Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt resigns; personnel records document past allegations

Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt is seen in a jail booking photo after his Dec. 28 arrest on a drunken driving charge. (CANNON DETENTION CENTER/PROVIDED)

Saying he had cast a cloud over his post as Berkeley County’s sheriff, Wayne DeWitt resigned Wednesday, more than a month after his drunken driving arrest.

DeWitt, who had served as sheriff for 20 years, had resisted community members’ calls for him to step down after the ordeal Dec. 28, when his county pickup was seen speeding from a police car at 108 mph after he fled from a crash site.

He had vowed to restore the public’s trust in him, but he said Wednesday that the only way he could do that was to resign.

“I know and understand the entire situation is the product of my own failures,” he said in a statement. “As an elected official, as sheriff and as a person, I recognize that I must be held accountable. ... I can no longer be an effective public servant regardless of how the legal process unfolds.”

Who Gov. Nikki Haley would pick to replace DeWitt wasn’t immediately known. But Chief Deputy Rick Ollic, who had been the second in command at the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, said late Wednesday that he had assumed the role of interim sheriff.

Though his resignation letter to Haley indicated that his decision had been in the works since mid-January, DeWitt’s public announcement came within minutes of the county’s release of documents indicating that his time as a deputy in Berkeley County had ended in early 1990s after two disciplinary measures. One had resulted from a female co-worker’s sexual harassment claim that he likened to “horseplay.”

He resigned shortly after that and returned two years later after his election as sheriff, but allegations involving sexual harassment would come again in 2003, when a deputy accused him in a federal lawsuit of firing her for filing a claim against a supervisor.

The Post and Courier obtained the nearly 400 pages of personnel documents about DeWitt under a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request.

The newspaper’s attempts to contact DeWitt’s attorney, Gedney Howe, by telephone and by email were not successful.

Haley accepted DeWitt’s resignation and responded by writing in a letter that his “seat shall be filled in the manner according to law.” She has the authority to appoint his replacement until a special election can be held.

Ollic said he would serve as the county’s top law enforcement officer until Haley made her decision.

“We’re still doing what we need to do to take care of the citizens of the county,” Ollic said. “It’s difficult when these things happen. But the important thing is to keep our employees moving in the right direction.

County Supervisor Bill Peagler said he had reached out to Haley to offer “full support and assistance while she decides how to replace the sheriff.” He thanked DeWitt for 40 years of service and vowed to work with his successor.

“We are grateful for the incredible deputies ... who have continued to provide excellent service to Berkeley County residents despite the distractions,” Peagler said in a statement. “I hope (Wednesday’s) resignation will allow our sheriff deputies to continue their great work in protecting the residents of Berkeley County without distraction.”

The development came before any public word on whether prosecutors would pursue grand jury indictments against DeWitt on misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and leaving the scene where his pickup rear-ended a small sedan and possibly injured its driver. By law, the governor would have the authority to suspend a sheriff indicted for a crime of “moral turpitude.”

It also came amid a state investigation into how the Hanahan Police Department, who stopped DeWitt’s pickup after a pursuit that last more than two minutes and 2 miles, handled the case. The department chose not to arrest DeWitt on a count of failure to stop for blue lights.

Video footage later showed the sheriff swaying and stumbling during a field sobriety test that ended when a S.C. Highway Patrol trooper put him in handcuffs.

Thomas Dixon, an activist who heads The Coalition: People United to Take Back Our Community, has participated in at least four rallies against DeWitt since the arrest. He said that he appreciated the sheriff’s resignation but that several issues remained, including the probe into Hanahan’s role in the stop.

“This fight is not over, to say the least,” he said, adding that more protests were planned for DeWitt’s court date next week. “I just rolled up my sleeves as soon as I heard the news.”

He also urged DeWitt to give back the salary he earned during the time since his arrest.

“It’s about fairness,” Dixon said. “I would feel this way about anyone. No one should benefit in any way from criminal activity.”

Members of the Berkeley County Council supported DeWitt’s resignation, and some continued to stand by him.

Caldwell Pinckney of Cross said he agreed with the move as the best decision for county residents.

“It’s unfortunate,” Pinckney said, “but there again, sometimes we have to make those decisions.”

Councilman Tommy Newell of Ladson said the sheriff’s move should help the county’s law agency move past the ordeal and “focus on serving and protecting our residents.”

Dennis Fish, a councilman from Goose Creek, said he had always supported DeWitt and still respected him.

“I’ve always found him to be a real honest and honorable man,” Fish said. “It was probably a stupid mistake, and I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

At the start of DeWitt’s four decades at the Sheriff’s Office, his supervisors gave him high marks as he rose through the ranks of the agency that he would later command.

But within about six months in the early 1990s, he was disciplined twice and demoted after a co-worker accused him of so frequently fondling her that other employees started to think they could do it, too, according to the performance records that the county released Wednesday under the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request.

DeWitt fell from the agency’s chief deputy in charge of 37 employees to a lieutenant who supervised seven before he resigned in July 1992, two years before he would successfully run for election as the county’s top lawman.

But most of the 94 pages of information in DeWitt’s performance file pertained to the time before he was sheriff.

From his hiring in 1974, DeWitt got above-average ratings on evaluation forms and was often recommended for salary increases.

A decade later, Sheriff M.C. Cannon called him “one of our most valued employees,” according to one form. DeWitt assumed the role as chief deputy in 1988, when Cannon said he was “most deserving” of the post.

Meanwhile, community members wrote letters to the sheriff that referred to DeWitt as a “dedicated volunteer” for the United Way.

But his career there took a turn under the next sheriff, Ray Isgett.

The woman filed the sexual harassment complaint in February 1991, when she wrote that he at times “grabbed me or patted me on the breasts and buttocks.” The woman regarded the touching to be in jest, but it made her “very uncomfortable.”

“Other officers had seen this happen and were starting to get the idea that they too could do this,” she wrote. “I wanted it to stop.”

DeWitt wrote in response to the complaint that he had known the woman for years and constantly “joked” with her. He had no intentions of making any sexual advances, he wrote.

“Anything ever done by me was strictly in play,” he wrote. “There will be no further ‘horseplay’ or otherwise on my part. ... It’s over.”

He was faulted again that year for not following procedures for procuring a warrant, according to the county paperwork. He was demoted from captain of the patrol division to a squad supervisor.

Supervisors gave him below-average marks in eight of 10 performance categories, including leadership.

During the same span, DeWitt also got into a crash with his cruiser. A review board involving sheriff’s commanders and a state trooper, though, found him “non-negligent.”

But lingering injuries kept DeWitt out of work for a while. He resigned in 1992, saying he could no longer continue in his post because of the crash.

DeWitt would return after his election in 1994, but his performance file includes only two documents from his time as sheriff.

One from May 2000 indicated that DeWitt’s driver’s license was clear of any violations.

In the other, a letter dated February 1995, a resident expressed pleasure with DeWitt’s action that overrode a decision about an investigation that was made under the previous sheriff. The letter writer told DeWitt that the county would “be fortunate to have you as our sheriff for many years to come.”

But allegations involving sexual harassment would rise again — though indirectly — during his tenure.

A woman who worked on the sheriff’s courthouse security detail during separate stints in the late 1990s and early 2000s sued the agency in 2003, alleging that a lieutenant sexually harassed her and that DeWitt retaliated against her when she complained about it.

But a human resources worker tasked by DeWitt to investigate the accuser’s claims found that she also inappropriately touched and sent messages to the lieutenant, according to court paperwork. DeWitt asked both deputies to resign or face termination. The lieutenant resigned, and the woman was fired.

The woman eventually settled her federal lawsuit against the lieutenant, but a judge dismissed her claims against DeWitt, finding that her evidence didn’t show that the sheriff “demonstrated ‘deliberate indifference’ to a risk that women like (her) were being sexually harassed.”

Brenda Rindge and Melissa Boughton contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.