MONCKS CORNER — Who is James Sanders, the wily and charming inmate who hung out at hospitals after escaping the Berkeley County jail last year?
That was the question a judge asked after listening to conflicting descriptions Monday.
“I don’t know what you are,” Circuit Judge Markley Dennis told Sanders before sentencing him to 3½ years in prison. “Part of your life conforms with what you said and part of it doesn’t.”
Sanders, 40, of Ridgeville, presented himself as a nice guy who has learned to get his impulses under control since being put on Prozac. He was put in jail for criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature in July 2011 after beating his former girlfriend so badly he broke her nose and other facial bones. Sanders, wearing a yellow jump suit with “Maximum Security” on the back, told the judge that’s all behind him now.
“What I’m trying to tell you, sir, is I’m not a violent person,” he said during an animated monologue.
He pleaded guilty to three charges — criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, failure to stop for a blue light and common-law escape — and asked the judge to let him go free after 526 days in jail. He faced up to 13 years in prison on all the charges, considering some of the sentences would have run concurrently.
His attorney, Public Defender Chad Shelton, brought up a psychiatrist to testify that tests show that Sanders’ capacity for violence is below average.
Sanders’ ex-wife said he never became violent in their eight years of marriage, and all he wants to do is be a father to their 8-year-old daughter.
Sander’s ex-girlfriend presented a different picture.
“I fear for my life,” she said. “He’s very dangerous. He needs to go to a mental hospital.”
Markley didn’t give Sanders any additional time for the criminal-domestic violence charge. He gave him credit for time served and put him on probation for five years with random drug and alcohol testing.
The judge also didn’t give Sanders any additional time for failing to stop for a blue light after an officer tried to arrest him a few days after his girlfriend complained. Sanders led officers on a high-speed chase before being stopped with spikes in the road. Sanders also got credit for time served on that charge.
After Sanders was arrested for beating his girlfriend and running from officers, he got out of jail on bail with GPS monitoring. He was soon back in jail because he failed to keep the device charged.
About six months later, he managed to wriggle out of his handcuffs and walk out of the Hill-Finklea Detention Center. Deputies later said they thought he was being released and changed some procedures to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Sanders hitched a ride to Medical University Hospital, where he took refuge in the waiting room for two days, according to video at the hospital.
Then he made his way up to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, where he posed as the brother of a comatose patient for about two weeks, enjoying free hospital meals and laundry service and hitting up other visitors for money during his ruse. That caper ended when the patient woke up and a relative alerted hospital officials about the imposter.
Myrtle Beach police tracked Sanders down several days later after a woman said somebody stole her wallet at Broadway on the Beach. Sanders was arrested and returned to the Berkeley County jail.
During Monday’s hearing, Sanders’ attorney said he escaped because he was afraid of going to prison and panicked at the thought of being separated from his daughter.
Sanders told the judge people he met while on the lam called him charming.
The judge didn’t buy it.
“You weren’t being a good guy,” Markley said. “You knew everybody was looking for you.”
He sentenced Sanders to five years in prison on the escape charge, minus the year and a half he’s already spent in jail.
Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or twitter.com/dmunday.
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