Suspended Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and two top deputies pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of abuse of police powers, false arrest conspiracy and other alleged violations.
Underwood, former chief deputy Robert Sprouse and Lt. Johnny Neal each could face decades in prison if convicted of all charges, federal prosecutors say.
The three men made their first federal court appearances Tuesday in Columbia, two weeks after federal prosecutors issued indictments in connection with a conspiracy to cover up an unlawful arrest and excessive use of force involving a Fort Lawn man in November 2018. The victim was illegally jailed for three nights and his records falsified by Underwood, Neal, and Sprouse to hide their illegal actions, federal prosecutors and the FBI say.
Paige Gossett, the presiding judge, ordered that the defendants have no contact with the victim or any one from the sheriff’s office while the case is pending.
Other than answering routine questions required by the judge, none of the three made any statements inside or outside court. Underwood left the courthouse at 12:45 p.m., two hours after the hearing. He declined to comment.
The courtroom was packed with dozens of Chester County residents and Underwood supporters, including clergy members and S.C. State Sen Mike Fanning, D-Great Falls. Fanning, who has publicly asked the community to offer prayers for Underwood, said he was there to support the justice system being allowed to work.
Fanning gathered Underwood supporters and the other deputies outside the courtroom after the hearing and led the group in a prayer as the group held hands.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alyssa Richardson said in court that since the indictments were issued there have been allegations to her office that Sprouse and Underwood made improper contact with potential witnesses.
One of the indictments alleges that an unnamed deputy was the target of a phony disciplinary report sent to the FBI as part of the investigation, in an attempt to mislead federal agents.
“There has been some attempt to issue threats,” Richardson said in court. “This is a case where there are allegations of a conspiracy and an extensive cover up.”
Richardson also said in court that Neal, who is charged with physically assaulting the victim in the case, “has a propensity for violence.”
Neal’s lawyer, Andrew Johnston, said in court that he had heard of no such accusations against Neal.
“A propensity for violence, this is the first I am hearing this,” Johnston said.
Michael Laubshire, Sprouse’s lawyer, also said in court he had been told of “no threats or coercion by anyone.”
Stanley Myers, the attorney representing Underwood, said in court that Underwood has done nothing to address anyone concerning the case.
All three defendants were released on a personal recognizance bond until their next court appearance.
That means none had to pay any bail to be released. The three also cannot carry guns, cannot leave South Carolina, and must show up for court or risk arrest, Gossett said.
After court, Myers, told The Herald his client denies all charges.
“Sheriff Underwood was doing his job that night,” Myers said after court. “This case is an assault on law enforcement.”
In the indictments, federal prosecutors say the Fort Lawn man, identified as “K.S.,” saw police activity near his home on Nov. 20, 2018. K.S. recorded and broadcast the events over Facebook Live. (The victim is Kevin Simpson, according to Simpson and his lawyer.) Underwood and K.S. had a confrontation that was recorded, the indictments say.
Underwood, Sprouse and Neal then falsely arrested Simpson, making up a phony report that blamed another deputy, prosecutors say. Underwood tried to alter the video on Simpson’s seized cellphone in a scheme to cover up the confrontation, federal prosecutors say. Underwood and Sprouse then lied to the FBI during an investigation, prosecutors say.
Myers said after court that the crux of the case is that Underwood and the other deputies were doing their jobs when Underwood confronted Simpson. Police were at an incident scene near Simpson’s home when Simpson and Underwood had two confrontations after Underwood told Simpson to go on his porch for his own safety, Myers said.
“The police were looking for a dangerous man that night,” Myers said. “They were not there to confront Mr. Simpson. Both times Sheriff Underwood asked him to go back to his house. They asked Mr. Simpson to go up on his porch for his own safety. They (deputies) were doing their jobs.”
Myers said there were two videos of the two confrontations but the public has seen only one. Myers said Underwood plans to take the case to trial.
“Sheriff Underwood looks forward to exercising his right to a jury trial,” Myers said.
Myers denied federal prosecutors allegations that Underwood falsified police reports, altered records and committed other crimes to cover up the incident.
“It is not true that he (Underwood) altered evidence,” Myers said.
Underwood, a police officer for more than three decades, could face more than 50 years in prison if convicted of the indictments.
Sprouse faces up to 70 years in prison and Neal faces as much as 35 years, if convicted.
Sprouse is accused of lying to the FBI, being part of the falsifying of records, and participating in the cover up. Neal also is indicted on charges of being part of the cover up, and knocking Simpson to the ground, then holding Simpson in jail for four days.
Federal prosecutors said allegations of illegal police actions by rogue officers will be investigated and prosecuted.
“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,” U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Sherri Lydon said in a statement after the indictments were issued May 7.
Charges against Simpson and his mother, who was accused by Underwood of taking a police radio during the arrest, were dropped by prosecutors with the S.C. Attorney General’s Office two days after the indictments were issued.
Simpson’s lawyer, Everett Stubbs, told The Herald when charges were dropped that the arrest of Simpson and his mother by Underwood and his deputies was a sham. Federal prosecutors said Underwood and Sprouse concocted a phony police report that falsely claimed Simpson repeatedly left his yard and used profane language toward Underwood during the November incident.
Federal prosecutors also said in the indictments that Simpson did not enter the roadway nor interfere with law enforcement during the incident.
Neither Simpson nor Stubbs attended Tuesday’s court hearing.
Former State Law Enforcement Division agent Max Dorsey was appointed acting Chester County sheriff by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster after Underwood was suspended when the indictments were issued May 7.
Underwood, a former SLED agent, was first elected sheriff in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.
No trial date has been set.
Check back for updates on this developing story.