When Lawrence Edward Lee fell behind in alimony payments to his former wife, federal agents said he started talking about killing her.
Lee, 62, a property developer, first broached his thoughts to a worker who was renovating a house of his in West Ashley, the agents said.
The alleged plans would be hatched over weeks.
The worker would find a hit man, an FBI agent testified Monday. With Lee out of town, the hit man would go to his ex-wife's North Charleston house and kill everyone inside, Agent David Olsen said.
It didn't matter if Lee's daughters or granddaughters were visiting, Olsen said. It had to look like a home invasion - spillover violence from nearby high-crime neighborhoods.
"If anyone was in that house when the hit man entered," Olsen said, "anyone there who could be an eyewitness would be killed."
A murder never came to fruition because Lee's employee had been recording their discussions since mid-March.
Lee was arrested Wednesday, seven days after he gave the alleged middle man a down payment of $5,000, Olsen said. The Folly Beach resident and Air Force veteran faces a federal charge of using an interstate commerce facility - his cellphone - in the commission of murder for hire.
Laid out Monday during a preliminary hearing, the scheme is the third of its kind in the past year in the Charleston area.
Lee's ex-wife, Nora Lee, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks that she feared what would happen if Lee were released from jail. His attorneys did not immediately ask for bail.
She also feared going home. Every time she sees the back door, she said, she envisions someone barging through it and stabbing her to death. It's unclear whether the alleged plot involved a knife.
"I have not been able to sleep," she said through tears. "I don't have words to describe how it feels when someone hates you so much that they want you murdered."
Worried about Lee's connections with local police officials, the alleged middle man first told an attorney about the allegations, Olsen testified. It was passed on to the Mount Pleasant Police Department, then to the FBI.
Following Olsen's instructions, the worker later recorded three of his conversations with Lee. What they were talking about was clear, he said.
"Mr. Lee liked to talk about killing his ex-wife," Olsen said.
Lee sometimes set up meetings through text messages, the agent said.
He talked about taking money from his lawn business in Kentucky to pay the hit man because he could hide the withdrawal from his ex-wife's divorce attorneys, Olsen said. The two had been divorced in Indiana, where a hearing was planned for April 11 because Lee was behind in alimony, he added.
On March 26, Olsen said, Lee showed the alleged middle man a Walther Arms pistol, which the FBI later found when they searched Lee's house.
Lee once drove the worker to North Charleston and pointed out his ex-wife's home, Olsen said. He showed the man a photograph of his ex-wife on Facebook, the agent said.
On April 2, Lee gave the worker 50 $100 bills in an encounter that was secretly filmed, Olsen said.
His attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, pointed out that the worker often accepted his pay from Lee in cash.
Through it all, Olsen said Lee was concerned about an alibi. His plan, the agent explained, was for the hit to go down while he was taking trips to Myrtle Beach for a golf tournament and to Texas.
After Olsen's testimony, Lee's three daughters and his ex-wife stood in front of the magistrate, cried and expressed fear of the man they once loved.
Lee's oldest daughter, April Ramirez, said that having children posed many random fears. But the thought of her own 2-month-old daughter being in a house when a hit man came was all too real.
"I'm terrified, horrified and scared," Ramirez said. "I can't even go out in my front yard to water my flowers."
Angela Hamric said her own daughter sleeps with her at night. They barricade their bedroom door with furniture.
"I realize that man is no longer my father," she said, "but a threat to my family."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.