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A new sheriff is in town, but Chester's scars offer lessons for other rural SC counties

A new sheriff is in town, but Chester's scars offer lessons for other rural SC counties

CHESTER — The historical society here has an impressive museum in a former jail, memories in an old lockup.

Inside, you can see 1,000-year-old tools from Native Americans; hear stories about how Indian footpaths turned into settlers’ wagon trails; learn how a town grew up on a bluff; and see old photos of bustling textile mills. Like many South Carolina towns, Chester has old bones.

But outside the museum, the downtown’s vacant storefronts have a hollow feel, as if some of the marrow is gone. Sitting between Columbia and Charlotte, Chester County has about 32,000 residents and has struggled economically, bypassed by the economic boom in the state’s larger metro areas. And corruption has only made things tougher.

In January, the FBI agents arrived. It was the beginning of an investigation. A few days before, The Post and Courier had exposed how then-Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood arrested a man under questionable circumstances.

Later this spring, a federal grand jury indicted Underwood on charges that he and his deputies trumped up the man's arrest and lied to the FBI about it.

Underwood has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. But Gov. Henry McMaster suspended him and installed a new sheriff, Max Dorsey.

It’s the latest chapter in Chester’s long story, and one that offers lessons to other towns and cities across state:

Rural municipalities often lack the resources to fund the kinds of investigative and auditing checks that prevent corruption. At the same time, the close bonds that can make small communities so nurturing also can foster divisions that breed scandals and abuse.

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Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey speaks with a reporter at the Chester County Law Enforcement Complex on Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019, in Chester. Dorsey replaced the previous sheriff, Alex Underwood. Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

New sheriff in town

On May 7, Max Dorsey, 44, was eating pizza in Columbia when his phone rang. It was the governor.

Dorsey had grown up and still lived in Chester with his wife, a teacher, and their two children. He’d been with the State Law Enforcement Division since he was 19, working his way up to captain of the narcotics squad.

McMaster explained that he’d removed Underwood as sheriff and wanted Dorsey to take over until the case was resolved.

“I felt shock, fear. Everything was a blur after that,” Dorsey said in an interview Tuesday. He changed clothes and headed back to Chester.

At 7 a.m., the next day, Dorsey held his first staff meeting — in the parking lot outside the department. Reporters and television crews stood nearby.

“I did that for a reason. Symbolically, I wanted to show that I was an open book.”

***

This openness marked a sharp turn from Underwood’s insular and conflict-filled tenure.

Underwood had been elected in 2012, the county’s first African American sheriff. Coming in, he had a solid resume: Like Dorsey, he'd been a SLED agent, earning a reputation as an aggressive fugitive tracker.

But Underwood soon found himself at odds with officials across the region. He got into a scuffle with two local fire chiefs at a traffic wreck, an altercation that led to a lawsuit and an undisclosed settlement.

He infuriated council members who accused him of bypassing procurement rules to buy a $70,000 SUV for his use. He irked animal lovers who said he funneled pet donation money for the animal shelter to his department. He found himself in court after a female deputy filed a lawsuit alleging that he used his position as sheriff to force her to have sex. A jury sided with Underwood in 2015, but the discord continued.

As the conflicts added up, Underwood distanced himself from some local reporters, said Travis Jenkins, editor of The News & Reporter, the award-winning paper in Chester.

The newspaper had broken many stories about questionable practices in the county, including how the county administrator approved a $20,000 raise for Underwood without council’s approval. A story earlier this year about a dispute between Chester police and the sheriff prompted Underwood to post on Facebook: "citizens beware of irresponsible journalism."

But Jenkins said reporters were shut out even when they tried to cover positive events.

Amid these persistent tensions, Underwood and several deputies in November arrested a man named Kevin Simpson, who was livestreaming a traffic wreck by his mother’s house. Deputies threw Simpson and his mother in jail. Their cases initially were assigned to Angel Underwood, a magistrate in Chester who is married to the sheriff. 

The arrest was yet another window into the department. The Post and Courier opened more later this spring.

The newspaper's "Above the Law" report revealed how Underwood and his chief deputy spent public money on first-class flights and pricey airport chauffeurs during trips to sheriff conferences. In a statement, Underwood told the newspaper then that he ordered $100-per-night hotel upgrades so his feet wouldn’t dangle off the mattress.

A federal grand jury eventually indicted Underwood on charges he and two ranking deputies used excessive force to arrest Simpson and his mother, and then conspired to cover it up. 

Underwood denied the allegations at the time, and Stanley Myers, Underwood's attorney, did not return phone calls seeking comment. 

But Jody Norris, FBI special agent, said after Underwood's indictment: “These charges are a reminder that nobody is above the law.”

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Traffic moves down Gadsden Street Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019, in Chester. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Lost trust

When Dorsey took the department's reins, “internally, I didn’t know what I had — didn't know what the capabilities were. And I didn’t know where the bar was when it came to (ethical and professional) standards.”

He was heartened to discover that the department had “some real cops here. They work all the time, want to be here. They don’t want to miss anything.”

But he also inherited a severe staffing shortage. The department had seen an exodus of deputies to better-paying and more stable jobs.

“Look, let’s be honest," he said. "There has been instability and drama here, and the department hasn’t had the best reputation.”

Dorsey talks like a coach in the midst of a rebuilding season, trying to improve morale in the department and support in the community.

“Our legitimacy comes from us doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching. That’s why building trust is so important.”

He said he made it clear to staff that honesty, transparency and accountability would be core values moving forward.

