The man who blocked the Ravenel Bridge for hours last month says he is sorry for inconveniencing thousands of motorists but felt he had no other option to draw attention to his desperate plight.
Phillip DeClemente said he wasn't suicidal, didn't have a bomb and had no plans to harm the bridge when he brought his Lexus sport utility vehicle to a screeching halt atop the span at the start of rush hour on Feb. 2. He said he was just trying to bring attention to what he described as a smear campaign waged against him, ongoing police harassment and how state law gives private investigators "an unlimited hall pass" to go after people.
"I knew what I was doing. I knew I was going to bottleneck everything," he said during an interview at The Post and Courier this morning. "But I was desperate to bring attention to the injustice in this case."
In his first public statement since the incident on the bridge, DeClemente described a tangled tale of surveillance, betrayal and desperation. He volunteered to tell his story during an interview at the newspaper and came armed with videos, police reports and court documents to support what he said was a vendetta against him. He wore a gray Charleston County Rescue Squad T-shirt and spoke rapidly about the events leading up to his drive on the bridge.
He was not accompanied by an attorney, and DeClemente said he is facing no criminal charges as a result of the bridge incident.
DeClemente, a former Charleston County Rescue Squad worker, said he tried to share his concerns with the State Law Enforcement Division, the FBI and others, but no one would listen. His trip to the bridge that day was designed to force a showdown with a private investigator he had a falling out with. He blames this dispute for a host of problems that ruined his life over the past two years.
That investigator, David Leaird, said DeClemente's allegations are false and the product of his troubled imagination. "I never followed him. He has all kinds of problems. Right now he's in such a bad place." He said that DeClemente was never his partner, as DeClemente claims.
DeClemente's stunt forced police to close the bridge as they tried to talk him into surrendering, leaving thousands of gridlocked motorists stuck in traffic. With the words "Stay Away," "Back Off," "Game Over" painted on the windows of his Lexus, the 38-year-old Mount Pleasant man held police at bay for more than two hours before surrendering.
DeClemente spent 30 days in Medical University of South Carolina's psychiatric unit as a result of the incident. He said he was discharged about a week ago after doctors determined he had no mental illness and posed no danger to himself or others. The Post and Courier was not immediately able to verify details about his discharge.
He said his problems began while he was working on a messy divorce case with Leaird. They were working for the husband, but DeClemente became sympathetic toward the wife's situation. He eventually sided with her, leaving bad blood between him and his partner, he said.
Leaird told Charleston County sheriff's deputies that DeClemente started harassing him and his family in November 2010. He accused DeClemente of threatening to stab him in the neck with a pen during an argument over money, according to police reports.
Leaird accused DeClemente of following him around over the next several months, stealing equipment from his business and threatening to kill him and "blow his head off," according to an arrest affidavit. Leaird also reported finding a GPS device planted on his van.
Deputies arrested DeClemente in January 2011 on two counts of stalking. Prosecutors later dismissed the charges, and DeClemente pleaded guilty in August to second-degree harassment. He was sentenced to time served, court documents show.
DeClemente insists he was never stalking Leaird, whom he described as a brilliant investigator.
DeClemente showed reporters a video Leaird shot of him during an encounter in traffic in West Ashley. He said Leaird was trying to provoke him. Leaird is heard on the tape calling police to report DeClemente harassing him. It's unclear from the tape who was following who that morning, and Leaird told The Post and Courier that he happened to encounter him as he turned out of a fast-food restaurant. Concerned about DeClemente's behavior, Leaird said he videotaped him whenever he saw him.
DeClemente said he had no weapons when he drove onto the bridge and told police that at the start of the standoff. Police noted he had pepper spray and a smoke grenade in the vehicle, but DeClemente said those had been there for some time.
DeClemente said he was following the police response on his police scanner and finally decided to give up when he heard the police SWAT team getting into position. Before he did so, he rammed his SUV into the side of the bridge. DeClemente said that occurred after he spoke with Leaird by phone and Leaird refused to meet him on the bridge.
During the standoff, DeClemente said, he tried to block out the pressure from outside and not think about his friends and loved ones worrying about him. "I had to stay completely focused," he said.
DeClemente said his chief regret is that he didn't call the media sooner to let people know what he was doing.
"I apologize to the people who were bottle-necked out there," he said. "But it did bring attention to what I was going through."