COLUMBIA -- Former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was sentenced Friday to more than 17 years in prison for his conviction for taking kickbacks to protect drug dealers.

Melvin showed no reaction as his sentence on drug conspiracy and racketeering charges was handed down in federal court. Earlier, the 48-year-old former sheriff maintained his innocence and did not apologize.

He said everyone who testified against him had lied. "The government looked at me like I've killed many people, and I've done no harm to no one," he said.

Authorities said Melvin ruled his county like a kingpin, not only repeatedly taking hundreds of dollars in handshake bribes to keep drug dealers out of trouble, but also taking kickbacks for catering barbecue dinners for county functions and on contracts to have the floors cleaned at the sheriff's office.

Prosecutors asked for a 30-year sentence for the man the drug dealers called "Big Dog," calling Melvin's case the most audacious example of public corruption in South Carolina in the past two decades. He was sentenced to 17 years and eight months.

"He put people's lives at risk. He put his own deputies' lives at risk. He put the community at risk by letting drug dealers go free," said prosecutor Deborah Barbier.

Melvin was convicted in November of 38 charges. Prosecutors said he made the county a safe haven for his favored drug dealers.

The scheme came tumbling down last spring after the FBI and state agents went to Melvin with a list of people they said might be drug dealers and asked for his help. Investigators said Melvin immediately started to warn some people on the list and make plans to extort money from others to keep agents from looking at them.

The former sheriff has maintained his innocence, saying he was running a one-man undercover operation and the dealers were critical informants he needed for his investigations. He also said wiretapped conversations, often filled with street lingo, were misunderstood.

The man who spent nearly 10 years as Lee County sheriff and 15 years before that as a state trooper still had plenty of supporters. About two dozen people wrote letters asking for leniency, including his former wife, his 15-year-old daughter and his 22-year-old son.

Many of them acknowledged Melvin did wrong, but said he also was a benevolent public servant, paying light bills when people didn't have enough money to keep their electricity on, mowing the lawns of his elderly neighbors and donating pounds of his famous barbecue for fund-raisers for sick children.

"Everywhere you go, you hear someone say what E.J. did to help them," said Melvin's former mother-in-law, Ruby McQuillar.

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