COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Bond has been set for the former Lee County sheriff who resigned shortly after his arrest on federal drug charges.
E.J. Melvin's bond was set Wednesday at $200,000. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph McCrorey has also ordered Melvin to be placed on house arrest.
Bond comes after the newly-confirmed US Attorney for South Carolina, William Nettles, argued why the federal prosecutors want former Melvin held in a federal facility until his trial.
Saturday, state and federal agents charged Melvin and eight others with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine inside Lee County.
At an initial appearance Monday, government attorneys asked US magistrate, Joseph R. McCrorey, to deny bond settings on Melvin and five co-conspirators in the case.
Prosecutors told the judge wire taps placed on Melvin's cell phone recorded conversations with suspected Lee County drug dealers that "deeply concerned the government." New details of the conversations prosecutors referred to Monday could come out during a detention hearing Wednesday.
The government's investigation into Melvin started in December 2006 after agents received tips in two other investigations that the then-sheriff was helping protect drug dealers. Agents got permission from a federal judge on March 9 to place wire taps on Erik Hickmon and Larry Williams, two of Melvin's co-conspirators. It took agents 17 days of listening in on Hickmon and Williams' conversations to gather enough evidence to ask a judge for permission to wire tap Melvin's cell phone; it was the first time a wire tap was used on an elected official in South Carolina, according to prosecutors.
The judge's order only allowed investigators to listen in on the wire taps for a 30-day period, but it took agents less than three weeks to gather the evidence they needed to charge Melvin, Larry Williams, Brenda LaShawn Ellerby, Antonio Holloman, Lucius Anthony Delane, Sheldon Maurice Bradley, Anthony Williams, Gary Ervin, and Eric Hickmon.
The penalties under federal sentencing would require convictions in this case to carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years in federal prison with a maximum of life for defendants with no prior drug convictions. Five people in this case would qualify for that sentence; EJ Melvin, Larry Williams, Eric Holloman, Lucius Delane, and Brenda Ellerby.
If convicted, Sheldon Bradley would face a mandatory minimum of 20 years, up to life because prosecutors said he has one prior drug conviction on his record. Under federal drug sentencing, Antonio Williams, Gary Ervin, and Eric Hickmon would receive life sentences if convicted after prosecutors found two prior drug convictions on their records.
Agents wrote that Melvin, who was known as "Big Dog" to drug dealers, "Regularly protects drug dealers from law enforcement activity," according to an affidavit filed in federal court in April.
During the investigation, agents recorded hundreds of phone calls between Melvin and Williams, who investigators described as the sheriff's "middle man."
The FBI also used body wires to document drug buys from the co-conspirators, and installed a "pole camera" outside Eric Hickmon's Herndon Road home. That camera, according to agents, documented drug buys and deliveries at Hickmon's home, which sits a little more than a mile away from Melvin's Racoon Road home.
After agents met with Melvin at his Bishopville office on April 19 to share a list of 19 suspected drug dealers in Lee County, "Sheriff Melvin began conducting numerous telephone calls in an effort to either tip off drug dealers about the FBI's interest in them, or to extort money from them," according to the affidavit. The names on the government's list included Melvin's co-conspirators, but did not include Melvin's name.
The agents spoke with Melvin a second time by phone on April 23. In that conversation, agents questioned Melvin about his relationship with Larry Williams, or if the sheriff knew how they could contact Williams. The sheriff told agents he only knew Williams by seeing him in a convenience store, and denied having Williams' phone number, despite hundreds of phone recordings investigators listened in on between the men in the weeks before.
State and federal agents arrested Melvin just before 6 a.m. Saturday at his home. In a handwritten letter to Governor Sanford, the sheriff resigned his office within hours of his arrest May 1. The resignation was witnessed by SLED agent Cecil J. Carter and FBI agent Christopher Garrett. Melvin wrote the letter while sitting in the FBI's bureau offices in Columbia.