York County Coroner Doug McKown violated his probation this week when he was arrested in North Carolina after drinking beer while driving a county vehicle and traveling with a man suspected of smoking crack cocaine, authorities said.
McKown, 39, was charged with violating his probation Friday afternoon and booked at the York County Detention Center. He vehemently denied the charges.
His arrest comes less than two months after he was acquitted of felony cocaine charges in York County. After the acquittal, McKown was able to return to the elected coroner post that Gov. Mark Sanford suspended him from in 2006.
McKown's probation followed his conviction for unlawfully possessing a prescription drug, a misdemeanor charge tied to half a pill of Viagra that police found in his home.
His latest arrest stems from a Thursday night incident in Lincoln County, N.C., according to the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
McKown was driving his county-issued white Chevy Blazer around 9 p.m. that night with 43-year-old Eric Howell of Gastonia, N.C., when a deputy pulled the SUV over, according to a Lincoln County Sheriff's Office report.
The deputy had noticed the vehicle in the parking lot of a convenience store, where he spotted Howell using a beverage can to smoke, the report stated. The deputy recognized the technique as one used to smoke crack or methamphetamine.
But as the deputy was getting out of his patrol car, Howell saw him put the can down and said something to McKown, the report stated. The coroner then looked at the deputy, backed out of his parking space and drove away.
As the deputy pulled McKown over, he saw a can being tossed out of the passenger's side window, the report stated. The can looked like the one Howell had been using to smoke.
The deputy walked up to McKown's window and told him what he'd seen, according to the report. McKown told the deputy he didn't know Howell had been smoking.
McKown said he went into the convenience store to buy gum, and when he got back to the vehicle, Howell told him that they needed to leave because the police were there, the report stated. But the deputy didn't believe McKown because he'd seen both of them in the vehicle while Howell was using drugs.
When the deputy asked Howell what he was smoking, Howell told him he was using crack, the report stated. The deputy smelled alcohol on McKown's breath and asked if he'd been drinking.
McKown told him he'd had two beers, the report stated. McKown performed a sobriety test, but it was inconclusive.
McKown refused to take a breath test, according to the report. Authorities found three open bottles of Coors Light beer in the vehicle.
Both McKown and Howell were arrested and taken to the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office.
McKown was cited for drinking while driving and an open container violation. He was not charged with the more serious driving while impaired and didn't go to jail.
Howell was charged with an open container violation, littering and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was taken to jail and released on a $500 bond. The discarded can was recovered but had not been tested Friday.
The county's Blazer was taken to an impound lot.
Both McKown and Howell offer accounts that directly contradict what the sheriff's office report says. Howell, who lives in Gastonia, N.C., denies smoking crack and says he didn't tell police he had.
"They asked that question and my comment was like, 'Yeah, right,'" Howell said. "I would submit to a drug test. ... I don't use drugs. I don't know. It just seems like this whole thing has been fabricated."
Howell said he was smoking a cigarette. "Doug hasn't done anything wrong," he said. "He's not involved in any kind of drug activity."
Before he was arrested Friday on the probation charge, McKown told The Herald that he went to Lincoln County on Thursday night to pick up Howell. Howell had too much to drink and needed a ride home from his girlfriend's house, McKown said.
Howell said he did ask McKown for a ride. McKown adamantly denies drugs were in his vehicle.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," McKown said. "He smoked a cigarette in my car. That's it."
McKown also claims he wasn't drinking that night. When he picked up Howell, he said his friend had a 12-pack of beer. McKown said he stopped at a convenience store to buy a soft drink and believes Howell opened a beer while he was inside.
He said he didn't know Howell was drinking in the vehicle until the deputy stopped him. He maintains he's only accused of minor offenses.
"It's no different than a speeding ticket," McKown said. "But of course it's gonna make big news because I had an alcohol violation. ... I feel bad about it, don't get me wrong. I feel stupid for even being put in that situation. But I just made a stupid mistake."
But that mistake landed McKown, who recently returned from a vacation in Argentina, in jail Friday night. Bond had not been set.
McKown went to the local probation office Friday afternoon. He said he wanted to take a drug test to clear his name. He was arrested shortly after that.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services says McKown violated his probation by lying to an agent and supervisor about his North Carolina arrest, not immediately notifying an agent of his arrest and leaving the state without permission, among other offenses.
If a judge determines McKown violated his probation, he could serve a year in prison.