COLUMBIA — Suspended Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and two top deputies on Tuesday pleaded not guilty in federal court to various charges, including excessive use of force and misusing public money.
Underwood, whose controversial time in office was highlighted in The Post and Courier's "Above the Law" investigation of the state's sheriffs earlier this year, plans to let a jury decide his fate, his attorney said after the hearing.
Underwood is facing charges of conspiracy, excessive use of force, unlawful arrest, conspiring to dodge taxes, having on-duty officers perform repair work on his property and taking relatives on trips using agency funds. Gov. Henry McMaster suspended Underwood after his indictment.
The embattled sheriff known as Big A waved to reporters and smiled as he walked out of the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse — a sign of the confidence he and attorney Stanley Myers share that the charges will be tossed by a jury when the case begins.
“My client is encouraged by the evidence that we’ve seen and the evidence that we haven’t seen,” Myers said. "He has indicated to me that he wants his day in court. I think that a lot of this is all about context, and hopefully a trial will bring all of the contextual issues together."
Underwood and two high-ranking colleagues, Lt. Johnny Richard Neal and Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, pleaded not guilty during a short arraignment on charges of using excessive force to arrest a man and then covering it up.
In court Tuesday, all three men waived their right to hear the charges read aloud before entering not guilty pleas.
The Post and Courier found in its investigation that Underwood and Sprouse flew first-class in 2017 with their wives to a Nevada sheriff’s conference, retaining a $353 chauffeur to shuttle them to and from the airport. The newspaper also revealed Underwood traveled first-class to conferences in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.
“The allegation is he took his wife on an approved conference and when asked about it, he repaid whatever he felt he needed to, and that’s what he’s done all along. Since that allegation, there have been two budget cycles, two audit cycles. No one found anything,” Myers said. “All of a sudden everybody’s alleging, ‘Hey, he’s done something wrong.’ We just don’t see it.”
The excessive force allegation stems from a Nov. 20, 2018, incident involving Kevin Simpson, who livestreamed emergency vehicles outside his Chester home.
On the feed, Underwood can be seen ordering the 26-year-old to get on his porch. The man obeyed but yelled “manhunt” as the sheriff walked away, leading him to turn around and grab Simpson.
Neal then wrestled the man to the ground, according to the indictment, injuring Simpson’s head and elbow. He was later charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Underwood and Sprouse, according to the indictments, filed a warrant to search Simpson’s home when they learned he livestreamed the confrontation on Facebook, saying one of their radios was missing.
During the search, they found Simpson’s cellphone and illegally confiscated it, the indictments said. Underwood and Sprouse later tampered with the phone to destroy or “impair its integrity or availability” in a federal investigation, the indictments said.