Cottageville belies picture of sleepy rural community with sordid history of leaders' deaths, nasty lawsuits

Police Chief John Craddock is credited by at least one Cottageville resident with being among those who have tried to steer the town into a more stable rhythm in recent months.

Grace Beahm

COTTAGEVILLE -- A town leader gunned down. Allegations of overly aggressive cops and meddling politicians. State investigators called in to get to the bottom of it all.

That was Cottageville in the spring of 1989, an eerily similar scene to the one playing out in the tiny Colleton County community right now.

Back then it was Police Chief Jerry Shelton, shot to death at Town Hall while processing the drug arrests of a young couple he had caught speeding. A convicted felon when he became chief, Shelton once served a year in prison on charges of burglary and receiving stolen goods.

This time around it is former Mayor Bert Reeves, fatally shot by police officer Randall Price on Monday afternoon on a dirt road near Town Hall. Reeves, who had numerous run-ins with police over the years, met his end tangling with an officer who had bounced around South Carolina trailed by allegations of brutality and misconduct.

Now, as before, townspeople are taking sides, sharing rumors and grousing about hits to the town's already bedraggled image. This rural community has been struggling for decades to prosper and shake its reputation as a two-lane speed trap that depends on ticket revenue to survive.

But warring factions, deep-seated schisms and a resistance to change has made Cottageville a town with an identity crisis, seemingly destined to relive its most divisive moments again and again.

Mayor Margaret Steen was Reeves' aunt, and she also served as the town's chief elected official when Shelton was shot. She has declined to comment on Monday's shooting or her town's history while the State Law Enforcement Division investigates her nephew's death.

"All I will say is that I loved my nephew very much," she said.

Cottageville resident Carl Null is among those who credit Steen and current Police Chief John Craddock with trying to steer the town into a more stable rhythm in recent months.

Despite Monday's shooting, Null said, Cottageville has good people and tremendous potential if it could just stay focused and get past the disruptive actions of a few. "It's a great town ... or at least it could be," he said.

But Reeves' death comes at a time when the town already is battling two lawsuits filed by former employees caught up in the infighting.

Former Police Chief Shane Roberts is suing the town for at least $500,000, alleging that he was forced out by town officials in October after he tried to make his department more professional and shed the speed-trap image.

Former Town Clerk Terri Crosby, meanwhile, has accused local leaders of firing her illegally and spreading rumors of an affair with the man who was mayor at the time. She seeks $3 million, plus punitive damages.

Chuck Thompson, a Columbia-based attorney representing Cottageville in both lawsuits, said small towns with tiny tax bases have a particularly difficult time maintaining services and raising enough money to pay their employees. That crucible can stir emotions beyond the norm, he said.

"Sometimes lightning strikes more than once, and I guess Cottageville is just one of those places," Thompson said.

Not so sleepy

On the surface, this town of some 760 people seems like a quiet country backwater with nothing much going on. The town is nestled in the piney countryside, about an hour outside of downtown Charleston, with no city water and little industry to speak of.

It has modest homes and one main drag with a car lot, a Dollar General and a Subway sandwich shop -- the picture postcard of a sleepy town.

But simmering beneath the surface is a dark side that sometimes shows its face. Rusty Woomer began his three- county murder spree here in 1979, killing four people before he was caught.

Shelton was gunned down a decade later, shot seven times at Town Hall. Cottageville also was home base for the infamous "red neck robber," William Cobb, accused of holding up as many as 40 banks across the Southeast between 2005 and 2007.

Roberts, the former police chief, said some town officials resisted his efforts to move officers off the radar guns and into the field, but there was ample reason to do just that. He said drug arrests doubled under his watch, with officers uncovering meth labs and marijuana fields around town.

Cottageville also is home to about a fifth of Colleton County's sex offenders.

"You have a dark side associated with Cottageville, and it's been drawing people there for a long time," said Roberts, who still lives in the area.

Warring factions

J. Lewis Cromer, a Columbia-based attorney representing former town clerk Crosby, said the town's problems aren't limited to the criminal class. Ill will has been fanned by two or three warring cliques jockeying for power within Cottageville, with animosity extending beyond normal small-town squabbles, he said.

"There seems to be a more explosive atmosphere in Cottageville," Cromer said. "The feelings and the actions are just more intense."

His client, Crosby, has something in common with the late Shelton: Both targeted the same town leader.

In the late 1980s, Shelton arrested prominent resident George Addison on charges of running an illegal gambling machine at his convenience store. A Colleton County grand jury later indicted Addison on four gambling-related indictments, which Addison described as a set-up by Shelton.

The charges were later dismissed, according to Addison, who went on to become mayor and serve on Town Council.

While working as town clerk, Crosby alleged that she found that Addison owed business fees, and cited him. He headed the Concerned Citizens group at the time and, according to Crosby's lawsuit, persuaded members of Town Council to get rid of her.

In addition to the claim of improper firing, Crosby's lawsuit alleges that town leaders spread rumors that she and former Mayor George White had an affair, an allegation White denies.

Addison, a current member of Town Council, describes himself simply as leader of a group of residents who wanted political change, specifically an end to "rude" town employees. "We didn't do anything that other cities and towns and other citizens haven't done for years," he said. "Her lawsuit was, to me, unfounded."

To grow or die

Addison describes his town's biggest challenge as finding the money to pay its bills. If officials can't figure that out, he said, one possibility is to dissolve the town and let Colleton County handle Cottageville's affairs.

Former Mayor White doesn't want to see that happen. He said he has tried for years to promote business development in Cottageville, to generate more tax revenue to help the town prosper.

A Charleston developer eyed the town for a grocery store complex at one point, White recalled, but council stalled the deal, eventually killing it.

"We're back to the way we operated before I came in as mayor, which was we were nothing but a police state," White said. "The majority of our revenue came from tickets. The state doesn't agree with that, and I didn't either. It was time to become a municipality."

White moved to Cottageville in 1975. He runs a custom cabinetry business and also works for a company in Ridge-ville.

"When I first moved there it was a quiet, serene town," he said. "Basically, all hell broke loose when Jerry Shelton was killed."

With Reeves' death Monday, White said he suspects that more gossip, additional lawsuits and deeper divisions will follow. Already tongues are wagging with state agents in town and officer Price on paid administrative leave.

The shooting reportedly followed Reeves' complaints about Price being overly aggressive for arresting one of Reeves' employees over a drinking-related incident in March, authorities have said.

"I think there's going to be a lot more to this than just Bert dying," White said.

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