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BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Underwood, two deputies indicted

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By Staff Reports

For the first time in his long career, Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood finds himself on the other side of the law.

On Tuesday, United States Attorney Sherri Lydon announced that Underwood, 55, his Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, 44, and Lt. Johnny Neal, 39, had all been indicted in federal court on counts related to conspiracy to cover up an unlawful arrest and an excessive use of force.

“Today, we announce the worst kind of charges: Allegations of wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement,” Lydon said. “Those who swear to protect and uphold the law, while at the same time using their positions of power to hide their own violations of the law, will be held accountable. The American system of government depends on those in power obeying the ruled and ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and equally.”

The indictments stem from a November 20, 2018 incident, in which Underwood arrested Kevin Simpson of Fort Lawn. Underwood and several deputies were conducting a manhunt after a person involved in a head-on collision had fled on foot. Simpson was said he knew something was up when he hit a license check near his home. He saw what appeared to be a bad wreck on S.C. Highway 9, so he grabbed his phone and started a Facebook Live session from his front yard.

He said he did so as a form of public service so people would know to avoid the area.

Early in the video (which remains online), he can be heard saying, “don’t come to Fort Lawn and if you come from Lancaster, don’t go to Richburg. Somebody’s about to get airlifted right here in front of the crib.”

A few minutes later, Simpson was approached by Underwood who told Simpson “we’ve got somebody on the loose” before telling him to go to his porch.

Simpson did not fully comply with Underwood’s request, as he stayed in his yard, though he did back up several steps. He eventually ventured back to original spot at but said he never left his own property. Simpson was seen interacting with two passersby, but toward the end of the video, Underwood approached again.

“Didn’t I tell you to get on the porch? Then get on the porch.”

“(I’m) straight in our yard,” Simpson said.

“Let me explain something to you,” Underwood continued. “I’m doing a manhunt out here. I’ve got somebody who’s armed and dangerous out here. I’m telling you to get on the porch and get out of our way.”

“I ain’t in your way,” Simpson said.

Simpson told the News & Reporter he didn’t actually think Underwood had the power or authority to make him stand on his porch, but said he did it anyway. As he complied, for the first time in the video, a minor child could be seen. Simpson said that child, who also went to the porch, is his nephew.

“We’re good, bro. Now, manhunt,” Simpson said to Underwood from his porch.

Underwood was still in Simpson’s yard at that point and appeared to be walking away. As Simpson repeated, “go manhunt” again, though, Underwood stopped, turned around and walked up onto Simpson’s porch.

“You got something you want to say,” Underwood said as he approached Simpson.

“Manhunt. Do your job,” said Simpson, who claims Underwood was almost nose-to-nose with him at that point.

“Stay on the porch,” Underwood said. “I’ll tell you what, step over here.”

The video then shakes wildly and Underwood is heard telling Simpson that he is under arrest. Simpson said Underwood attempted to grab him but missed the first time. He did grab him on his second attempt. Simpson said Underwood basically picked him up and that two other deputies soon grabbed him as well, taking him in the yard and laying him down.  He said a rail on the porch was broken during the incident. He said he was injured as he was knocked down while handcuffed. He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest (which he said he did not do), but a hold was placed on him and he spent more than three days in jail. The News & Reporter noted that multiple other inmates booked on comparable charges after Simpson bonded out before him. In fact, none spent as much as 24 hours in jail.

The incident report detailing the arrest from the Chester County Sheriff’s office said Simpson was “walking back and (forth) from his yard into the roadway filming the accident. Kevin was told several times by deputies to stay out of the roadway and go in his yard. Lt. Neal was escorting the EMS workers to the helicopter with the patient when Kevin Simpson was back in the roadway. Sheriff Underwood told Kevin to get back in his yard and Kevin began using profane language and becoming loud and boisterous. Kevin stated in his own words ‘Go look for the f***king person y’all looking for then.’”

