Witness intimidation in Berkeley alleged

State law agents survey the scene where Jesse Sapp fatally shot Highway Patrol Cpl. Jeff Johnson in July 2002.

An FBI investigation into allegations that deputies planted incriminating evidence to sway testimony about a police officer’s slaying morphed over three years into what one former official called a top-to-bottom review of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.

A sergeant with the sheriff’s narcotics unit acknowledged to FBI agents some missteps in how a drug bust at a witness’s home was handled. He resigned during the probe, though his reason was unclear.

A major with command powers over the unit denied knowledge of any conspiracy to intimidate the witness. He retired for medical reasons.

The lengthy corruption investigation ended last year without grand jury indictments. Details of how it started were revealed publicly for the first time recently in a court motion to overturn an execution order for Jesse Sapp, who fatally shot a state trooper in Berkeley County more than a decade ago.

Local and federal officials have declined to discuss with The Post and Courier exactly what sort of alleged wrongdoing had been examined. Spokeswomen from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI said they were not permitted to comment about the probe.

In the aftermath, many of the commanders at the agency when it came under scrutiny are still in place or have aspirations to return.

After the sergeant took a hiatus, the Sheriff’s Office rehired him. The former major, Ricky Driggers, said his health has improved, and he recently filed to run for election as sheriff. The agency’s chief deputy retired, but the governor appointed him this month to serve as interim sheriff until the special election prompted by Wayne DeWitt’s drunken driving arrest and resignation.

Agency spokesman Dan Moon said federal grand jurors had heard from “quite a few people,” and Interim Sheriff Butch Henerey, the chief deputy during the probe, was “aware of it, as everybody was.”

“But he had no knowledge of what they were investigating because everything was sacred, and he really can’t comment on it,” said Moon, referring to the proceeding’s secrecy. “Nothing was ever done with this deal. No charges or anything were brought.”

Driggers, a Republican candidate for sheriff, said that everyone under his command had followed the law and that his retirement had nothing to do with the “malicious rumors out there.” While the FBI arrested other sheriffs statewide, he said the lack of any charges here further indicates that no one did anything wrong.

“The investigation was from the top to the bottom,” Driggers said. “It wasn’t just about me. There were several investigations throughout the state, but no indictments were handed down to anybody from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.”

Meanwhile, because the investigation took so long, the initial purpose of it was put on hold.

Federal authorities first got involved when Sapp’s attorney, 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, reported that a police informant said he had carried out deputies’ orders to stash meth-making materials in the home of Sapp’s girlfriend.

Sapp was convicted of killing state Trooper Jeff Johnson at a driver’s license checkpoint in 2002, but his attorneys later won a challenge to his death sentence. A judge ordered a new sentencing phase, Pennington said, because of inadequate representation and mistakes by prosecutors during his 2003 trial.

Sapp’s girlfriend could have testified during a resentencing hearing that he had shot the trooper in an attempt at “suicide by cop” and that another trooper there shot Sapp while he was already down, Pennington said in court documents. Such testimony of “mitigating” factors could prompt a judge to imprison Sapp for life instead of again ordering his death.

But the girlfriend was arrested when deputies came across the drug evidence in her home, and she has since refused to testify because of possible repercussions from the Sheriff’s Office, the documents stated.

Pennington’s attempt to throw out Sapp’s death notice now hinges on what he called rare and “outrageous” witness intimidation. The inquiry into the accusation, though, did not prompt charges — “so far,” he said.

A judge will hear his motion in Sapp’s case April 30.

“The feds took three years to investigate it,” Pennington said. “It has obviously had an impact on the case.”

In September 2007, Kathryn Boles first indicated her hesitancy to talk with her former boyfriend’s lawyers. During a brief interview, she told them about her worry that deputies “would find out,” Pennington’s motion stated.

Five days later, members of the sheriff’s narcotics squad showed up at her door and arrested her on a bench warrant. As a result, they searched Boles’ home and found chemicals used for cooking methamphetamine hidden under a blanket near her bed. She was jailed on an additional charge of manufacturing the drug.

Her father later reported overhearing a deputy there say, “Guess she won’t be testifying in Mr. Sapp’s trial,” the court paperwork showed.

A hearing in Sapp’s post-conviction relief case — a procedure through which trial outcomes are challenged — came and went in August 2009. A year after that, the charge against Boles was dismissed.

Preparing for a new sentencing hearing, Pennington started to look into the case in 2011, when he came across Ronald Holiday.

Holiday, a meth user and friend of Boles’ who had been working as a sheriff’s informant, said he had followed instructions from Sgt. Lonnie Mizzell to buy the precursor drugs and bring them to Boles’ home during a visit.

He said he then called Mizzell, who soon showed up with other deputies to arrest Boles. The squad searched the home but found the evidence only after asking Holiday where it was, the documents stated.

