COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The final co-defendant in the federal drug conspiracy case against former two-term Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin pleaded guilty to his charges Wednesday. Prosecutors arrested Melvin's barber last month and charged him with a supporting role in a four-year state and federal drug investigation.
Chris Peeples, the 14th person arrested in the case, pleaded guilty to a lesser conspiracy charge for a chance at a reduced sentence. Peeples has a prior drug conviction, which would have sent him to federal prison with a mandatory minimum of 20 years to a maximum of life if convicted. His testimony and full cooperation with prosecutors would likely reduce his sentence.
Prosecutors filed subpoenas on Tuesday announcing their plans to call Melvin's "bagman," Larry Williams, to testify against the two-term sheriff. The subpoenas filed so far also name five other co-defendants prosecutors plan to call against Melvin. Those government witnesses include Anthony Williams, Peeples, Roshell Brown, Eric Hickmon and Lucius Delane.
Peeples was Melvin's barber, and worked out of a shop that sits only feet away from the sheriff's office in Bishopville. It's a building that federal agents said they will prove Peeples sold drugs from throughout the four-year investigation inside Lee County.
U.S. Marshals arrested Peeples on August 3, several weeks after agents initially questioned Peeples about conversations he had with Melvin over the former sheriff's cell phone. The conversations were recorded on FBI wiretaps which were placed on Melvin's phone from March 26 through April 24. The wiretaps are the first ever placed on an elected official's phone in South Carolina.
The first calls listed in the government's affidavit were made on April 20, when agents said Melvin and Peeples devised a plan to extort money from drug dealers in and around Lee County. The day before, FBI and SLED agents met with Melvin inside the sheriff's office and handed him a list of names the agents told the sheriff that they were looking at in a county-wide drug investigation. Agents said Melvin immediately started making arrangements to have the people on the list contacted. Melvin sent word to the suspects that he would steer state and federal investigators away from the named suspects in exchange for money, according to the FBI.
Agents said Peeples told Melvin in the wiretaps, "I'm going to go home and I'll put the whole thing down. I'm telling you it'll work." On April 20, agents said wiretaps recorded Melvin and Peeples working out details to extort $2,500 from co-conspirator Antonio "Tony" Holloman in exchange for Melvin's protection from prosecutors.
It was the same conversation where agents told federal judge Cameron Currie that Melvin threatened Holloman's life. In FBI agent Chris Garrett's sworn affidavit, he wrote that Melvin told Peeples that he planned to warn Holloman against telling anyone about the extortion. "Tony, let me tell you this before I say anything," Melvin allegedly told Holloman. "You know how you get now. I don't trust you because you are a weak link. You try call my name, anything, I swear they going to find you because I ain't going to let you take me down." Holloman paid Melvin $400 on April 21, according to Garrett.
State and federal agents arrested Melvin at a Sumter woman's home on May 1. Over the next three months, a total of 13 co-defendants would face conspiracy charges. Since July, Brenda LaShawn Ellerby, Larry Williams, Anthony Lee Williams, Lucius Anthony Delane, Antonio Holloman, Eric Hickmon, Sheldon Maurice Bradley, Kari Apfelbeck, Boyd Sweetenburg, Terry Gunsauley, Susan Morris, and Roshell Brown all pleaded guilty. After their arrests, each gave prosecutors sworn confessions to their roles and agreed to testify against the former two-term sheriff in exchange for reduced sentences.
The only one who will take his case to a federal jury is Melvin.
Peeples' sentencing is set for January 2011. Melvin faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years to life in federal prison if convicted. Melvin's trial is set for the end of October.