During the verbal back-and-forth with Underwood, Simpson was never actually heard cursing on the video. Underwood also never told Simpson to stay in his yard (he told him to go to his porch) and it did not appear that Simpson ever entered the roadway.

According to the release from Lydon, Underwood and Sprouse learned that Simpson had live-streamed the arrest from his cellphone later on. Underwood and Sprouse then announced that a radio had been lost during the arrest. Sprouse and Neal then directed subordinate deputies to draft a search warrant

that would allow them to enter Simpson’s home. Sprouse entered the home without a warrant, searching for the cellphone. He directed a

subordinate deputy to dial a phone number in an effort to identify the

target phone by making it ring. Sprouse ultimately removed a cellphone

from Simpson’s home without consent. Sprouse then delivered that phone to a

another deputy in charge of evidence collection.

Count one recreates the arrest and concludes by saying that Sprouse and Neal created an incident report containing false statements about Simpson’s seizure and Underwood and Sprouse created and signed a disciplinary report shifting the blame to the deputy in charge of evidence collection for taking the phone following the seizure. In January 2019, Underwood and Sprouse “made false statements to the FBI concerning the seizure of Simpson and the cellphone.” That count carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison.

Count two alleges that Underwood violated Simpson’s rights while

acting under color of law by seizing him. without probable cause to

believe K.S. committed a crime, causing him to be detained in jail for

three nights. This Count carries a maximum penalty of one year in

federal prison.

 

Count three alleges that Neal violated Simpson’s rights while

acting under color of law by knocking K.S. to the ground while he was

handcuffed, resulting in bodily injury. This Count carries a

maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

 

The fourth count alleges that Underwood and Sprouse tampered with

the cellphone, attempting to alter, destroy, or conceal it with the

intent to impair its integrity or availability for use in the federal

case involving the deprivation of Simpson’s rights. This Count carries a

maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

 

The fifth count alleges that Neal and Sprouse falsified a record

with the intent to impede a federal investigation by creating a false

incident report indicating that Simpson repeatedly left his yard to enter

the roadway and that he directed profane language toward them - when

in fact K.S. did neither - and caused that report to go to the FBI.

This Count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a

fine of $250,000.

 

Count six alleges that Underwood and Sprouse falsified a

record with the intent to impede a federal investigation by creating and

signing a disciplinary report shifting blame to the deputy in charge of

evidence collection for taking the cellphone following Simpson’s seizure,

and caused that report to go to the FBI.  This Count carries a maximum

penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

 

Count seven alleges that Underwood made a false statement to

the FBI on May 3, 2019, representing that he first viewed Simpson’s video

recording about a week after the incident, when in fact he viewed the

recording on the date of the incident. This Count carries a maximum

penalty of five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

 

The final count alleges that Sprouse made a false statement to the

FBI on January 8, 2019, representing that he did not know how a

Cell phone was removed from K.S.'s home, when in fact he removed the

phone. This Count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal

prison and a fine of $250,000.

 

Simpson’s attorney is Chester’s Everett Stubbs. Following the indictments, he thanked those that have investigated the incident.

 

“We want to thank the law enforcement professionals that did a thorough job of fully evaluating this situation. The facts of this ugly situation are not a typical representation of how the vast majority of law enforcement officers interact with citizens that they have sworn to serve and protect. We are appreciative of law enforcement in general and particularly for those law enforcement agencies that refuse to allow the bad apples to survive in the greatest justice system in the world. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office here in South Carolina have acted like true professionals, and we feel confident that the wheels of justice will continue to turn for Mr. Simpson and his family.”

In the immediate aftermath of Underwood’s indictment, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order suspending Underwood from office. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agent (and Chester native) Donald “Max” Dorsey has been appointed to serve as sheriff until Underwood “is acquitted, convicted, the indictment is otherwise disposed of, or until a sheriff is elected and qualified in the next general election. Dorsey serves as the captain of the SLED narcotics division. He will be sworn in at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning in the Chester County Courthouse. The News & Reporter has confirmed that Sprouse and Neal no longer work for the Chester County Sheriff's Office.

