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The bigger they are…

Posted: April 10, 2014 9:46 a.m.
Updated: April 11, 2014 5:00 a.m.

I have been watching with great interest this week the news reports on the trial of former Chesterfield County Sheriff Sam Parker. As many of you know, I came here from Pageland in Chesterfield County in late December and when I first went to work there in early 2011, Parker was the sheriff. So, I knew Parker well through my work.

Less than a month after I started reporting news in Chesterfield County, a huge story broke that ended up getting attention all over the nation. The Chesterfield County Animal Shelter was operated by the sheriff’s office back then and the news came out that shelter workers -- technically sheriff’s office employees -- had taken 22 dogs from the shelter to the nearby county landfill and shot them to death. The shelter was known to euthanize animals on a regular basis, using an on-site gas chamber, but this “death by bullet” technique had animal rights activists and a great many others up in arms. Photos of some of the dead dogs even made it onto social media Internet sites and the news spread like wildfire. I found newspaper stories on line from as far away as San Francisco. Parker, of course, said he knew nothing about the incident until after the fact.

The good news is, Chesterfield County Council took control of the shelter and, under the supervision and routine inspections by the Humane Society, the shelter and its procedures were improved. The latest news is Chesterfield County now plans to build an all-new shelter between the towns of Chesterfield and Cheraw. So maybe “the Chesterfield 22,” as they came to be known, did not die in vain.

So, things kind of settled down for Parker -- for a while. Then, a little more than a year ago, in March 2013, a former prisoner at the Chesterfield County Detention Center alleged Parker allowed him and another inmate to have special privileges in exchange for doing personal work at Parker’s home and other properties he owned. The alleged privileges included being allowed to live outside the detention center in a dormitory-type of facility, to have access to banned items like cell phones and computers, to be allowed to wear regular clothes and shop in local stores and eat in restaurants, to have unsupervised visits from women, to drink alcohol, drive county-owned vehicles and more, including taking vacation trips with Parker and his family.

Parker was also accused of giving county-owned property, including guns, to friends, of allowing untrained people to serve as “deputies,” and of taking a county-owned boat, outfitting it for shrimping and taking it on personal trips. It was also reported he had other county vehicles and equipment at his home for his personal use. That’s quite a list of accusations, but at this point they are still just accusations and Parker is having his “day in court” this week. I wrote a column last year that said everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty and neither Parker nor anyone else should be tried in the media or on the Internet. I still feel that way.

After Parker was indicted by a grand jury on four counts of misconduct in office and two counts of furnishing contraband to inmates, he was ousted by Gov. Nikki Hailey. Chesterfield County Coroner Kip Kiser filled in as sheriff for a few weeks before S.C. Highway Patrol Capt. Rob Lee was named interim sheriff. Lee said he would fill in for the rest of Parker’s term, but would not run for the office himself. Parker, by the way, filed as a candidate in the race for sheriff last month despite being ousted and on trial.

Last August it was more bad news for Parker, as a charge of embezzlement and another misconduct charge were added to the list. He denies, through his attorney, that he was aware of any wrongdoing and that the rules over the handling of inmates are vague and confusing. He says rural sheriffs have always done the things he’s accused of without repercussion.

By the time this column is in your hands, the trial may be over. I realize that’s the risk I take by writing about an event that’s happening now and has an uncertain outcome. Although this is not a Kershaw County story, I can’t help but think it is, in many ways, a reflection on our state and indeed on the entire South. Maybe the stereotype of the “good ol’ boys club” is not always wrong. We’ll see. 

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