AIKEN — A former Saluda County sheriff pleaded guilty Monday to using an inmate to build a party shed, ornate gate and other items at his home, but will likely avoid any prison time thanks to a deal with prosecutors and investigators.
Jason Booth pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misconduct in office. A judge sentenced him to serve a year in jail, but that time will be suspended if he pays a $900 fine and successfully serves five years of probation.
Booth allowed the inmate to live in a trailer outside of prison, have conjugal visits with his girlfriend and offered to ask the governor to reduce his sentence, prosecutors said.
“I’m very sorry for the decisions I made. Bad choices,” Booth told the judge before he was sentenced. “I apologize to you and all the citizens of my county. I am very sorry.”
Booth knew the rules with inmate labor because in 2005, the state Corrections Department counseled him after he previous problem, prosecutor Strom Thurmond Jr. said.
But a new inmate was sent to Saluda County in 2006. The prisoner was five years into a 15-year sentence for trafficking methamphetamine and was an expert welder, electrician, engine repairman and all around handyman, authorities said.
During the next few years, Booth had the inmate build him a party shed and an ornate gate, dig a pond in his yard and complete other projects at his home, Thurmond said.
In exchange, the inmate, who was not named, got to spend many nights in a trailer away from the jail. His girlfriend visited him, and he fathered a child. He got to eat out at restaurants, ride around on a four-wheeler and was taken out of town to visit family, authorities sad.
Booth also went to then-Gov. Mark Sanford, suggesting the inmate’s sentence could be reduced, Thurmond said.
Investigators first started to look into Booth based on a tip, but several witnesses lied when the probe started. Only after the state Grand Jury got involved and perjury charges and jail time became possible issues did the truth start to emerge, authorities said.
One person who helped build the party shed “testified before the state grand jury after lying initially that he had three or four conversation with Sheriff Booth in the fall of 2011 where Sheriff Booth advised him that the investigators did not need to know the inmate had been working on his property,” Thurmond said.
Booth faced a felony count of misconduct and up to 10 years in prison, but prosecutor Strom Thurmond Jr. said he and investigators agreed to the deal for a lesser charge. Thurmond wouldn’t talk about why he accepted the deal after court, but gave some indication during the hearing.
“We found no evidence Sheriff Booth took any money from the coffers of Saluda County. He did, however, save himself thousands and thousands of dollars through the use of this inmate’s experience and free labor,” Thurmond said.
Booth’s plea means the end of a law enforcement career for a 39-year-old who always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. George Booth was also a sheriff in Saluda County before moving on to the State Law Enforcement Division where he climbed the ranks to heading up the agency’s tactical units before his recent retirement. When his dad was sheriff, Jason Booth would get his cap gun and fake badge and try to follow his father out the door on calls.
George Booth was there with his son in 2001 when Jason Booth took the oath of office in the same courthouse as dad. Jason Booth came to court alone Monday, with only his lawyer by his side. With a bushy beard, he looked nothing like the beaming young man who became sheriff at age 27 and in his career was named South Carolina’s lawman of the year, was given the state’s highest civilian honor in the Order of the Palmetto and was set to become president of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association in July before he resigned from his job the month before.
Booth’s lawyer, Johnny Gasser, said his client is only working odd jobs and is heartbroken that he can no longer be in the career he dreamed of since he was a boy. Booth was known for serving warrants and going on drug raids himself.
“To say that Jason Booth put his life on the line for the people of Saluda County is an understatement. There are untold numbers of stories of Jason not sitting behind a desk like many sheriffs do,” Gasser said.
But that’s over now. Booth said nothing as he walked out of court after his plea, his wallet hanging out of his pocket, where his badge and gun used to be.