the Supreme Court, Walker and his client in the divorce went to Thornton’s client and convinced her to fire Thornton and reach an agreement with her husband.
Walker told the wife not to tell anyone of their visit and prepared a quit claim deed for the husband to sign as part of the settlement, even though he no longer represented the husband, the ruling said.
Other misconduct included not representing clients adequately; guaranteeing a loan to a client; accepting a retainer from clients and not depositing it into his trust account and failing to quickly respond to a dying man, who hired Walker to pursue a divorce against his wife, who the client believed was poisoning him.
The man died before Walker filed anything or performed any work on the case, the ruling stated.
A forensic psychiatrist testified at Walker’s trial that he believed Walker suffered from bipolar disease and was on the wrong medication at the time he tried to have Thornton killed.
His attorney said the solicitation was due to the disease and the fact that an employee had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from him.
The Supreme Court ruling also noted the embezzlement and said that it was at least partly due to Walker’s lack of oversight of his business.
Walker was disbarred effective Sept. 18, 2009, the date of his interim suspension, the Supreme Court ruled.
The high court order forbids him from seeking reinstatement of his legal privileges until he has completed his criminal sentence, which includes five years supervised probation after his active time, and reimbursed parties affected by the misappropriation of funds from his trust account, the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Commission on Lawyer Conduct.