SC governor suspends Chester Co. sheriff after excessive force, cover-up indictments

A federal grand jury has indicted Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, his chief deputy and a lieutenant, alleging they falsified police reports and made false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Underwood was suspended from office by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster less than an hour after the indictments were made public Tuesday evening.

The indictments say Underwood, Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse and Lt. Johnny Neal were involved in November 2018 in a conspiracy to cover up an unlawful arrest and excessive use of force involving a man in Fort Lawn.

The man, who the indictment says was illegally jailed for three nights and had records falsified about him, was not identified in a written release from U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon.

“Today, we announce the worst kind of charges: Allegations of wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement,” Lydon said in a statement. “Those who swear to protect and uphold the law, while at the same time using their positions of power to hide their own violations of the law, will be held accountable. The American system of government depends on those in power obeying the rules and ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and equally.”

Underwood faces more than 50 years in prison if convicted of all counts, Lydon said.

Underwood, Sprouse and Neal are set to appear in federal court May 21 in Columbia.

After the indictments were announced Tuesday evening, McMaster appointed State Law Enforcement Division agent Donald “Max” Dorsey as sheriff.

Dorsey lives in Chester County and had served as captain of SLED’s narcotics division.

Dorsey will serve as sheriff until charges against Underwood have been disposed of, or until the next election in 2020, McMaster said in a statement.

The indictments identify the alleged victim from Fort Lawn confronted by Underwood and the deputies in the case as “K.S.”

In the indictments, federal prosecutors say “K.S” saw law enforcement activity near his home on Nov. 20, 2018. K.S. then recorded and broadcast the events over Facebook Live.

“While recording this video on his cellular phone, K.S. did not enter the roadway or interfere with law enforcement activities,” the indictments state.

Everett Stubbs, a Chester lawyer, told The Herald Tuesday night that he represents Fort Lawn resident Kevin Simpson. Stubbs said Simpson is the person identified as “K.S.” in the indictments.

Stubbs issued the following written statement to The Herald. Stubbs said it was, “My official statement as the attorney for Kevin Simpson.”

“We want to thank the Law Enforcement Professionals that did a thorough job of fully evaluating this situation. The facts of this ugly situation are not a typical representation of how the vast majority of law enforcement officers interact with citizens that they have sworn to serve and protect. We are appreciative of law enforcement in general and particularly for those law enforcement agencies that refuse to allow the bad apples to survive in the greatest justice system in the world. The FBI and the US Attorney’s office here in South Carolina have acted like true professionals, and we feel confident that the wheels of justice will continue to turn for Mr. Simpson and his family.”

Stanley Myers, a Columbia attorney, told The Herald late Tuesday by telephone that he represents Underwood in the federal indictment case. Myers said Underwood was not taken into custody by law enforcement.

Myers did not comment on the allegations but issued the following statement:

“I hope that everyone keeps an open mind and knows there are two sides to every story,” Myers told The Herald.

Prosecutors said the eight indictments allege:

“On November 20, 2018, law enforcement personnel from Chester County Sheriff’s Office, including Underwood, Neal, and Sprouse, responded to a car accident and fleeing suspect in Fort Lawn. A resident living nearby, identified in the Indictment as K.S., used his cellphone to live-stream the law enforcement activity. Underwood asked K.S. to stay on his porch, but K.S. remained in his yard. Underwood returned 25 minutes later, directing K.S. to retreat to his porch.

“Underwood then followed K.S. onto his porch, lunged out to grab and restrain K.S. by his torso, and demanded that K.S. turn over his cellphone. After restraining K.S., Underwood stated that he was attempting to place K.S. under arrest. Neal placed K.S. in handcuffs and escorted him to a vehicle for transport to the detention center. In doing so, Neal knocked K.S. to the ground while K.S. was restrained in handcuffs, injuring K.S.’s head and elbow. Neal then directed the transport office to place a ‘hold’ on K.S., causing him to be held in jail for three nights.

“Underwood and Sprouse learned that K.S. had live-streamed the video from his cellphone onto the Internet. Underwood and Sprouse then announced that a radio had been lost during the seizure of K.S. Sprouse and Neal then directed subordinate deputies to draft a search warrant that would allow them to enter K.S’s home. Sprouse entered K.S.’s home without a warrant, searching for the cellphone. He directed a subordinate deputy to dial a phone number in an effort to identify the target phone by making it ring. Sprouse ultimately removed a cellphone from K.S’s home without consent. Sprouse then delivered that phone to a Sheriff’s deputy in charge of evidence collection.

“In January 2019, Sprouse and Neal created an incident report containing false statements about K.S.’s seizure, and Underwood and Sprouse created and signed a disciplinary report shifting the blame to the deputy in charge of evidence collection for taking the phone following the seizure of K.S. Also in January 2019, Underwood and Sprouse made false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) concerning the seizure of K.S. and the cellphone.

