WOODRUFF — Todd Kohlhepp portrayed himself to the outside world as a hard-charging, coffee-guzzling businessman whose thirst for life and professional success made him the perfect real estate agent to help people sell or find a home.
With a broad smile and a power tie tucked into a crisp Windsor knot, Kohlhepp beamed from his firm’s web page, boasting of advanced degrees, professional accolades and a passion for flying planes and racing cars. His bio trumpeted a can-do attitude from a man who didn’t understand what “it can wait til tomorrow” means.
Kohlhepp apparently applied that same drive to darker pursuits as well, constructing a chamber of horrors at a sprawling expanse of woodlands where Spartanburg County sheriff’s deputies are now digging for bodies, authorities said.
The 45-year-old agent had been operating under the radar for years, ever since he was awarded a South Carolina real estate license despite being an ex-con who had done time for a sexually based kidnapping in Arizona. South Carolina officials didn’t seem to notice that someone who made his living venturing into other people’s homes was also a registered sex offender in this state.
Kohlhepp's outer image came crashing down Thursday afternoon, however, when sheriff’s deputies touring his 95-acre lot heard someone banging on the side of a metal storage container on the property. Inside, they found an Anderson woman who had been missing for two months, chained like a dog in a cage, Sheriff Chuck Wright said.
The rescued woman, 30-year-old Kala Brown, had disappeared Aug. 30, along with her boyfriend, Charlie Carver, 32. Brown told investigators Kohlhepp shot and killed Carver, then held her prisoner inside the padlocked container, authorities said.
What’s more, Brown revealed that the bodies of four people could be buried on the property, which Kohlhepp had owned for two years, Wright said.
Shortly after search teams recovered one body Friday from his Wofford Road land, Kohlhepp was hauled into a small courtroom at the Spartanburg County jail for a bail hearing on a kidnapping charge. He sat without shackles or handcuffs, still wearing the blue T-shirt and gym shorts in which he had been arrested the day before. Lacking an attorney, he said little during the proceeding.
Several of Carver's family members sat nearby, appearing too stunned to react.
Seventh Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette described Kohlhepp as a “very, very dangerous man” and indicated that at least one murder charge was imminent.
A judge set no bail, meaning Kohlhepp will remain in jail for the time being. Meanwhile, the digging on his property continues.
A dangerous past
Kohlhepp came to South Carolina after serving a 14-year prison term in Arizona stemming from a sex crime in the Phoenix area, court records show.
Barnette said Kohlhepp kidnapped and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl when he was 15. He reportedly forced the girl into his home, bound her hands and duct-taped her mouth before sexually assaulting her.
WSPA-TV obtained court records showing that Kohlhepp also received extensive counseling, including hospitalization, for his behavior. A psychiatric evaluation revealed Kohlhepp destroyed his room with a hammer, trashed other children’s work, bleached a goldfish, shot a dog with a BB gun and was kicked out of the Boy Scouts for disruptive behavior. The report quoted his father as saying the only emotion Kohlhepp was capable of was anger, according to WSPA.
Kohlhepp has been listed on South Carolina’s sex offender registry since at least 2012, but that didn’t stop him from getting a real estate license.
At the time, applicants needed only to check a box on a licensing form indicating whether they had been convicted of a crime, said state Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, who successfully pushed for more stringent criminal background check requirements that went into effect in 2014.
“Before that, if you checked the box that you had done nothing wrong, how were they going to find out about it?” he said.
The law was amended again this year to specifically list sex-related felonies as disqualifying offenses. Kohlhepp, however, already had a valid license, which is good until June of next year, according to state records.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, was a main sponsor of the latest change. He said Kohlhepp's case underscores the need for background checks for real estate professionals, who carry unique access to people's homes.
"Anytime you put someone in a position of trust like that, I think there is an expectation on the public's part that you're not going to end up with someone who is unsafe or dangerous," he said.
Compound in the woods
Kohlhepp, owner and broker-in-charge of Spartanburg-based TKA Real Estate, was apparently successful enough at his craft to underwrite the purchase of the vast Wofford Road tract in May 2014 for $305,600.
Neighbors said they found it curious that he almost immediately set to work installing a chain-link fence around the perimeter of the property at considerable expense. The land seemed rich, prime for hunting passing game. Why would he want to do that, they wondered.
Kohlhepp's Facebook page is filled with posts and photographs about his farm property and the work he was doing there to clear the land, fill in ravines and build roads. "I am so looking forward to my land time today," he wrote in March. "Trying to decide if I want to hook up bushhog and run over stuff, cut trees down or maddog the water til it runs uphill... choices choices... you got your gym.. I got mine."
He also commented about current events, ways to meet women and the contentious presidential contest. Then, on Sept. 15, he left this chilling post:
"Reading the news.. this person missing, that person missing, another person missing.. oh wait.. that person just went to beach with friend, other person found with her parole violation boyfriend... in the event I become missing, please note no one would take me. I eat too much and I am crabby, they would just bring me back or give me 20 bucks for a cab ride. most likely if I am missing, its because my dumb a-- did something on that tractor again and I am too stubborn to go to the doctor... I got 9 lives.. I aint done yet."
Kala Brown and Charlie Carver had been missing 16 days at that point.
It remains unclear exactly what led deputies Thursday to Kohlhepp’s property, which is about 80 miles northwest of Columbia. Anderson Police Chief Jim Stewart told the Anderson Independent newspaper that computer and cellphone records played a role in the visit.
Soon after arriving, Brown was heard banging on the container, said to be similar in size to those used to transport global freight on trucks, or about 30 feet by 15 feet. It was sitting above ground.
Sheriff Wright said Brown had a chain around her neck. She told deputies she had been kept in the container for two months and had been fed regularly. It was unclear why she had been targeted, though multiple media outlets reported that she had briefly worked for Kohlhepp before her disappearance.
Wright said Brown, though traumatized, is in good condition.
Carver's vehicle was found in a ravine on Kohlhepp's property late Thursday, Wright said. Carver, however, remains missing.
Barnette, the prosecutor, said Kohlhepp had created a compound on the property, with a two-car garage that contained living quarters. Assault rifles, two 9 mm handguns with silencers and an "unbelievable amount" of ammo was found on the premises, Barnette said. Several guns were also found at Kohlhepp's home in Moore, about 20 minutes from the property.
Deputies brought in cadaver dogs, which alerted on possible remains Friday morning. The county coroner arrived a short time later and word surfaced that a body had been recovered. No identity has been released.
Wright said there is much more to the case that needs to be determined. "We're trying to make sure that we don't have a serial killer on our hands," Wright said.
Kathy Rhodes has lived nearby Kohlhepp’s property for 20 years. She said the community has been stunned by the events that continue to unfold. She’s even debating getting her concealed weapons permit for protection, despite hating guns.
“I thought that could’ve been me, my daughter, my granddaughter,” Rhodes said. “It’s just scary when it’s this close to home.”
Frances Bradley got down on one knee in the tall grass, clutched the fence surrounding the crime scene and prayed Friday afternoon. She prayed for the victims’ families and officials involved in the ongoing search of the property.
Though associates who worked with Kohlhepp described him as a good, professional guy, Bradley, who attends nearby Selma Baptist Church, simply said, “Satan hides in many forms.”