COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Former two-term Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin and eight co-conspirators indicted on drug charges pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday. Melvin showed up to the federal courthouse in Columbia in the back of his defense attorney's car and walked into the courthouse alone.
Federal Bureau of Investigation and SLED agents arrested Melvin at a Sumter woman's home on May 1. By the next day, agents arrested eight others in the case: Brenda LaShawn Ellerby, Larry Williams, Anthony Williams, Eric Hickmon, Lucius Delane, Sheldon Maurice Bradley, Gary Bernard Ervin, and Antonio Holloman. All but Anthony Williams, who remains jailed at the Lexington County Detention Center, appeared at the arraignment hearing Monday and entered not guilty pleas.
The defendants each waived the reading of the indictments against them, indictments a federal grand jury handed up last month. All told the judge they understood the charges against them and signed a plea document.
On May 24, agents announced five more arrests in the case. Agents charged Kari Apfelbeck, Terry Gunsauley and Susan Morris, all from Camden, as well as Boyd Sweetenburg of Bethune and Roshell Brown of Darlington in the conspiracy case. Brown was only the only one of the five booked into jail on the charges, where he remains, according to Lexington County booking records. The other four suspects are free on bond.
The federal government opened its investigation into Melvin and the drug ring on Dec. 1, 2006. Agents testified they have more than 500 recorded phone conversations between Melvin and the suspects in this case.
In a sworn affidavit signed April 29, FBI agent Christopher Garrett asked a federal judge for permission to place wiretaps on two suspected Lee County drug dealers' phones. The wiretaps were approved in a March 9 order and targeted Larry Williams and Eric Hickmon, two men investigators said sold and trafficked drugs into Lee County. Within 17 days, agents went back to the judge and asked for permission to place a wiretap on Melvin's cell phone. The judge approved the Melvin tap in a March 26, 2010 court order.
Agents said they picked up on Melvin's involvement in the drug ring through the Hickmon and Williams wiretaps. The judge only allowed agents to monitor the taps for 30 days, but state and federal agents said they gathered enough evidence within that time to charge the sheriff and eight others with conspiracy to possess and distribute 5 kilos of cocaine and 50 grams of crack.
The affidavit, unsealed during the sheriff's initial appearance inside a Columbia federal courtroom last month, detailed 17 phone conversations between Melvin, Williams and Hickmon recorded between March 9 and April 24. Investigators described Williams as Melvin's "middle man." Agents detailed statements from six different witnesses that investigators said would prove Melvin conspired to deal and traffic drugs in his county. One witness told investigators that in the fall of 2006, Melvin drove up in his sheriff's office-owned Ford Expedition and delivered a kilogram of powder cocaine to Williams, who then sold some of the delivery to the agent's witness.
The sheriff also conspired with Williams in a March 15 phone call to make a trip to Atlanta or Florida to find cocaine to deliver to Lee County, according to the affidavit. In the call, the sheriff told Williams, "We've got to find a way to get down there and get back." "I've got a way for somebody to go down there and come back," Williams responded in the taped conversation.
The same day, agents said they recorded a second conversation between the sheriff and Williams where the sheriff talked about initiating a traffic stop on a Mexican where the sheriff would "take their stuff, both their stuff and their money," according to the affidavit.
The sheriff is also accused of extorting money from drug dealers in exchange for the sheriff reducing or dropping charges against the men. Agents told the judge Melvin "regularly protects drug dealers from law enforcement activity," and there's evidence that Melvin "has extorted money from multiple drug dealers for his protection," according to the wiretap conversations recorded by the FBI.
In a March 29 phone call, agents recorded a call between Melvin and Williams where co-defendant Lucius Delane wanted Williams to have the sheriff drop or reduce drug charges against a suspected drug dealer, Roshell Brown. In the call, the men discuss payment for the favor as "chips," which agents interpreted to mean $1,000. For Melvin's help on the charges, the sheriff told Williams, "That's them big chips now, I ain't mean no little chips," according to the FBI. Agents interpreted the conversation to mean that Melvin expected a $5,000 payment, of which Williams would receive a percentage.
With five days remaining on Sheriff Melvin's wiretap, SLED and FBI agents met with Melvin at his Bishopville office on April 19. The meeting started at 4pm and lasted for more than an hour. Investigators told Melvin they were looking into several drug dealers in Lee County, and made a handwritten list of the suspects they gave to Melvin. The list contained most of the co-conspirators agents said were part of the sheriff's drug network. After agents left the sheriff's office, investigators told the judge, "Sheriff Melvin began conducting numerous telephone calls in an effort to either tip off drug dealers about the FBI's interest in them, or to extort money from them." At 6:25pm, agents recorded a call between Melvin and Williams where the men planned to extort money from some of the names on the FBI's suspect list in exchange for Melvin's help in steering agents away from the suspects, according to the affidavit.