To repair frayed bonds in the community, he visited council members, school officials, ministers and fire chiefs. He appeared at as many community events as he could attend.

This public interaction was outside his comfort zone at first, he said. “I was used to working in the shadows as a narcotics captain.”

But he said reweaving these bonds goes beyond law enforcement. He pointed to "The Locust Effect," a book by Gary Haugen that he found inspiring. The book is about crime in low-income countries, and how violence is akin to a plague of insects. And its author argues that violence is a basic obstacle to reducing poverty.

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Kimberly Branham removes a hair cloth from George Powell after cutting his hair at City Barber & Style Shop on Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019, in Chester. Powell said he moved to Chester about 20 years ago to buy a 170-year-old home. But he said crime and poor schools have held the community back. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

While the book focuses mainly on the world's poorest countries, Dorsey said its themes are relevant in Chester County, which also has struggled with poverty and crime.

“If you don’t have a safe environment, you’re less likely to want to live here, engage in business here, spend money here, or play here.”

Costs of corruption

Dorsey’s comments echo those of experts who say that in a vacuum of oversight, friendships and family ties can lead to cronyism and graft, and that this ripples through a community's economy.

A 2014 Illinois study looked at the costs of corruption and estimated that states with above-average corruption cost $1,308 per resident.

Sheriffs in South Carolina and elsewhere have come under especially intense scrutiny for scandalous behavior.

The Post and Courier's "Above the Law" report documented how state laws help perpetuate a culture of secrecy that creates a breeding ground for abuse.

South Carolina's Constitution requires employees to serve "at the pleasure" of sheriffs, a situation that criminal justice experts and watchdogs say is a recipe for unfair retribution against those who speak out. The state has weak whistleblower laws, making it less likely for honest deputies and staff to come forward.

The result: Since 2010, 13 of the state's counties have seen their sheriffs charged with breaking laws they were sworn to uphold.

This includes Underwood and Kenney Boone, the now-suspended Florence County sheriff, who was indicted on charges that he embezzled federal narcotics funds to buy bicycle equipment, electronics, tools, baseball gear and clothes.

And the abuse goes beyond sheriffs.

Last week, a former Jasper County Finance Department employee pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $275,000 in public funds. Agents with SLED in July arrested an employee of Kingstree Water Department on embezzlement charges. That followed another arrest in Williamsburg County of a former Clemson Extension agent — charged with pocketing money from pesticide application courses. 

A report in 2016 by Columbia Law School's Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity noted that small municipalities are susceptible to corruption because many don't have the "kind of oversight and enforcement mechanisms" that larger government agencies employ. The report called for the creation of "regional ethics bodies" to share costs of auditing and oversight investigations.

Jessica Pishko, a lawyer studying sheriffs at the University of South Carolina’s Rule of Law Collaborative, agreed that rural communities are especially vulnerable to predatory sheriffs.

“I think sheriffs are more important in rural areas, so communities care about them more and are less likely to question what they do,” she said.

Sheriffs also tend to serve long terms and “we know that the office gets passed along to relatives,” she said. As a result, transparency suffers, and departments can fall into traps of overpolicing their constituents, locking up people and seizing property to boost budgets. “You basically drain what little people have left.”

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Barry Wilson gave high marks to the new sheriff while standing in the back of his store, Ezell Hardware, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Chester. Wilson has owned the store for 45 years. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Back in Chester

In downtown Chester, a monument to Confederate soldiers rises from the crest of a hill. Surrounding it are handsome brick buildings, some dating to the 1800s. A few have been carefully restored, but others are empty and falling into disrepair.

William Floyd was in one of the vacant ones Tuesday, a cavernous room that once housed a Belk department store. He was helping volunteers with Chester Friends of the Animals set up a thrift store sale. He said he welcomed the FBI's investigation of Underwood. “We needed to air out the dirty laundry.”

Since Dorsey's arrival, he and others interviewed say there's been less tension. Yet, Underwood's time in office is still generating ripples of controversy.

Most recently, a Chester man filed a lawsuit alleging that Underwood and several deputies sneaked onto his property one night in 2016 while he and his wife were in a hot tub. When he saw flashlights in the distance, he got a shotgun and fired it to scare off what he thought were intruders. He alleged in the lawsuit that he put his gun down when he saw they were deputies, but Underwood and several others then beat and nearly strangled him.

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The Chester Friends of the Animals organization works inside a vacant department store in downtown Chester on Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019. Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

Down the hill from the Confederate monument, Barry and Elizabeth Wilson run Ezell Hardware, a store in continuous operation since 1886.

Like Floyd, they gave the new sheriff high marks for trying to mend the community's wounds. Standing on the floor's original wood planks, stained brown from burnt oil, Barry Wilson said, “There was a lot of drama going on. And any time you have corruption in any place, it holds you back.”

Creighton Coleman, a former state lawmaker who crossed swords with Underwood, added that Underwood’s time in office divided the county into people who supported him and those who were scared to speak out about their concerns. And this created "an environment where people don’t want to work together.”

Dorsey feels the weight of these divisions.

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The former Chester County Jail in Chester, seen Tuesday Oct. 8, 2019, has been turned into a historical museum. Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

It all hit the moment he was sworn in, he said. It felt like a physical weight, “and it hasn’t grown lighter since then.” Chester is changing, he said. The booming Charlotte and Rock Hill areas are growing closer. Its next chapter has the “the potential to be good.”

As long as he can restore trust that had been lost, he said, so it’s not a prisoner of the past.

One decade: 13 SC sheriffs accused

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Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme