Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier
Cottageville resident Mark Strauble walks down Nut Hatch Lane past the spot where former Mayor Bert Reeves was shot in a confrontation with police officer Randall Price. Strauble arrived on the scene shortly after Reeves was shot.
The paths of officer Randall Price and former Mayor Bert Reeves crossed in deadly fashion Monday afternoon on a dusty dirt road a couple of blocks from Town Hall. A gunshot sounded and Reeves hit the ground. A short time later, he was dead.
Exactly what happened on rural Nut Hatch Lane remains unclear. Authorities have released few details while the State Law Enforcement Division investigates the shooting. But the town's rumor mill was in high gear Tuesday with any number of stories about how the fatal confrontation went down, most laced with tales of simmering feuds and schisms that run deep.
What is known is that Reeves had complained to several town officials about Price having arrested one of his employees in March.
Police Chief John Craddock said Reeves, 40, was upset that Price had cited the worker for a drinking-related violation after the man was caught noisily riding a motorcycle up and down the main drag and "acting crazy." Another officer also was present during the incident, but Reeves seemed to direct his anger at Price, he said.
Reeves formally complained to Craddock and Reeves' aunt, the current mayor, accusing Price of being too aggressive in enforcing the law. "(Reeves) wasn't too happy about it," he said. "As far as I know, that was the only issue they had."
A deadly meeting
Some townspeople said Reeves harbored a grudge about the incident. Mark Strauble, who lives on Nut Hatch Lane, said Reeves told him he wanted "to get back at the town."
Still, Craddock said Reeves and Price had no further contact until Monday, when the pair ended up in a confrontation on Nut Hatch, a narrow lane off Griffith Acres Road that is home to just three families.
Craddock said he raced to the area after Price radioed for backup around 4 p.m. When he arrived, Craddock said, he found Reeves on the ground with a gunshot wound to the chest. Price was nearby with cuts and bruises from an apparent struggle, Strauble said.
Strauble walked from his house up the road to check out the commotion and saw Reeves lying in the dirt near his pickup truck. Price was nearby, trembling. "He looked white as a ghost," he said.
Reeves was transported to Colleton Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Colleton County Fire and Rescue Director Barry McRoy said Price told paramedics he had bruises on his face but when offered an ambulance, he declined treatment.
Price has been placed on paid administrative leave while SLED investigates the shooting. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
"Randy is taking it hard," Craddock said. "He's pretty distraught."
Craddock said the shooting has shaken the entire town because everyone in the community of fewer than 800 people knows or is related to everyone else. "It's been tough on everyone."
An attorney representing Reeves' family told The Associated Press they want answers about the officer's actions.
"The family feels that no matter how you do the math, it appears that Bert, an unarmed man, was shot and killed by a police officer who was trained to handle the exact situation that he found himself in," attorney Mullins McLeod said. "If an altercation did occur, then the officer should have used a Taser and not shot and killed the father of two young children."
On the surface, the episode bears eerie similarities to another recent police-involved shooting in a small town in Orangeburg County. In that incident, Eutawville Police Chief Rick Combs reportedly shot 54-year-old Bernard Bailey to death on May 2 during a confrontation over a traffic citation issued to Bailey's daughter. Bailey was said to be unarmed.
A troubled history
Price, 40, came to Cottageville in May 2008 trailing a fair amount of baggage. After cycling through eight jobs in 11 years, Price's work history was marred by multiple firings, allegations of misconduct and brutality claims. His travails earned him a spot in The Post and Courier's 2005 series " Tarnished Badges," which described how officers with problem pasts continue to find work.
On paper, Price appears to be the quintessential "gypsy cop," an itinerant officer who hops from job to job, leaving turmoil and bad blood in his wake.
Price, however, has long insisted he was the victim of small-town politics and vendettas waged by municipal officials who got angry when he arrested their friends, relatives or neighbors. Stepping on powerful toes had a ruinous effect on his career, he has said, producing a checkered work history that haunts him.
"If you make somebody mad, you are going to have to deal with it," he told The Post and Courier last year. "And I am the poster child for that."
At least a couple of his former bosses supported his account. But others stood by their decisions to send him packing, with one mayor in Barnwell County accusing Price of having anger-management issues.
Craddock, though, has no doubts about Price's performance.
"I stand by him and support him," Craddock said. "He's done a good job for us."
Price is known around this small town as an aggressive, no-nonsense officer who has piled up a number of drug arrests. Some in town applaud his initiative while others find his style out of step with such a quiet, rural community.
A mayor's travails
Reeves also had been a controversial figure in Cottageville. He ran for mayor in an attempt to broaden the town's tax base and end its reputation as a speed trap. Ironically, his tenure was marred by his own driving problems.
He twice was cited for speeding in 2006, once for driving 103 mph in a 55 mph zone. That case attracted national attention.
Some residents called for his resignation, but he ignored them.
In July 2006, he received a brain injury when he flipped his truck. He returned to his town duties after treatment, but many residents felt he was never quite the same after the wreck.
Colleton County Sheriff's Office records show Reeves became the subject of many complaints after that wreck.
In October 2006, a client of Reeves' construction company placed Reeves on trespass notice because, she said, he had come onto her property without permission regarding a business dispute.
In November 2006, about four months after his wreck, Reeves contacted the Colleton County Sheriff's Office to report his wife and three children missing. He told a deputy he believed his wife and kids had been taken against their will because he had been involved in some business dealings "that have turned ugly," according to an incident report.
A deputy contacted various family members and later spoke with his wife, who said she and the children were fine but she just needed to get away from her husband, the report said.
He resigned office in December 2006 amid reports that he had a by-product of an illegal drug in his system at the time of his July wreck.
Earlier this month, a Cottageville woman called deputies because she said Reeves threatened her over an ongoing court case about a horse that animal-control officers seized from Reeves because of neglect. No charges were filed.
At the time of his death, Reeves had no criminal convictions on his record, but he was still facing a pending driving under the influence charge from November 2009, according to a criminal history check.
Post and Courier reporter Allyson Bird contributed to the story. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.