A former Lincoln County district judge indicted on charges of cattle theft, forgery and embezzling money from a client has relinquished his law license. A multi-county grand jury in April indicted Craig Steven Key on three counts of delivering a forged instrument, two counts of embezzlement, conspiracy to commit larceny of domestic animals, and larceny of domestic animals.
According to an indictment, Key, 47, of Chandler, conspired with Joshua E. Anderson, 36, of Agra and Leslie Bottger, 47, of Agra to steal a livestock trailer and 13 head of cattle in September, 2012. Key allegedly gave the Anderson $200 for expenses involved in stealing the cattle. The cattle were stored at Key’s Lilliebridge Farm, the document states. Key allegedly exchanged a text message with one of the men instructing him to store the stolen trailer at Key’s farm where, according to the document, one of the men started painting it in preparation for efforts to sell the stolen cattle.
The indictment says another man, Brandon R. Dawson, 42, also of Chandler then hauled the cattle to Waurika Livestock Commission Company in Jefferson County, where he failed to find a buyer. When he was approached by enforcement officers from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, he is alleged to have used a cell phone to text Key.
“Cops Just Came In,” Dawson allegedly texted.
“Leave,” the former judge is reported to have replied.
Another indictment says Key allegedly forged signatures on a check he’d received from clients as an insurance settlement to pay their medical bills. He deposited the $57,238.03 check in his client trust account then used the money for other purposes, the document alleges.
A third indictment alleges Key without the client’s permission forged a client’s signature on two checks totaling $52,000, intended to pay medical costs associated with a personal injury claim. The indictment alleges Key used $14,345 of the money for something other than the client’s medical costs.
Key in April surrendered at the Lincoln County Courthouse where he had formerly served as a judge. He was released on $10,000 bond with orders to wear an ankle bracelet equipped with a GPS tracking device.
Key’s attorney, Cheryl Ramsey of Stillwater, told the Associated Press Key plans to fight the charges. She said the grand jury heard only one side of the story.
Potential penalties in the various cases include fines and 10 years for the conspiracy charge, 10 years on one of the embezzlement charges, five years on each of the forgery counts, and five years on the other embezzlement charges.
In addition to grievances the Oklahoma Bar Association’s General Counsel filed in connection with the criminal indictments, and grievances filed by clients in relation to those matters, Key acknowledged to the Oklahoma Supreme Court he was aware of several other professional grievances filed against him. Those included complaints that he:
- failed to earn or return a $3,500 retainer from a client with whom he then failed to communicate,
- overdrafted a client trust account by $5,482.24,
- failed to promptly handle settlement funds for another client then wrote a check for medical expenses in that matter that was returned for insufficient funds,
- neglected a client’s lawsuit, resulting in dismissal, and failed to disclose a conflict of interest when he represented the client’s wife in a divorce proceeding,
- made misrepresentations about refunding an unearned fee of $1,000 in a quiet title suit, and may have diverted the money for his personal use,
- neglected a family law matter and failed to earn a $2,500 retainer fee,
- missed the statute of limitations in a personal injury claim then lied to a client about having settled the case, giving them checks for $12,635.30 to hide his neglect of their legal matter.
As a judge, Key had faced scrutiny from voters and the media for his role in returning 2-year-old Kelsey Smith-Briggs to her biological mother in June, 2005. The toddler died four months later. Her death was ruled homicide. Her mother, Raye Dawn Smith, was convicted of enabling child abuse and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Her stepfather, initially charged with sexual assault and first degree murder, pleaded guilty in 2007 to enabling child abuse and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In response to outcry about the case the Oklahoma legislature in 2006 passed the Kelsey Smith-Briggs Child Protection Reform Act that changed the way the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and Oklahoma courts respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect.
After three years on the bench, Key lost re-election in 2006, with media reports widely attributing his failed re-election bid to his handling of the Smith-Brigg’s case. Key in 2007 authored a book about the case titled A Deadly Game of Tug of War.