CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Two of the men charged in connection with a meth lab explosion and fire which killed three people at a Goose Creek apartment complex in May were federally indicted on Tuesday.
First Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said 39-year-old Shonni Segrest Abernathy and 33-year-old Jerald Edward McCabe are charged with conspiring to manufacture meth, creating a substantial risk of harm to human life while manufacturing meth, and manufacturing meth where children reside.
"There were state charges filed immediately and we were prepared to go forward with those charges," Wilson said. "However, in working with law enforcement and in consultation with the U.S. attorney...what we realized is that the best opportunity for the best sentences would be prosecution in federal court."
If convicted, both men face a maximum of life in prison, a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison and a fine of $10 million.
"Today, marks the beginning and certainly not the end of the process in federal court," Wilson said.
The fire happened at the Pine Harbour Apartment Complex on May 31. It destroyed over a dozen units in the apartment located on Harbour Lake Drive.
Abernathy's daughter, 19-year-old Morgan Abernathy, was one of the victims in the fire, along with a 4-year-old she was looking after, Samuel Garbe. Joseph Raeth, 69, was living in an adjacent apartment at the time of the explosion and was also killed.
On Tuesday, SLED agent Max Dorsey testified before a congressional committee regarding how methampetamine is impacting South Carolina.
In his testimony, Dorsey referred to the Goose Creek fire and its victims.
"These people did nothing wrong. The were victims of circumstance," Dorsey said. "Although the manufacturing of meth cannot be exclusively proven to be the cause of the fire, it appears based upon information at the present scene that it most certainly may have contributed to the spread of the fire."
"I've been involved in law enforcement in Berkeley County for many, many years and this has been one of the most tragic events ever to occur in the Goose Creek community," Sheriff Wayne Dewitt said. "I think about a 4-year-old child, a 19 year old and then a man who served his country honorably in the military. Just senseless losses. So we hope we can go forward at this point."
Federal prosecutor Peter Phillips could not say if charges will be filed in connection with those deaths, with Wilson adding that much of the evidence from the scene was destroyed by the fire.
In June, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office charged Abernathy and McCabe with attempting to manufacture methamphetamine, two counts of manufacturing methamphetamine in the presence of a minor and manufacturing methamphetamine in the presence of a minor that resulted in death.
The sheriff's office also charged Alberta Pierson and Michael Still with conspiracy to manufacture meth and Pierson was also charged with unlawful conduct towards a child.
Officials said Tuesday they did not expect to bring federal charges against Pierson and Still.
Abernathy and McCabe are being held in the Berkeley County Detention Center. Their trial could happen in the next year, Phillips said.
U.S. Attorney Nettles said, "The investigation continues. The circumstances surrounding this case are tragic, and the Goose Creek community needs to know that this case is a priority for each of the federal, state and local law enforcement agencies involved."
"Methamphetamine is not only dangerous to use, it can be deadly to produce. It harms not only the addict, but devastates those who are around it. This case is an example of what we all too frequently see with methamphetamine: destroyed families and communities with shattered lives," said Harry S. Sommers, the DEA Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Division.
"DEA is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to prevent tragedies like this from occurring by reducing the presence of methamphetamine in our country and putting those who traffic in it, in its precursors, and other illegal and illicit drugs out of business."
ATF Special Agent in Charge Wayne L. Dixie added, "ATF will continue working with our law enforcement partners to determine the origin and cause of fires that cause the loss of life. If we determine a fire that has taken a life or causes significant property damage was deliberately or recklessly set, we will take whatever steps are necessary to hold the responsible person accountable for their actions in a court of law."