COLUMBIA - When "Big" Sam Parker was elected sheriff of Chesterfield County in South Carolina in 2002, he wanted to make good on his promise to help the place where he lived his life.
Parker obtained a helicopter, guns and other equipment for his department. He recruited people to help his deputies out for big events like high school football games. And Parker did favors for inmates who earned his trust in the county jail, even flying one of them on his plane to see his sick mother.
But prosecutors who will be trying Parker on several criminal charges starting Monday see the sheriff's actions in a different light. They say he gave away those guns without filing the proper paperwork, allowed people to act as deputies without proper training and allowed his inmates too many perks.
Parker is one of seven sheriffs of South Carolina's 46 counties to face charges or criminal investigations in the past four years. Privately, sheriffs across the state have grumbled that their behavior has been scrutinized too closely and prosecutors have used a vague law to criminalize policy violations. Parker's own lawyer suggested after his arrest in March 2013 that sheriffs in rural areas had done similar things for decades and he was being singled out for some reason.
While most of the other sheriffs pleaded guilty, avoided jail time and quietly faded away, Parker is fighting back, risking the possibility of spending time on the other side of the law to save his 40-year policing career.
"Sam is looking forward to getting his side of the story in front of an objective jury," his defense attorney Johnny Gasser said.
Parker is charged with five counts of misconduct in office, two counts of furnishing contraband to inmates and one count of embezzlement. The misconduct and contraband charges each carry up to 10 years in prison and the embezzlement charge has a maximum five-year punishment. The investigation into Parker began when that inmate he had helped to see his sick mother became mad after the sheriff punished him for a violation and went to authorities. The same State Law Enforcement Division that Parker retired from after 12 years as an agent began a wide-reaching probe.
The prisoner, who was serving 15 years for arson and was sent to Chesterfield County to help with tasks like fixing cars and maintaining county property, told investigators he was allowed to drink alcohol, sleep outside the jail, use an iPad and have unsupervised visits with women, according to an indictment against Parker.
Parker also gave away confiscated weapons, including an M-14 semi-automatic rifle, to friends who were not deputies, prosecutors said.
Parker also allowed people that he called reserve deputies to wear police uniforms and carry badges even though they did not have any training to be law officers, according to the indictment. The allegations against Parker stunned his fellow sheriffs, who meet several times a year for training and to swap stories.
"I've never known him to drink; I've never known him to smoke. I've always known him to be in church and I've always known him to be straight down the line. That's why I'm interested to see what happens next week and whether all this stuff in the paper really happened," said Fred Knight, sheriff of neighboring Marlboro County. Knight and Parker knew each other. Knight's police career started as an officer in Cheraw, the largest city in Chesterfield County. They each worked at SLED, with Parker becoming sheriff in 2003 and Knight voted in as sheriff two years later.
Parker was zealous about protecting Chesterfield County, which has about 47,000 people far away from major cities - 60 miles from Charlotte, N.C., and 70 miles from Columbia. He trained and equipped one of the best SWAT teams in the state and some of the best tracking dogs. He got a military surplus helicopter and could often be found hanging out the window at the controls, looking for suspects.
And since he was isolated from much of the rest of the state, he shared those assets with neighboring counties. Marlboro County deputies said if they needed to interview an entire neighborhood, Parker sent as many officers as he could.
"He'd be right there with his SWAT team suited up," said Marlboro County Sheriff's Lt. Jamie Scales.
Parker voluntarily stepped aside when he was indicted so the governor wouldn't have to suspend him. But he wants his job back. If he is found not guilty, he will ask Gov. Nikki Haley to put him right back in office. And last month, he walked into the county election offices and paid $2,700 to file as the only Republican seeking a four-year term for sheriff. Four Democrats also signed up.
Because as Parker said as he sought re-election the first time in 2006, being sheriff was a lifelong dream.
"I'm a working sheriff," he said. "I'm here for the people and not for the power."