Al Cannon picked his way through the thick brush, pushing aside branches and debris as he waded farther into the West Ashley woods in search of a woman he never met.
The emergency workers who had scoured this scrubby acreage for days were gone, as were the television crews who’d followed their every move.
On this warm Saturday afternoon, it was just Cannon, his black shepherd “Miss Priss” and a whole lot of ground to cover.
Cannon, Charleston County’s sheriff for 24 years, knew chances were slim that he’d find something hundreds of others had missed in the search for Gayle McCaffrey. But he had to look for the mother of two, who disappeared in March, if there were some chance of finding answers for her family,
“I don’t want to sit there doing nothing. I want to get out and do my part,” he said. “I’ve always been that way. If I find out something’s going on, I go.”
This hands-on approach has been a hallmark of Cannon’s nearly quarter-century tenure as the county’s top cop, earning him the respect of many in the community and an easy ride to re-election in past races.
But Cannon’s style has drawn critics as well. And at few times in his career has that been more evident than this past year.
The veteran lawman is under investigation for slapping a handcuffed suspect in a moment of anger after a sprawling car chase that reached speeds of 133 mph — a move one expert contends is worthy of a criminal charge.
Cannon also faces hard questions from a former-deputy-turned-opponent about his agency’s backlog of some 35,000 outstanding arrest warrants. And he’s become the public face of two high-profile homicide investigations that have failed to produce an arrest.
The first involves an October shooting that killed 5-year-old Allison Griffor as she slept in her West Ashley home. The second involves the St. Patrick’s Day disappearance of McCaffrey, 36, who is presumed dead.
Cannon drew howls from some quarters when he recently named McCaffrey’s husband as a suspect in her killing, despite the absence of a body or sufficient probable cause to support an arrest.
Cannon said he isn’t backing off that statement, nor is he backing down from the challenges that confront him. He acknowledges he was wrong to slap the suspect he’d chased, but he said he has no intention of letting that act define his career or prevent him from seeking re-election to a job he’s prepared for his whole adult life.
“I have worked very hard to get to this point,” he said. “You don’t get there and just walk away.”
Cannon got his start in law enforcement in 1971. After stints as a beat cop, private attorney and North Charleston police chief, he became sheriff in February 1988 when he won a special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Chuck Dawley.
Cannon is widely credited with making the Sheriff’s Office a more professional, dynamic agency. He rooted out the politics and corruption in the old county police department following a 1991 merger.
Over the years, he’s also added a host of resources, including helicopters, boats, airplanes, armored vehicles, a K-9 patrol unit, a dive team and a fully equipped bomb squad.
He now oversees more than 900 employees, including 260 deputies, and runs the county jail that bears his name. His $61 million budget is larger than those of most local governments. And he’s earned a reputation of using the resources at his command to help others throughout the region.
Just this year, Cannon’s SWAT team helped contain an uprising by 229 inmates at Lieber state prison in Ridgeville and round up outlaw bikers in Horry County.
Deputies also played a key role in the search for Mount Pleasant’s Dara Watson, who was fatally shot by her fiancé and buried in the Francis Marion National Forest in February.
“I can call him 24/7, and Al Cannon will be there for me,” Mount Pleasant Police Chief Harry Sewell said. “I have never asked for a resource he didn’t provide, and he has a wealth of wisdom to draw on.”
Cannon, who retired as a colonel from the Air Force Reserve, seems equally at home talking about counter-terrorism and the roots of the Occupy movement as he is sweeping glass and debris from the road after a wreck, as he did on a recent afternoon in Mount Pleasant.
His sport utility vehicle is loaded with gear, and he’s not afraid to use it, as he demonstrated in May 2000 when he showed up at an Isle of Palms home to wrangle a slithering snake from a resident’s rafters.
A trim man with a balding pate, hawk-like features and a smoky Southern drawl, Cannon started out as a Democrat, became an independent and then joined the Republican party in 1994. As a candidate, he’s been about as bankable as they come, running without opposition in all but one election since he took command.
