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A somber, but important anniversary

Posted: February 21, 2014 11:42 a.m.
Updated: February 24, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Of all the hundreds of stories I have written for the C-I, perhaps the most gratifying and the most tragic was “Death of a Deputy,” a five-part series we published in 2009.

Friday marked the 40th anniversary of the event we focused on in that series: the murder of Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Deputy Ernest C. “Chris” Potter III.

At 10:20 a.m. that day, Chris and his partner, J.C. Tollison, encountered three criminals: Theodore Byrd, McKinley Thomas and Dennis Wilson. Chris and Tollison started that morning at the Kershaw County Courthouse for security duty. A call went out, however, that three African-American men were walking along I-20 near Elgin, thumbing for rides.

By the time they got off I-20, used White Pond Road to cross over the interstate to the other side, and got back on I-20, Chris and Tollison could only see two of the men, walking by a guard rail. Tollison got out first, then Chris. As he approached the suspects and asked for their IDs, he suddenly heard a sound behind him. It was the third suspect, McKinley, with a gun to Chris’ head. Byrd then stuck a gun in Tollison’s side.

What the two deputies didn’t know -- this is before the Internet and the world of instant communication -- is that Byrd, Thomas and Wilson had killed a Columbia man the night before ... and Forest Acres Police Officer Richey O. Finch earlier that morning. The suspects then made Chris and Tollison stretch out their arms, hold hands and walk down the embankment from the roadway.

What happened next was horrifying, as I wrote in the first installment five years ago, “The Survivor.”

Potter was on Tollison’s right as they walked down the embankment. They took a few steps before breaking into a run. That’s when Byrd, Thomas and Wilson started shooting.

Tollison was struck twice as he ran and fell. When he tried to get up, he was shot two more times. Tollison doesn’t know whether Potter took the six shots that killed him as he ran or whether some of them struck him after he fell.

Both men fell near the tree line.

“It didn’t look like it does now. The tree line wasn’t as close,” Tollison said.

They ended up face down, Tollison angled slightly southward, Potter’s body a few feet away. When he was sure their attackers were gone, Tollison found he could stand up.

He staggered over to Potter and said, “Be still. I’m gonna get some help.”

But he didn’t know his partner for the morning was already dead.

At that point, so many lives, especially in Elgin where Chris lived were changed.

Found by a passing truck driver, Tollison spent a week in the hospital recovering from injuries to his face, shoulder and arm. He eventually went back to work and continued with the KCSO for 23 years. He never forgot what happened, he never forgot his partner, Chris.

Jeannie, just three weeks pregnant with her only child, lost her  high school sweetheart and husband. Chris’ funeral was one of the most attended funerals ever in Elgin, with 1,200 people trying to fit in Highway Pentecostal Holiness Church; the procession to a nearby cemetery ended up being miles long, mostly of law enforcement vehicles.

One of the odd things about that time, according to Jeannie, is that Chris came home around 8 p.m. the night before and went over insurance papers with her.

“He said, ‘I want you to know what’s available,’” she said. “He was worried about everybody.”

Jeannie told me she was convinced Chris had some type of premonition.

Jeannie never remarried; she said her newborn son kept her going. She even worked at the KCSO for a while before going to work at the S.C. State House where she eventually became executive assistant to Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell.

Little Chris, as he is sometimes called, followed in his father’s footsteps, but not in Kershaw County. When I met him in 2009, he was a senior corporal with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department serving as a shift supervisor in the northeast part of the county.

In the earliest days of Tollison’s recovery, a massive manhunt took place to search for the three suspects. Elgin Police Chief Harold Brown, Chris’ best friend growing up, joined what he said were at least 500 volunteers in the search. There were SLED agents, National Guardsmen and more. But the suspects had slipped through ranks. Thomas turned himself in at a Columbia police station a few days later; Wilson did the same, but in Philadelphia; as did Byrd after getting as far away as Detroit.

Byrd pled guilty, claiming he was the only one of the three to fire all the shots that killed Chris -- an impossibility Jeannie, Tollison and Brown all told me. The other two men stood trial.

“The jury, in their great wisdom,” Brown said, not hiding any sarcasm, “determined one man had fired three handguns at the same time, hitting two officers.”

In other words, while a judge had already accepted Byrd’s plea, a jury cleared McKinley and Wilson of murder, finding them guilty instead of lesser charges that kept them in jail for only 20 years each.

Byrd, on the other hand -- as a result of not only murder, but other charges -- was sentenced to life, plus 85 years and 30 days in prison.

He is serving that sentence, still alive.

Ernest C. “Chris” Potter III is not. His murder was a tragedy, an officer, husband and to-be father cut down far, far sooner than he should have. The saving grace is that his life and, yes, his death, has served as an inspiration for two generations.

It certainly inspired me.

As I was then, I remain grateful to his friends and family for letting me in and sharing their stories.

 

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