COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Federal prosecutors plan to seek additional indictments against former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin, they announced on Friday. The extra charges come after investigators say they found more illegal "schemes" in which Melvin was involved.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore plans to decide soon whether to seek indictments against Melvin under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law aimed at the prosecution of individuals who operated, and managed a criminal enterprise that engaged in racketeering.
Moore said FBI and SLED agents are finding more "schemes" Melvin ran after agents spent the past several weeks conducting interviews with people in and around Lee County. "Problem is, every time we interview someone, we find out more information on corruption with Mr. Melvin," Moore told the judge Friday.
Moore said the new "schemes" include Melvin's involvement in "fixing" traffic tickets for money, taking kickbacks on auto repairs on county vehicles, and theft of federal funds from a county program. Moore said Melvin "used his position as sheriff to extort drug dealers, protect them."
According to Moore, the kickback scheme involved Melvin having county vehicles repaired at "inflated prices," then taking the extra money for himself. The scheme, which Moore admitted did not appear to be drug-related, would not fall under the RICO Act, according to the judge.
Melvin sat quietly through the hour-long hearing at a defense table, beside his attorney. Moore also described a money laundering scheme that involved Melvin and a female Lee County employee; a woman Moore told the judge was the sheriff's girlfriend. Moore did not name the woman, but said she had access to federal funds through a county program.
Moore said Melvin would throw "parties," and was reimbursed from the federal funds that the woman had access to. Investigators think Melvin and the woman collected at least $5,000 in one year through the "scheme."
In order for prosecutors to prosecute the case under RICO, they must prove an established pattern of criminal acts where Melvin used the Lee County Sheriff's Department as an enterprise for his personal gain. Moore accused Melvin of "misuse of his public position for private gain." "This is all Mr. Melvin taking money from various people," Moore said. "All but him being sheriff of Lee County, he wouldn't be able to do this."
A grand jury returned indictments against Melvin and 13 other people on one count of drug conspiracy in May. Since then, 12 co-defendants pleaded guilty to the charge, including the man investigators labeled Melvin's "kingpin," Larry Williams. Williams was Melvin's link to drug dealers around Lee County, and played a major role in helping Melvin extort money from dealers for the sheriff's protection, according to Moore.
On August 3, the FBI arrested Melvin's barber and "bag man," Christopher Peeples, and charged him with a role in the drug conspiracy ring. Agents said Peeples and Melvin were caught on wire-tapped conversations as the men "began a conspiracy to extort multiple drug dealers in and around Lee County," according to an FBI affidavit. It was in a phone conversation with Peeples that prosecutors said Melvin threatened co-defendant, Antonio Holloman, by saying, "I don't trust you because you are a weak link. You try and call my name, anything, I swear they are going to find you because I ain't going to let you take me down," according to the affidavit.
Peeples' barber shop sits across the street from the Lee County Sheriff's Department in downtown Bishopville. Agents said that Peeples sold drugs out of the business on at least one occasion to co-defendant Sheldon Maurice Bradley, according to the affidavit. Agents listed other instances of Peeples' drug sales with co-conspirators Gary Bernard Ervin, Eric Hickmon and Anthony Williams.
Investigators were able to track Peeples down on July 15, and tried to question him about his involvement in the conspiracy ring. FBI agent Chris Garrett wrote in his affidavit that Peeples denied any involvement, and declined to answer investigator's questions. Moore said prosecutors have an interview with Peeples set for August 16, where Moore said he expects Peeples to accept a plea to his role in the ring, and to testify against Melvin.
Prosecutors also hope to indict Melvin on several counts of lying to federal investigators about having knowledge of the conspiracy, and on several other facts surrounding the case. Moore also told the judge he would look into wire fraud for the use of cell phones to facilitate the drug sales, as well as extortion. The grand jury meets in September, and Melvin's trial date is set for October.
If convicted under the current drug conspiracy charge, Melvin could spend a mandatory 10 years in prison, to life and pay a $4 million fine. The final co-conspirators in the case are expected to plead guilty, according to Moore. That would mean Melvin would stand trial on the charges alone.