The next day, agents recorded a 10:03am call between Melvin and Williams where the men were planning to have co-defendant, Lucius Anthony Delane, removed from the government's suspect list. In the call, Melvin tells Williams, "See what we can get out of him. Tell him we'll keep the, you know, off him. We'll try to lead them another way," according to the agent's wiretap recording. Over the course of several calls, agents said Melvin and Williams were able to extort $2,000 from Delane on a promise for the sheriff to steer SLED and the FBI away from Delane.
In a call later that day, the sheriff places a call to an unnamed man to discuss what to do with co-defendant Antonio Holloman's name being placed on the government's suspect list, and how much it would cost for Melvin to protect him, according to the affidavit. The man tells the sheriff that Holloman would pay between $2,500 and $3,000 for Melvin's protection. Melvin tells the caller what he planned to tell Holloman when he saw him, "I don't trust you because you are a weak link. You try call my name, anything, I swear they are going to find you because I ain't going to let you take me down," according to the FBI's wiretap recordings.
The sheriff called Holloman around 10:41pm to let the man know that the sheriff was meeting with the FBI and SLED in Florence the next day to discuss the suspect list. Melvin tells Holloman, "I need to have something before I go there tomorrow. If there's nothing there, it's nothing I can do," according to the taped phone call. Agents said Holloman paid the sheriff $400 in exchange for the sheriff's protection.
In a 10:17am April 23 call, agents reported that Melvin called Erik Hickmon, who is also charged in the drug conspiracy case, to arrange a traffic stop on co-defendant Sheldon Maurice Bradley. Agents said the sheriff told Hickmon that he'd initiate a stop on Bradley and "take it from him," talking about the drugs Melvin said he expected to find on Bradley. Melvin intended to give Hickmon part of the cocaine, and turn the rest in as evidence against Bradley, according to the affidavit.
WRAPPING THE CASE
The day before the court-ordered wiretap ended, Melvin spoke with SLED agent Cecil Carter and FBI agent Garrett by phone. The agents asked Melvin what he knew about Larry Williams, the man the sheriff spoke with multiple times by phone, according to the government's wiretap evidence. Melvin diverted the conversation away from the subject by providing agents information on another drug dealer, according to the affidavit.
Agents were able to bring Williams back into the conversation by telling the sheriff they'd found an old informant file that listed Williams as a drug dealer in Lee County. Melvin told investigators, "I know him. No he… he like a old washed up man… I heard that he used to," agents reported. Williams goes by the street name, "Hawk," and the affidavit says Melvin's street name was "Big Dog."
Melvin told agents that he knew Williams from a convenience store he stopped in regularly, but that he had no personal relationship or regular contact with Williams away from the store. Agent Garrett asked the sheriff, "You wouldn't happen to have a phone number for him?" Melvin responded, "No," according to the agents. Agents told the judge, "Sheriff Melvin clearly lied to federal and state agents about Williams," according to court records. Agents said Melvin started using a different phone number to reach Williams, conversations where agents said Melvin told Williams about investigators' interest in him.
U.S. Marshals escorted Melvin and his eight co-conspirators into the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in downtown Columbia on May 3. Melvin, dressed in a red prison suit and shackled at his wrists and ankles, sat in a jury box while a federal judge informed him of the charges against him. Melvin spent most of the hearing with his eyes closed and his head leaned back against a wall. When the judge asked if the former sheriff understood the charges against him, Melvin cleared his throat, and after a long pause muttered, "Yes sir."
Federal prosecutors told the judge they planned to have Melvin held without bond until his trial because of some of the recorded conversations Melvin had with his co-defendants. Prosecutors said the conversations, "deeply concerned the government," but did not elaborate on which conversations.
If convicted, the maximum penalty is life in prison or a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. The fines could max out at $4 million. Sheldon Maurice Bradley faces a mandatory minimum if convicted because prosecutors said he has one prior drug conviction.
Anthony Williams, Gary Ervin, and Eric Hickmon have two prior drug convictions, which would mean life in prison if convicted on the latest charges.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have until June 22 to enter motions in the case. After the deadline, the case will move closer to trial.
Melvin left the Lexington County Detention Center May 7, just six days after he scribbled out a hand-written resignation letter to Governor Mark Sanford. Agents said Melvin wrote the note at the FBI's bureau office in Columbia within hours of his arrest. Melvin will await his trial on home detention under a $200,000 bond.
Delane, Ellerby, and Antonio Holloman remain free on bond.
The case is assigned to US District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie. A trial date has not been set.