Falsely accused

Joseph Bussman spent nearly five months in jail accused of a drugstore holdup but later was cleared of the charges. Now he struggles to put his life back together and repair his reputation.

Paul Zoeller

Joseph Bussman takes pride in being a family man, a veteran, a hard worker.

But Google his name and words like criminal and robber might pop up.

The 47-year-old native New Yorker spent nearly five months behind bars last year, charged with robbing a North Charleston Walgreens of almost 800 Oxycontin pills.

The allegation tarnished his name, Bussman said, and it’s nearly impossible for him to move forward or find work without his arrest swaying potential employers.

Bussman said he is paying for that robbery every day — all for a crime that he insists, and prosecutors agree, he isn’t guilty of committing.

“They locked me up and didn’t give a damn,” Bussman said, reflecting on the last year of his life.

On the evening of May 19, 2012, North Charleston police officers were on the lookout for a redhead with a medium build.

A man had walked into Walgreens on Dorchester Road near the Ladson Road intersection, wearing a green baseball cap and a long black jacket, an incident report states.

A piece of paper dangled from a pair of tweezers he held in his hand, police said. The paper contained a message: “Pain killers now or get hurt.”

The robber escaped into the night carrying a bag filled with his drug of choice.

Officers said they lost his track at a vacant home in the Indigo Fields subdivision off Dorchester Road near Ashley Phosphate Road.

Bussman, a former National Guardsmen with red hair, said he was hanging out with friends, roaming the streets of North Charleston, when the robbery occurred.

He bid farewell to the group and was walking toward a Lil’ Cricket gas station on Dorchester Road when officers stopped him about 2 miles from the crime scene, he said.

There were slight discrepancies between Bussman and the description provided by witnesses.

The Walgreens pharmacist told officers that the robber appeared to be in his 30s and was 6 feet to 6 feet, 2 inches tall.

Bussman, who was 46 at the time, stands 5 feet 10 inches tall and was dressed in a sweatshirt, khaki pants and Crocs.

Bussman said officers briefly questioned him, then let him go.

He had put the incident out of his mind by the time he took a bus trip back to New York to visit family a few days later.

It was there, on the streets of Peekskill, that officers approached him with guns drawn.

“I was walking out of a bar at a restaurant, just out with friends, and the next thing I knew I had guns at my head,” Bussman said. “I didn’t know what was going on, because I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Bussman was charged with armed robbery on May 25 and placed under arrest.

Bussman was in a state of shock as police led him back to North Charleston on July 2 to face prosecution. But unknown to him at the time, a chance to clear his name was about to come along in the form of a second robbery.

Bussman was sitting in jail on July 26 when a man wearing a baseball cap entered the Walgreens store at Dorchester and Ashley Phosphate roads with a note demanding Oxycontin.

North Charleston police officers responded to a home on Signal Island Lane shortly afterward in reference to a possible Oxycontin overdose. David Burkhead Abbott, 33, was found there unresponsive, and paramedics took him to Trident Medical Center for treatment, police said.

Evidence at the home tied Abbott to the robbery, police said. They announced shortly after his arrest that investigators were working to determine if he was linked to any other robberies in the area.

Abbott pleaded guilty to strong-arm robbery in a Dorchester County court on Oct. 16, court records show.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said attorney Russell Hilton, a prosecutor for the Bussman case, happened to be in the courtroom during that hearing.

Bussman had maintained his innocence through his defense attorney for months, Hilton said.

“As a prosecutor, that’s not uncommon. A lot of people profess their innocence right to the end,” he said.

But Hilton saw Abbott, saw that he looked almost identical to Bussman, and recognized the similarities in the robberies, Pascoe said.

“It wasn’t a bad case against (Bussman). This one just brought up enough doubt in my mind as a prosecutor to feel like a conviction wasn’t proper,” Hilton said.

The charge against Bussman was dismissed that same day, Pascoe said. Bussman’s freedom was restored more than two months after Abbott’s arrest, and almost five months after his own.

“A prosecutor’s duty is to protect the innocent as well as to get convictions on the guilty,” Pascoe said. “If someone has charges hanging over their head and you don’t believe that they’ve done the crime, then you have to do something about that. Your job’s not to get convictions. Your job is to ensure that justice is done. I take just as much pride in that.”

North Charleston Deputy Police Chief Scott Deckard said a warrant had been put out for Bussman’s arrest after a witness identified him in a photo lineup.

A mug shot had been taken of Bussman after North Charleston police in August of 2010 charged him with public drunkenness and drinking alcohol in a public conveyance, State Law Enforcement Division Records show.

Deckard did not elaborate further on what other circumstances triggered the arrest.

While eyewitness testimony can be useful, it can also be unreliable at times, Innocence Project spokesman Paul Cates said.

Innocence Project is a national nonprofit that works to exonerate accused prisoners through DNA testing and other means.

DNA test results have helped exonerate 308 people in the past 20 years, Cates said. Of those people, about 75 percent of them were misidentified by witnesses, he said.

“Memory is subject to suggestion more than is largely perceived. People just aren’t that great at being able to remember and later identify who and what they see,” Cates said. “There are certain factors in criminal situations that can make someone’s memory even worse. The presence of a weapon, fear and anxiety tend to make people’s memories poorer than if they were in a calm or relaxed environment.”

Bussman found joy in being a free man again, but he said the damage had been done the moment his arrest made headlines.

Bussman has struggled since 2010 to find steady employment. He said his most recent arrest has made his search even more challenging.

Employers don’t want to hire someone who they believe to be a robber and a drug addict, he said.

Bussman said he holds an associate’s degree in business, but that he can’t get hired at any job.

He finds himself stuck bouncing between hotel rooms and the couches of loved ones, unable to move forward with his life, he said.

Bussman’s lawyer, Bradford Andrews, said the arrest has left Bussman’s reputation “severely besmirched.”

“The damage to his name has caused extreme hardship, and has affected his ability to become employed,” he said. “At this point, we are investigating the circumstances of his arrest and subsequent detention. Should we find that those circumstances amount to a violation of Mr. Bussman’s fundamental civil rights, we will exhaust every remedy available to him, including civil litigation.”

Bussman said he doesn’t want much in return for what he has endured, just answers.

“I’m not a bad person. I just want my life back. I’m not asking for a fortune. I’m not asking for anything. I just want my life back,” Bussman said. “I don’t understand why this had to happen to me. Everything’s meant for a reason, I guess.”

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.