Officials in Chester County have not yet heard if state police will honor their request to send an elite group of agents to help them fight gang violence that has been blamed for three murders and death threats against police officers and their families.
And despite federal agents’ expertise in taking down gangs – helping locals agencies destroy and prosecute gangs ranging from Hells Angels to Folk Nation – the FBI apparently has not been called in to help battle a problem so severe that the public is donating money to buy bulletproof vests for sheriff’s deputies working unpaid overtime at night and on weekends in anti-gang efforts.
The Chester County Council this week asked the State Law Enforcement Division to send its gang unit to the county, where police have identified at least six active gangs with more than 300 members. Five men with alleged ties to Chester’s Roundtree Circle Gang have been charged in connection with the Nov. 4 drive-by shooting death of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams.
That killing sparked what Sheriff Alex Underwood said were death threats from gangs, prompting deputies and their families to wear protective vests in Chester’s Christmas parade last week and those in Richburg and Fort Lawn on Saturday.
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SLED Chief Mark Keel knows of the county’s request for help but has not yet acted on it, agency spokesman Thom Berry said Friday.
But Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, Underwood’s spokesman, said he is confident SLED will contact either the sheriff or county officials or both to coordinate the requested state assistance. County Councilmen Alex Oliphant and Joe Branham said this week they expect the request for SLED help to be honored.
Ten state probation agents were in Chester County last weekend to help with interdiction duties and to try to locate probationers who might be violating probation conditions by associating with gangs. SLED’s fugitive task force and crime scene specialists assisted deputies last month in the Odell Williams investigation and arrests.
The County Council’s request for more help from SLED sparked a rebuke from Underwood, himself a former SLED agent. Underwood has argued with County Council members over his request for money to hire more officers to fight gang violence.
“There is no denying that crime comes from gangs – and not just the murders we have investigated, but drug crimes, gun crimes, and more,” Sprouse said. “That’s why we asked for more money for deputies and a gang investigator.”
Williams, 69, a retired police officer, was shot in the head with an assault rifle after what police say was a run-in with several people. The alleged triggerman, Christopher Moore, is an 18-year-old convicted felon. It is unclear how he obtained an assault rifle when state and federal law prohibits felons from possessing such weapons.
Three other suspects in Williams’ killing have felony convictions. Two were out on bond for other violent crimes at the time of the killing.
Federal gun laws for convicted felons are often far harsher than state laws, with mandatory sentences of up to life in prison upon conviction. In 2012, the FBI was instrumental in breaking up a weapons and drug distribution ring run by Hells Angels gang members centered in York County. More than a dozen weapons and drug dealers went to federal prison.
Federal officials have not commented specifically on the gang violence in Chester or whether they might become involved.
“Dismantling violent gangs in South Carolina is a continuing priority of the FBI,” according to a statement from the agency. “We maintain a very close working relationship with all of our law enforcement partners. Together, we share intelligence in an effort to focus our investigations on the top threats around the state.”