“This Count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

“Count Two alleges that Underwood violated K.S.’s rights while acting under color of law by seizing K.S. without probable cause to believe K.S. committed a crime, causing him to be detained in jail for three nights. This Count carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison.

“Count Three alleges that Neal violated K.S.’s rights while acting under color of law by knocking K.S. to the ground while he was handcuffed, resulting in bodily injury to K.S. This Count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

“Count Four alleges that Underwood and Sprouse tampered with the cellphone, attempting to alter, destroy, or conceal it with the intent to impair its integrity or availability for use in the federal case involving the deprivation of K.S.’s rights. This Count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

“Count Five alleges that Neal and Sprouse falsified a record with the intent to impede a federal investigation by creating a false incident report indicating that K.S. repeatedly left his yard to enter the roadway and that K.S. directed profane language toward them – when in fact K.S. did neither – and caused that report to go to the FBI. This Count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

“Count Six alleges that Underwood and Sprouse falsified a record with the intent to impede a federal investigation by creating and signing a disciplinary report shifting blame to the deputy in charge of evidence collection for taking the cellphone following K.S.’s seizure, and caused that report to go to the FBI. This Count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

“Count Seven alleges that Underwood made a false statement to the FBI on May 3, 2019, representing that he first viewed K.S.’s video recording about a week after the incident, when in fact he viewed the recording on the date of the incident. This Count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

“Count Eight alleges that Sprouse made a false statement to the FBI on January 8, 2019, representing that he did not know how a cellphone was removed from K.S.’s home, when in fact he removed the phone. This Count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.”

On April 29, The Herald reported that the FBI was searching the Chester County Sheriff’s Office. Agents took electronics out of the office that day after a six-hour search. Underwood, through a major at his office, issued a statement that Underwood and his staff were cooperating with the FBI.

“He and the staff here are cooperating fully with an obvious investigative matter,” the statement to The Herald from Underwood said.

The indictments against Underwood say that on May 3 Underwood lied to the FBI about when he first saw the video from the incident involving the Chester County man, whom federal prosecutors now say had his civil rights violated by Underwood.

Sprouse, the chief deputy, also is accused of lying to the FBI in January, the indictments state.

Underwood was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2016. He is a retired South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division agent whose wife is Chester County’s chief magistrate judge.

Underwood as sheriff was Chester County’s top law enforcement official and supervised the enforcement and jail operations of the sheriff’s office, as well as Chester County’s 911 emergency system.

Chester County Supervisor Shane Stuart said Tuesday that public safety remains a top priority for the government of Chester County and its residents. Stuart is a former Chester County deputy who worked at the sheriff’s office before Underwood was elected.

Stuart said as Chester’s top elected official, he was notified by the governor’s office that Underwood had been suspended.

“This is a sad day for our community, a difficult day for our community,” Stuart said. “Law enforcement in Chester County will continue to function to protect the safety of the public during this difficult time.”

Stuart said he is adding an executive session item to talk about the personnel issue for the Chester County Council at its 2 p.m. meeting on Thursday. Council meetings by law are public but exceptions for personnel matters can be held behind closed doors.

Brad Jordan, Chester County Council member, said Tuesday night he read the indictments and the executive order from Gov. McMaster appointing Dorsey as sheriff.

“I am pleased the governor acted swiftly in filling the position so that law enforcement and public safety can continue without interruption pending the outcome of the case,” Jordan said.

Jordan also said he requested that the county council receive legal advice from its lawyers Thursday in executive session concerning the situation.

Underwood was indicted in federal court and faces federal charges. However, the cases the sheriff’s office makes are generally prosecuted in South Carolina state court in Chester County.

Randy Newman, 6th Circuit Solicitor, is the elected prosecutor for Chester County. Newman told The Herald that his office will continue to prosecute all pending cases handled by the sheriff’s office in criminal court.

“It is business as usual for my office and my staff,” Newman said. “There is court this week. Cases are being handled. This doesn’t change the status of pending cases.”

Newman said he has reached out to Dorsey to make sure Dorsey knows the prosecutor’s office will assist during the transition.

“I have offered assistance and support from myself, my staff, including all my investigators, to Max Dorsey,” Newman said.

Dorsey was already at work at the sheriff’s office in Chester Tuesday evening, said Thom Berry, SLED spokesman.

Chester County, south of York County and Rock Hill, has about 32,000 residents. The sheriff’s office has more than 50 sworn deputies, plus jail personnel, according to county officials.

Underwood is the first black sheriff in Chester County history. He has been a board member of the national sheriff’s association and was selected by his peers as the 2015 S.C. Sheriff of the Year.

Underwood gained national attention in 2014 when he brought a Pennsylvania boy to Chester County for a hunting trip after a mix-up in his home county of Chester, Pa.

Several South Carolina sheriff’s have been convicted of crimes in recent years. Former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts served about a year in federal prison for illegal use of labor after his 2015 conviction.

Former sheriff’s from Williamsburg County, Saluda County, Union County, Chesterfield County, Abbeville County, and Lee County also were convicted of crimes while in office in the past decade.

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