Family: Criminal justice system failed man falsely accused in Rock Hill CVS robbery

Every screech of someone's shoes on the jail's tile floor and every clicking noise of an electronic lock on a door turned the heads of Jason Thatcher's friends and family in a hopeful way on Friday night.

They sat for hours in the jail's lobby at York County's Moss Justice Detention Center, waiting for the release of the 34-year-old Rock Hill man accused last month of a daytime armed robbery at the CVS across from Winthrop University.

After spending 29 nights behind bars for the July 2 crime that police now say he didn't commit, Thatcher walked out of jail just before 8 p.m. and into the arms of his 15-year-old son Trey.

His friends from the Red Devils Motorcycle Club - who said they think of Thatcher like a brother - patted his back, hugged him and quickly handed him his black leather motorcycle jacket with the club's red and white patches. His mom, Diane Horne, said something to make her son smile before she gave him a hug, squeezed his neck and gave him a kiss on the cheek. His girlfriend of one and a half years, Stephanie Brewer, 25, had Thatcher's Newport cigarettes and a Java Monster Loca Moca coffee-energy drink - his favorite - waiting for him.

Thatcher's time in jail cost him his car and maybe his job, his family said.

His son couldn't visit him in jail because of age visitation rules and family members told Thatcher's 7-year-old daughter, Aubriana, that her dad was out of town working, not in jail on a $500,000 bond. The experience has killed Horne's faith in the criminal justice system, she said.

Two days after the CVS robbery, Thatcher turned himself in to police. Authorities had publicly named him as a suspect and issued warrants for his arrest the day before. Thatcher drove to York County from Darlington, his family said, which is where he was when the crime happened.

Turning himself in wasn't an admittance of guilt, Horne said, it was her son's effort to clear his name of false accusations.

On the day of Thatcher's release, Rock Hill police said they asked the county's solicitor to drop the charges against him because further investigation made police realize they'd arrested the wrong man.

A series of similar robberies in North and South Carolina led authorities to believe that Thatcher did not rob the Rock Hill CVS, but that another man who is identical to him did. Police spokesman Executive Officer Mark Bollinger said law enforcement officials have positively identified the new robbery suspect and believe he drives the same make and model car as Thatcher.

The name of the new suspect has not been released because the man does not know he is under investigation, Bollinger said.

Rock Hill police released Thatcher's name and an old mug shot after circulating surveillance video footage from the July 2 CVS robbery. The department felt, Bollinger said, that it had probable cause to issue warrants for Thatcher's arrest after people who grew up with Thatcher told police that he robbed the pharmacy.

During the crime, the store's pharmacist handed over a bag of prescription pills to the unknown robber after he put a note on the counter demanding drugs and warning her to not "make a scene." The robber - who Thatcher's family says has a different hair color and looks heavier than Thatcher in the video - then ran out of the store.

A K-9 police tracking unit followed a scent from CVS to a home about 20 blocks away. Police say a man at the home identified Thatcher as the culprit.

Thatcher's lawyer has said he has doubts about the reliability of the witness at the home. While waiting for Thatcher to be released on Friday night, his family said they know the man who police officers spoke with, but have no idea why he would have given them Thatcher's name.

Authorities, legal representatives and Thatcher's family have not disclosed the man's name. Statements from witnesses inside the store at the time of the robbery weren't useful to police.

One employee's statement was deemed tainted after she looked up Thatcher's name and photo online when authorities released details publicly.

Another employee didn't have many details to give, police said.

For Thatcher's family, there are too many unknown aspects of the police investigation and reasons why their loved one was initially accused, they said on Friday.

"Really we don't know a whole lot, we just know he's innocent," his mom said.

Thatcher's prior criminal history includes conviction on forgery charges in 2002 and simple assault and battery charges in 2003, according to State Law Enforcement Division records. He was also convicted on four drug charges in 2004 in York County and fined for having an open container of alcohol and speeding in a car in 2012 in Chesterfield County, SLED records show.

He has since reformed and doesn't drink or do drugs, his family and girlfriend said on Friday. They described him as a father who loves his kids and works hard at his job as a pipe fitter for a steel mill.

Her brother is "good hearted," said Thatcher's sister, Jessie Horne, 23. While in jail, he gave some of his prison canteen dollars and phone credits to fellow inmates who didn't have enough money for snacks or to call family members, she said.

In a statement sent Friday night to The Herald, Thatcher's lawyer Gary Lemel said his client's release from jail vindicates him and his family, who have been "adamant about his innocence."

The criminal charges were dropped, Lemel said, "not because of a technicality or loophole, but simply because he was not guilty of these crimes."