COLUMBIA — The founder of Columbia's hugely popular Soda City Market has been charged with harassment amid a dispute with a neighbor over a dog, according to the Richland County Sheriff's Department.
Emile DeFelice had taken custody of a runaway dog in his neighborhood and refused to relinquish it back to its owner, even after the owner was identified via an implanted microchip at a local animal clinic on Oct. 11, according to the department.
The dog, a pitbull, was in bad shape when DeFelice found it, said his attorney Alex Postic.
Instead of leaving the animal there, DeFelice left with the dog as the owner was en route to the clinic, authorities said.
The dog's owner contacted DeFelice but was unable to get him to return the pet.
Instead, the conversation through text messages escalated into what the owner took as threats from DeFelice, according to the department. The statement did not identify the dog's owner.
DeFelice posted photos on Facebook of the dog, which appeared to be in poor health, multiple sources reported. The posts have been removed.
While the sheriff's department said the animal was in "good health," that was because of the care DeFelice provided after rescuing the pitbull, Postic said.
"The dog was effectively crippled with nails so long that they circled around; his ribs and spine were visible from apparent malnutrition; and he was covered in filth," Postic said. "Emile immediately put the dog in his truck and took him to be groomed and to be treated at an animal clinic. Emile had but one concern: the proper care of this dog.
"Unfortunately, through misunderstanding and a sense of duty to the health and safety of the dog, things escalated and charges were sought. Emile plans to address all this at the appropriate time and place."
Postic added that DeFelice has raised money for the city's shelter spay and neuter program and is a former board member of Animal Mission.
"Anyone who has been to Soda City knows that he runs the most dog-friendly event in the city," Postic said.
DeFelice is accused by investigators of posting false and misleading information and persisting in harassing messages after being asked repeatedly to stop, a department spokesperson said. No details were released.
Only after hearing from Richland County investigators did DeFelice return the dog several days later, according to the department.
DeFelice, 52, was arrested on Oct. 25 and charged with second-degree harassment. He has been released on a personal recognizance bond. He faces up to 30 days in prison and a $2,200 fine if convicted.
DeFelice has grown Soda City from a small produce market to becoming a major attraction in downtown Columbia on Saturdays, expanding to three blocks of Main Street filled with booths offering food, art and crafts for sale.
DeFelice has sought to have a range of products available in a European-style market that offers far more than produce, and the market has a steady rotation of about 800 vendors that book spaces periodically. On many Saturdays the market can draw 5,000 people or more to Main Street, according to the organizers.
In April 2016, the city added a behavior clause to its contract with the market, specifying that the market organizer needed to act "as a positive promoter and de facto goodwill ambassador" of the city. The measure was drafted to specify how Soda City Market would shift to share space on Main Street with special events such as Famously Hot South Carolina Pride.
City Council reserved its right to terminate the contract if this clause was breached.