The allegation pushed Pennington to reach out to Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore, who often worked on public corruption investigations.

Holiday later passed a polygraph test. He and his wife died of natural causes in 2012.

But sheriff’s documents about Boles’ arrest were “false and misleading,” Pennington wrote in his filing.

Instead of mentioning how an informant helped build the case, sheriff’s narcotics agent and former Bonneau Police Chief Frankie Thompson wrote in the affidavit that Mizzell had found the drugs on his own, the documents stated.

Mizzell acknowledged to the FBI in September 2012 that he had worked with Holiday on the case, according to the paperwork, and did not follow normal procedures for searching the informant before sending him into Boles’ home.

Pennington finally spoke with Boles after the FBI’s probe ended in 2014. She told him that Sapp, a jail escapee and drug user, was a nervous, stressed-out person who carried a gun to fend off robbers. Before the run-in with troopers, she had heard him “talk about inducing officers to shoot him to avoid going back to jail.”

Boles was driving the pickup early on July 7, 2002, with Sapp in the passenger seat as they stopped at the checkpoint. As a trooper wrote a ticket for Boles, Sapp jumped out and opened fire on another.

Other troopers shot back. Johnson bled to death on the pavement.

It wasn’t until the next year when Boles told prosecutors, who were preparing for Sapp’s trial, about what happened next.

As a wounded Sapp lay incapacitated, a trooper shot him again, she said.

The account she relayed to Pennington provided a possible explanation for a gap between an initial cluster of gunfire and the final shot 14 seconds later.

But when she tried to explain it the first time in 2003, Boles said prosecutors Ralph Hoisington and Blair Jennings threatened to withdraw their offer to help her if she stuck with that version of the events.

Pennington said the failure then to tell the defense about Boles’ narrative helped thwart Sapp’s chances of avoiding the death penalty.

But Jennings said Boles never gave the account.

“That was not accurate,” Jennings said. “She didn’t tell us that.”

Jennings became a defense attorney after a loss in an election for solicitor and a brief stint as sheriff’s spokesman.

Hoisington died in 2007.

Years after the start of the investigation, Pennington said in his Jan. 21 court motion that he and the FBI had found a former deputy who recalled hearing another narcotics officer talk about the “framing” of Boles.

The public defender told The Post and Courier that he was still struggling to get her cooperation.

In asking a judge to dismiss his client’s death notice, Pennington wrote that Boles will always be worried that her testimony favoring Sapp “will cause her further harm.”

“There are sensitive matters underway here,” Pennington told the newspaper, “and I’m trying to get her to cooperate. I’m not at liberty to go into it at this time.”

Moon, the sheriff’s spokesman, suggested that Pennington’s court filing was a desperate effort to save a man on death row.

“His attorney must be reaching for straws,” Moon said. “They’re just trying to stir up doubt in someone’s mind.”

Moore, the former federal prosecutor who worked on the FBI investigation before becoming a private attorney, and 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson declined to discuss the probe.

“I’m not going to talk about anything related to that,” Wilson said.

Mizzell, the sheriff’s sergeant, did not have anything to say about the allegations, according to the spokesman.

After eight years at the Sheriff’s Office, Mizzell resigned in November 2012, a month after his interview with the FBI. He spent five months at the Clover Police Department near Rock Hill until he rejoined the Berkeley County sheriff’s ranks in December 2013, according to documents from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.

None of the academy records offered further reasoning for his departure.

“He testified before a grand jury, and nothing ever came from it,” Moon said. “He doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

Thompson, the narcotics deputy, left a year after he wrote the affidavit on Boles’ arrest. He has worked at the Moncks Corner Police Department since August 2008.

Two other supervisors at the Sheriff’s Office during the probe — Chief Deputy Rick Ollic and Lt. Will Rogers — have since announced their candidacies for sheriff.

A telephone message left for Rogers, who helps lead nighttime patrol deputies, was not immediately returned.

Ollic, who led the sheriff’s investigations division at the time, said none of the allegations pertained to him.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on an issue I have no knowledge or involvement in,” Ollic said. “However, as sheriff, I will run an open and transparent office and have no tolerance for illegal acts from my staff.”

Driggers retired in April 2013 because of high blood pressure, he said.

He enjoyed spending some time off with his three grandchildren. He also saw several doctors, he said, and found one who changed his medication that corrected his blood pressure, allowing him to run in the April 21 primary election.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m doing good.”

Driggers said he would honor the vow of secrecy around the grand jury investigation by not discussing the allegations.

But if he’s elected, he said, the rules and regulations will apply to everyone.

Though members of the narcotics unit made up some of the 250 people who fell under his supervision, Driggers said he hadn’t been directly involved with the squad for more than a dozen years. He had no knowledge of any witness tampering until after the allegation surfaced, he said.

“There’s no way for you to know with 250 people,” he said. “The rumors and stuff that went around, it was horrible.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.