The FBI sent 12 agents to the Chester County Law Enforcement Center last Monday. Those agents, assisted by SLED, removed several boxes and bags of material from the facility after being on scene for more than six hours. The FBI had been to town to question Underwood earlier in the year.

Underwood gained a great deal of positive attention on a couple of fronts during his tenure as sheriff. Alex “Little A” Collins was brought to Chester from his home by Underwood for a hunting trip after he sent a request to take part in one, not realizing he was applying to Chester, S.C., instead of Chester, Pa. That story made national news in 2014. His “Scared Straight” type program “S.T.O.R.M.” was featured on A&E television and he was interviewed on the Steve Harvey Show. There has been near constant conflict as well, though. Within months of taking office, Charlene McGriff, a victim’s advocate from Lancaster County filed a report against Underwood with SLED after a tense meeting n his office when she said she felt threatened (he was never charged). He also engaged in a prolonged legal battle with Chester County over control of 911 (which he ultimately won). In 2015, the City of Chester Police Department moved out of the law enforcement center after Underwood took some of their office space and changed locks on the doors. City employees said they felt intimidated and threatened. He arrested a pair of rural firemen after a roadside confrontation (Andrew and Tommy Martin) and both were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing by SLED. They then filed suit, claiming in part false arrest and malicious prosecution, assault and battery and that Underwood and his deputies wrongfully obtained an arrest warrant for Chief Martin and Tommy Martin’s arrests, which were then intentionally served late in the evening, which meant both Martins not only went to jail but had to stay there for the night. Former Chester County School Superintendent Dr. Agnes Slayman temporarily ended the SRO program and tried to replace them with security guards. County Council and the school district agreed to add a new SRO position early this school year but Underwood and the district have yet to agree to a memorandum of understanding to actually make that happen with “administrative conflict” listed as the culprit.

Early this month, Underwood issued a directive that members of the city police (who still bring inmates to the LEC and visit with magistrates stationed there) should turn in the security badges he had just forced them to buy a month earlier. He said they would not be allowed beyond the lobby unless escorted by a deputy. He also unilaterally ended the practice of doing NCIC (National Crime Information Center) entries for the city, though Chester City Administrated Stephanie Guy Jackson claimed the two entities had a contract. When the News & Reporter posted a story online about the conflict, Underwood posted a Facebook entry titled “Citizens beware of irresponsible journalism” though the story was built almost entirely often correspondences between his office and the city. Underwood had his budget cut last year by Chester County Council by $84,000 after it was revealed that he had purchased a truck for his department (that he typically drives) but did so without going through proper procurement. Council chose not to take action several months earlier when Sprouse signed a contract for data storage with the Axon company (again, without going through procurement) that obliged the county to pay $345,000 over five years.

Underwood also agreed to relinquish control of the Chester County Animal Shelter last year after a lawsuit was filed by a group of animal welfare advocates. The News & Reporter recently learned, through documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that Underwood's salary increased by nearly $25,000 sometime between his 2016 reelection and this year. Previously, the Chester County Sheriff's salary was approximately $57,000 but now stands at $81,655. Chester County Council has not taken a standalone vote on a salary increase in recent years. The News & Reporter is filing further FOIA requests for clarification on that issue.

Underwood, himself a retired SLED agent, was first elected as a petition candidate as sheriff in 2012 and was reelected in 2016. The first appearance in court for he, Neal and Sprouse will be Tuesday, May 21 at the Matthew Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia. A source indicated to the News & Reporter late Tuesday that the three would be given a summons to turn themselves in.

 

READ: Gov. Henry McMaster's executive order suspending Underwood from office... https://governor.sc.gov/sites/default/files/Documents/Executive-Orders/2...