This year, former deputy Mark Whisenant launched a bid to run against Cannon as a Democrat, pushing a plan to streamline the Sheriff’s Office and reduce the backlog of outstanding warrants. Cannon said he’s also making progress on that front, and his warrant load is similar to that in other counties. Greenville County, another metropolitan area, has roughly the same backlog,
Whisenant, a maritime law enforcement instructor, faces an uphill battle after getting dumped from the ballot along with some 200 candidates in other races for not filing ethics forms on time.
He has vowed to get back on the ballot, possibly as a third-party candidate. But Jeri Cabot, an adjunct political science professor at the College of Charleston, said that route likely diminishes his chance for success.
Cabot said Cannon is known in political circles as strong, stubborn and helpful, a generally favorable size-up, particularly in a race that tends to favor incumbents in the absence of scandal.
Whether the slapping incident at the end of the high-speed chase becomes a scandal or another colorful blip on Cannon’s career depends on the outcome of a state investigation of the Jan. 30 incident and another review being conducted by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
The chase began when a longtime traffic scofflaw nearly collided with Cannon’s sport utility vehicle and other cars in Mount Pleasant, authorities said. Cannon and his deputies took off after the driver and later shot out the man’s tires after a 25-mile pursuit that ended in the national forest.
People began talking after a patrol car video from the chase showed the driver, 31-year-old Timothy McManus, getting punched and chewed on by a police dog during his arrest. Cannon then added fuel to the debate by admitting he also slapped McManus while the suspect was handcuffed in the back of a squad car.
Geoff Alpert is a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor and an expert in police pursuits and use of force. Alpert, who has watched video footage of the chase, said deputies unnecessarily endangered themselves and the public by chasing the suspect at those speeds.
“There is absolutely no reason to drive that fast any time, anywhere unless it’s on a track in a sanctioned race,” he said.
Alpert had an even dimmer view of the sheriff’s actions that day.
“He should be arrested,” he said. “When you hit a handcuffed person for the purpose of punishment? There is no room in law enforcement for that.”
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said she generally gives the sheriff high marks for his leadership and willingness to consider other viewpoints. But she too was disappointed by Cannon’s slapping of McManus.
“Sure he came out and said, ‘I did it,’ but it should not have happened in the first place,” she said. “I expect a much higher level of decision-making from him than the guy who was running wild.”
Cannon agrees, and said he regrets losing his cool and striking McManus. But he has no regrets about chasing the fleeing suspect, whom Cannon described as a grave danger to other motorists.
The sheriff said he would have been second-guessed for other reasons had he let McManus drive off into a head-on collision.
“(The chase) was appropriate,” he said. “I don’t have any question about that.”
Cannon also doesn’t regret coming clean about the slap, regardless of the legal implications. He said the public and his deputies deserved the truth.
“I think people appreciate that I would stand up and admit to inappropriate behavior,” Cannon said. “We live in a time when people are very critical of elected officials, and politicians tend to tell you what you want to hear. I have never been that way. I tend to — sometimes to my own detriment — say what I am thinking.”
“That’s part of who I am,” he said. “I admit my mistakes.”
Cannon said he doesn’t know what the State Law Enforcement Division has found in its probe of the incident, and he’s had no conversations with prosecutors on the matter. To avoid a conflict, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has asked the head prosecutor in York County, Kevin Brackett, to review the case for possible violations or charges.
“We just have to deal with what happens,” Cannon said. “I don’t have any control over that. It is what it is.”
In the interim, a number of people have written letters or stopped Cannon on the street to offer support. One well-wisher was former Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Joe Bustos, who said he was one of the people McManus ran off the road that day.
“I think (Cannon) had an obligation to go after him the way that guy was driving,” said Bustos, who worked as a Charleston police officer in the 1970s. “His driving was aggressive and dangerous, just a total disregard for the general public.”
