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Former Chester Sheriff Accused Of Multiple Abuses Of Power

Former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood

Prosecutors are painting the trial of former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and two of his top deputies as a classic case of abuse of power. The trial got underway this week at the federal courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina.

Underwood, known nationally for working with youths and bringing down gang operations in Chester was stripped of his duties in 2019, shortly after he and his Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse were accused of allegedly flying first-class to Nevada with their wives on a personal trip, using county funds. Underwood is also charged with using on-duty deputies to renovate a barn on his property. Underwood, Sprouse and former Lt. Johnny Neal are pleading not guilty to the more than 20 charges filed against them.

Joseph Cranney, an investigative reporter for the Post and Courier, who has been covering the trial, says prosecutors described the sheriff’s office as being rife with corruption.

Joseph Cranney: Prosecutors allege that the sheriff ordered deputies to tail officials in Chester County who the sheriff had quarreled with or was politically opposed to. There was one specific arrest that the prosecution alleged was unlawful. The sheriff was caught on video roughing up a guy who was trying to live stream the sheriff department's response to a wreck outside the guy's house. And prosecution alleged that that man's arrest was unlawful. And later, when the federal investigators were looking into that incident, the prosecution alleged that the sheriff and his deputies tried to cover up their behavior.

Gwendolyn Glenn: And also, aren't there charges that regarding at least one trip where county funds were used, the sheriff used those funds for personal travel?

Cranney: Yeah, they - the sheriff and one of his deputies - flew first class to Nevada and they brought their wives. They charged taxpayers for the first-class air travel and for the travel for the sheriff's wife and the deputy's wife. It had been several years after that trip when we reported on it. And it was just a couple of days after we first asked questions about it that the sheriff and his deputy reimbursed taxpayers for the expenses. Prosecutors have pointed to that action as evidence that the sheriff and his deputy were not acting in good faith in paying back the money.

Glenn: So that's a lot of charges. What is the defense saying?

Cranney: In their openings, they said "our clients are career law enforcement officials who had never been disciplined on the job." The sheriff's lawyer pointed to his, he mentioned that the sheriff had once taken a bullet and had been wounded in the line of duty. I think they sought to portray their clients as the good guys who have devoted their careers to being the good guys and trying to protect and serve a very rural community in Chester, South Carolina, that has had significant issues with crime in recent years.

Glenn: Well, how are they responding to some of the specifics, such as the building of the barn, such as the trip to Nevada?

Cranney: The sheriff's lawyers say that the barn project was nothing more than the sheriff and his deputies getting together and doing some team-building exercise to build camaraderie. The defense counsel said.

Glenn: There were also witnesses that corroborated that they were pulled off duty to work, correct?

Cranney: Yeah. Multiple deputies testified that they were in uniform on the job doing important police work. Our former narcotics lieutenant testified he was up on someone surveilling someone, a known drug dealer when he got a call from his supervisor that the sheriff needed everyone to come to his house to work on the barn.

Glenn: Tell me about some of the other witnesses’ testimony.

Cranney: There was one very striking testimony of a former deputy who said Underwood called him and acting on what the sheriff said was a tip, he believed a man was driving drunk home from a lake in a neighboring county. So deputies were instructed to use an unmarked car and tail the man home. The deputies said it would have been customary to alert the neighboring county of the investigation. But in this case, the deputies said they did not do that. And when he was asked by the prosecution what the motive might have been behind it, the deputy said he believed it was just a personal issue that the sheriff had with this man who they were tailing.

Glenn: Any surprise witnesses so far?

Cranney: It's been quite striking to see testimony from former deputies who say they were ordered to surveil local Chester officials. There was one striking testimony from a former deputy who said he had learned about a meeting of a few other Chester officials who apparently Underwood had a problem with. It was the local superintendent, the local coroner and apparently one former county administrator. And this deputy was instructed with one other deputy to go photograph and surveil these officials having breakfast at a diner in Chester. He didn't complete a report for that investigation. All he did was he turned in some photos and some notes. The deputy, he was concerned that the sheriff was asking deputies to do this just because he wanted to keep tabs on people who he had political disagreements with.

Glenn: So who else is on the list to testify and any surprises there?

Cranney: There's a list of witnesses. That's more than a hundred names long. It includes the sitting state senator of Chester County, Mike Fanning, who's been a long-time supporter of the sheriff, and he's expected to be called by the defense. There's also another former senator from Chester, Senator Creighton Coleman who was pulled over and ticketed by a deputy. Prosecution is making the case that the sheriff instructed the deputy to pull the former senator over because the senator had opposed the sheriff's wife's appointment as a magistrate.

Post and Courier investigative reporter Joseph Cranney

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.