COLUMBIA — The arrest of now-convicted serial killer Todd Kohlhepp in Woodruff last year spurred South Carolina lawmakers to require that state-licensed real estate agents face regular criminal background checks.

But an Upstate lawmaker wants several of the state's professional boards to be held to the same standard. If passed, hairdressers, pharmacists, psychologists and medical examiners also would need to have their records examined before getting a state license. 

A bill sponsored by House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee Chairman Bill Sandifer cleared the House by a 102-3 vote in April but got no traction in the Senate before the Legislature adjourned in May.

Since this is the first of a two-year legislative session, bills that did not become law still can be considered when lawmakers return to Columbia in January.

The legislation would require anyone receiving their initial license from 17 of the boards regulated by the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation submit to a criminal background check. Nine boards already require a background check to get licensed. 

While lawmakers said they believe vetting the members of those boards, ranging from speech language pathologists to massage therapists, will make the public safer, the urgency was focused on real estate agents after Kohlhepp's arrest last November. Kohlhepp was a licensed real estate agent.

In the 1980s and '90s, Kohlhepp served 14 years in prison for a sexually based kidnapping in Arizona and is a registered sex offender — things that could have been caught by a background check had it been required when he applied for his South Carolina license.

Kohlhepp eventually would be charged with seven Upstate murders and the kidnapping of a woman he kept chained in a cargo unit on his property.

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The case spurred the General Assembly to pass a law that soon will require all real estate agents submit to a national fingerprint-based background check when applying for or renewing a real estate license in South Carolina, said Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia.

Kohlhepp pleaded guilty to seven counts of murder and other charges in May and was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences with no possibility for parole. None of the people he killed were his real estate clients.

Beginning in 2020, anyone who applies for or renews a real estate license must submit a fingerprint and pass a background check before the licensing is awarded. Those already licensed will have to resubmit their fingerprint every six years, which is every third time a renewal is required.

"This bill is strictly to protect folks from anything like that ever happening again," said Huggins, who sponsored the expanded criminal background check requirement this year. "Nothing is fool-proof, but this hopefully will give some degree of comfort for someone working with a (real estate agent)."

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933. Follow her on Twitter @MayaTPrabhu.

Maya T. Prabhu covers the Statehouse from Columbia. She previously covered city government and other topics in South Carolina and Maryland. Maya has a bachelors in English from Spelman College and a masters in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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