COLUMBIA -- A federal judge on Wednesday set bail of $200,000 for the former Lee County sheriff, saying prosecutors had not proven arguments that E.J. Melvin represents a threat to other co-defendants in a drug conspiracy case.
As conditions of his release, Melvin isn't allowed to talk to any witnesses and will be on house arrest with electronic monitoring under the order issued by U.S. Magistrate Joseph McCrorey at the end of a hearing in Columbia.
Melvin was arrested Saturday and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of powder cocaine and 50 grams or more of crack cocaine.
If convicted he could face at least 10 years in prison, and up to a life sentence. Eight others have also been charged in the case.
Relying on wiretaps placed on his phone earlier this year, prosecutors argued that Melvin, who had served as sheriff since 2001 and resigned shortly after his arrest, had made threats against other drug dealers and should be held until trial.
Melvin also dealt drugs from his police SUV, and, when they gave Melvin a list of possible drug dealers, authorities said Melvin tipped off his friends and tried to extort money from others, in exchange for steering agents away from them, prosecutors said.
"There is evidence that his role in the conspiracy is to shake down drug dealers for money," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore, arguing that Melvin should be kept in jail until trial. "Clearly, he's a danger to the community."
Chris Garrett, an FBI agent investigating Melvin, testified Wednesday that authorities have evidence that the former sheriff has already tried to frighten people who might speak out against him.
"We recorded him discussing it," Garrett said. "They have indicated a fear of Mr. Melvin."
In one conversation the agent said Melvin relayed a threat he planned to make to someone he was trying to extort. "I ain't going to let you take me down," the ex-sheriff said, according to the affidavit.
None of that shows that Melvin represents a physical harm to anyone, defense attorney Jack Swerling argued Wednesday.
"You have to cross a bridge and take a leap here ... to believe that's a threat," Swerling said. "It just doesn't really pass the smell test at all."
Other conversations show Melvin talking about how he was going to arrange for a traffic stop on a drug dealer, take some of the cocaine he expected to find for himself and use the rest as evidence, federal agents said.
In a sworn statement discussed Wednesday, the FBI detailed 17 phone calls between Melvin, other defendants and unidentified people who dealt drugs or helped with the investigation.
Melvin's friends and family helped pack the courtroom Wednesday. He briefly acknowledged them as he shuffled in with his ankles and wrists shackled, but expressed no emotion for most of the hearing.