Two Sedgefield Middle School students say they were unfairly swept up in the investigation into the shooting of a Berkeley County deputy this week after one of the teens was singled out because his appearance was similar to a sketch of the shooter.
They were two of up to 20 teenagers who were interviewed as police searched for the gunman in the Berkeley County case.
Jameel McGee and Abraham Owens III said during a news conference Friday outside their Goose Creek school that they were pulled into the principal’s office shortly after they arrived on Wednesday. The eighth-graders claim they were targeted after they overheard a conversation on the school bus between a bus driver and driver’s aide who thought McGee looked similar to a sketch of suspected gunman Jerome Thomas Caldwell.
The teens said their bookbags and lockers were searched, and that they were questioned by both school officials and officers with the State Law Enforcement Division, some of which took place before their parents arrived.
“It made me feel like they were just picking me out because I looked similar or they said I looked similar,” McGee said.
Under state law, school officials may conduct searches of lockers or personal belongings with or without probable cause. And although school officials are required to attempt to contact students’ parents or guardians, law enforcement officers, according to school district policy, may question students before their parents arrive.
Local National Action Network president James Johnson, who called the news conference, said there are no connections between either of the boys and Caldwell, who was fatally shot by police Thursday after a lengthy standoff at a downtown Charleston apartment complex.
Caldwell is accused of shooting and critically injuring Berkeley County sheriff’s Lt. Will Rogers on May 14 outside a gas station at U.S. Highway 52 and Cypress Gardens Road near Moncks Corner.
It’s unclear exactly why the two middle schoolers got caught up in the investigation. SLED spokesman Thom Berry confirmed earlier this week that agents have been talking to as many as 20 teenagers of different ages with the permission of their parents or guardians including students at Sedgefield. On Friday, Berry said agents only questioned two students at the school.
The SLED spokesman couldn’t corroborate the teens’ story about the bus driver. He would only say that investigators received information that led them to the school and the two teens as “being individuals that may have information that may be relevant to the case.”
Berkeley County School District spokesman Chip Sturgis declined to release any information regarding the bus driver or driver’s aide, including their names, saying he cannot comment on employee matters.
Owens’ mother, Zelda Varner, said she gave consent for her son to have a DNA swab after SLED agents told her he could face charges if he didn’t cooperate.
“I was scared because I didn’t want them to think that we were hiding anything so I told them that they could,” Varner said, saying she and her son had “nothing to hide.”
Chaplain Elaine Barnett, who is McGee’s cousin, said that her relative’s DNA was not taken by officers because his mother, who wasn’t at the news conference Friday, didn’t give permission.
Barnett said she and McGee’s mother requested to see the surveillance video from the school bus, but that district officials wouldn’t let them view it. Sturgis said the video has since been turned over to SLED.
Varner, Owens’ mother, wondered if maybe her son was of interest because their home is a few miles from where Rogers was shot.
Johnson called for the DNA sample taken from Owens to be destroyed. And the civil rights leader demanded better policies to protect students’ rights at school, saying the 15-year-olds shouldn’t have been questioned without their parents or a guardian being present.
Berry confirmed that only one of the two teens’ parents gave consent for a DNA test for which his family was present. The DNA test from Owens was taken prior to confirmation Wednesday evening of a DNA match linking Caldwell to the shooting. Berry said Owens’ DNA sample was not a match to a sample from the crime scene and that if it hadn’t already been destroyed, it would be soon.
But Johnson questioned why investigators sought out the teens at all when they had already begun to zero in on Caldwell.
“It just don’t add up why they would come up to these two people here wanting DNA samples,” Johnson said.
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.