Cannon has also come under scrutiny for his department’s investigation of the Oct. 25 killing of 5-year-old Allison Griffor.
She died after someone fired a shotgun through the door of her family’s Pierpont Avenue home, fatally wounding the girl as she slept. Investigators think the shooting might have been part of a home invasion robbery gone awry.
Cannon vowed in October that the person who shot Allison will pay for the crime. He reiterated that promise two months later. But so far, no one has been arrested.
Charleston County resident David Coe, a persistent critic of Cannon, sent the sheriff an email last week blasting his failure to make good on his promise.
“The “VOW” that you made to Allison’s family after she was brutally murdered sleeping in her bed? People said that you could have won an Emmy when you exposed yourself on TV,” Coe wrote. “You will say anything for a vote!!!”
Cannon said he firmly understands the public’s desire for justice in the case, saying that “a sleeping child is the epitome of innocence.” But he said he can’t be held to an artificial time line for an arrest. The case is complex, he said, and his detectives have been working it as hard as they can.
“We feel confident and we feel good about what has been done thus far with the investigation,” Cannon said. “We have good leads, and we have good suspects.”
Cannon said the culprits might already be in jail in connection with other home invasions in that area. Investigators arrested members of two groups that had been hitting neighborhood homes, and the crime spree dried up. The challenge is sorting out who did what and establishing a firm connection to the Griffor case, he said.
The Griffor family declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. But Richard Douglas, a former Charleston police officer who has been assisting the family, said he’s impressed by the time and commitment the Sheriff’s Office has put into the case.
“Obviously, we wish there were more results,” he said. “But I know they are working hard and doing the best job anyone could do.”
At the same time, Cannon and his deputies also are juggling the search for McCaffrey, who was last seen March 17 at her West Ashley home.
A note supposedly left at the home by McCaffrey is thought to be bogus, and investigators have become increasingly convinced foul play was involved in her disappearance.
Cannon recently went so far as to name her husband, Bob McCaffrey, as a suspect in her killing. On the night she disappeared, Bob McCaffrey was speeding to meet with a love interest in northern Greenville County he had been pursuing through text messages and cellphone calls, authorities said.
Chris Lizzi, Bob McCaffrey’s attorney, has complained that Cannon is tainting his client’s reputation and turning the public against him with nothing more to go on than circumstantial evidence.
Cannon stands by the move. He said Gayle McCaffrey’s reputation was at stake, and he felt he needed to say something to let the public know this was a good woman who had been done wrong.
“We feel, based on everything we’ve learned, that we are focused where we need to be focused,” he said. “I feel very confident with what we said and why we said it.”
Cannon tries to take these things in stride. Every year seems to bring one new challenge or another.
Last year, Cannon led a massive manhunt for Donald Ratliff, who shot and wounded his wife in West Ashley three days after killing his mother-in-law.
The year before, he worked with city police to stop a frustrating string of 40 burglaries that had James Island residents up in arms.
In 2007, he shepherded a five-day search over three counties for Constable Robert Bailey, who was gunned down while patrolling in Lincolnville, his body carted off by his killers.
“We’ve had challenging cases of one sort almost every year,” Cannon said. “In a sense, it’s the nature of this business. It’s so unpredictable.”
Ned Hethington knows this all too well. He was tapped to serve as Charleston’s interim police chief in 2005 after the unexpected retirement of Reuben Greenberg. Hethington was then thrown a challenge at every turn, from a nettlesome string of armed robberies to a police pursuit of a carjacking suspect that ended with a bystander being severely injured on James Island.
Hethington said crisis comes with the job, “and you can’t run from that.” But he said it’s also unfair to let the crisis of the moment obscure a career body of work.
In that respect, he said, Cannon is deserving of the public’s support.
“Anyone can be under the gun at one period in time, and any department in the short term can look like it’s got problems,” he said. “But you have to take into account all the time he has been there and all the good work he has done.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.