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York Co. leaders support Sheriff Bryant after mistaken release of killer

Leaders in York County from both political parties Saturday expressed confidence in Sheriff Bruce Bryant after a convicted murderer was captured in Texas following a mistaken release from custody Monday.

Bryant, who has been sheriff since 1996, openly and repeatedly this past week admitted that human error and documentation error were responsible for the release of Thomas Aaron Whitlock, a convicted murderer.

Even before Whitlock was captured Friday, Bryant ordered a review of both the specific incident and the processused for inmates entering and leaving the county detention center.

"I have full confidence that Sheriff Bryant will investigate what happened, and that it will not happen again," said Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, who worked with Bryant for 20 years as a SLED agent and then as York County's elected prosecutor.

"This is one incident. It was serious, and the sheriff is addressing it with all his resources. Sheriff Bruce Bryant is committed to public safety in York County and has a long record of success," Pope said. "I live near the jail and I can say with full confidence that Sheriff Bruce Bryant has the safety of the citizens of this county at the top of his priority list."

Whitlock, serving 11 to 14 years in a North Carolina prison for murder, had been in the county jail since Feb. 8 to face drug charges in York County. This past Monday in court Whitlock pleaded guilty, was sentenced to time served because of the current long sentence, and should have been returned to North Carolina with another drug conviction on his record. Whitlock even acknowledged to the sentencing judge, in court, according to prosecutors, that he had at least eight years left on his murder conviction

However, a mix-up in the jail where some paperwork showed that Whitlock had just been sentenced to time served, but did not show his current sentence in North Carolina, led to his release. After a four-day manhunt involving almost a dozen police agencies, Whitlock was caught Friday in Texas at the home of his girlfriend. Whitlock admitted to police that drug associates, whom he called "crack friends," helped his escape to Texas by rental car.

Saturday Bryant put it bluntly, as is his trademark: "I make no excuses." An internal affairs review, launched even before Whitlock was caught, should be finished and released this week, Bryant said. Part of that review will determine why it took almost a full day for jailers to realize Whitlock had been released mistakenly Monday. The error was not noticed until Tuesday.

Bryant is up for re-election in November. No challengers have filed to oppose him. The filing period ends at the end of March. Bryant has run unopposed in each election since 2000.

Leaders in both parties lauded Bryant's quick ordering of an internal review. The jail handles as many as 7,000 inmates each year.

Two Democrats, York County Councilman William "Bump" Roddey and Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, both said Saturday the public should continue to have confidence in the sheriff's office.

"I have full confidence in Sheriff Bryant, and the people who work for him," said Roddey. "This happened one time. Once only. And law enforcement then caught the man who was released, and set up a review plan to make sure it never happens again. Yes this was serious, but I see this now, afterward, as learning experience that can make the office even better."

Like Roddey, King said an incident such as this does not need to be politicized. Further, King said, one error by a member of the sheriff's office - although the situation "was very serious and very important" and could have ended worse - should not be how Bryant and his office are judged.

"The community has been upset, there was an uproar, but this was one error and all of us, myself included, make human errors," King said. "I have full confidence the sheriff and the people who work for him will visit what happened here and put all safeguards in place to make sure it never happens again."

Service to the community, and the public having faith in his office to protect the public, is paramount, Bryant said. Bryant accepted the mistake, as the elected sheriff and head of the jail, and vowed to correct it while accepting the responsibility of the mistake.

"It will be fixed," Bryant said.

Current 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett also expressed confidence this week during the manhunt, and after the capture, that Bryant's office make sure the mistake never happens again.

"Bruce Bryant took this very seriously from the beginning and will make sure that whatever happened does not happen again, Brackett said. "Sheriff Bryant's record of standing up for the public, and service, and accepting responsibility, extends through his entire office."

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, praised Bryant for standing before the public and accepting responsibility.

"That is what is called the Harry Truman approach - The buck stops with him," Simrill said. "Bruce Bryant immediately ordered a full investigation into how it happened. He and his office have my full confidence and should have the full confidence of the public. He's been an innovator as sheriff: He is a leader in state and national circles in law enforcement. I stand behind Bruce Bryant because he stands for public safety in York County."

It remains unclear what paperwork mistakes and human errors contributed to the release of Whitlock, but Bryant said the problem happened when Whitlock entered the jail Feb. 8.

"Our pride at the York County Sheriff's Office is in the service we give the community" Bryant said. "This event bothered employees. They have pride and they work for the public. I regret this happened."

Whitlock remains in jail in Texas and likely will be sent this week to a North Carolina prison to serve the rest of his term.

Pope, the former prosecutor, also said the decision by prosecutors to seek a conviction against Whitlock even though Whitlock was already in prison was the right one. The problem was not the prosecution of Whitlock: the problem was one error that potentially could have been dangerous, but ended peacefully.

"One mistake by a person, a human error, does not take away from the years of public safety and law enforcement successes of Bruce Bryant," said Rep. Pope, whose late father, Elbert, was York County Sheriff a generation ago. "His years as sheriff have been marked by a proven record of achievement. His office, and his officers, do great things for the people of York County."