No verdict yet in ex-Lee County sheriff's case

By Jody Barr - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Jurors have wrapped up their first day of deliberations without coming to a verdict for a former Lee County sheriff facing dozens of federal charges including drug conspiracy and racketeering.

The jury deliberated all day Monday on the case of E.J. Melvin. They planned to return Tuesday morning.

Jurors are consider 43 charges against Melvin that include racketeering, money laundering, extortion, lying to the FBI, theft of public funds, and running a drug conspiracy inside Lee County.

Click here to read our full coverage of Melvin's arrest and trial.

Prosecutors rested their case late Thursday with US Assistant Attorney, Mark Moore, calling Melvin a "crooked cop" and telling jurors the hundreds of wiretapped phone calls between Melvin and a network of drug dealers is, "evidence that shows he was absolutely corrupt." Dealers told the FBI that Melvin was known on the streets as "Big Dog," the name dealers called the former sheriff in the wire taps. "You got to hear 60 days in the life of the real EJ Melvin," Moore said.

The law enforcement system under Melvin was an organization where drug dealers had to "pay to play," Moore told the jury. "If you could pay your dues to 'Big Dog' you could play," Moore said. "Edgar Jerome Melvin was a brazen opportunist, but he was not stupid," Moore argued, "If you were someone he thought could keep your mouth shut, he used his position as sheriff to help."

Moore likened the EJ Melvin administration to the Chairmen of the Board hit song, "Pay it to the Piper" whose lyrics tell the story of a scenario where a girl who's treated to good times, owed something in return. "The drug dealers in Lee County, in order to dance, they had to pay it to the piper," Moore told the jury Thursday. "It is time for EJ Melvin, who has danced to the music for a long time, to pay it to the piper, and that's Lady Justice."


The FBI and State Law Enforcement Division's investigation into Lee County drug dealing started in November 2006, after agents had already wired undercover informants to make drug buys around the county. Agents said they heard Melvin's name come up from dealers during the investigation, then set out to piece the drug network together.

In the fall of 2009, the FBI and SLED put a wire on an undercover informant, then made more than a dozen cocaine buys from Melvin co-defendant, Eric Hickmon. The informant, Melvin Lawson, told jurors that he made $36,000 worth of cocaine buys from Hickmon between December 2009 and May 2010. Lawson's link to Hickmon-Melvin's "Bag Man," Larry Williams.

Williams testified that he helped Lawson make the drug buys, then helped Lawson get in touch with Melvin to fix a traffic ticket. Lawson strapped on a video wire for the FBI in October 2009, recorded Williams paying Melvin $300 inside the Bishopville Piggly Wiggly, to fix the ticket.

The FBI got inside the sheriff's office and developed a second informant in June 2009. This informant was the head of Melvin's drug unit, Captain Johnny McCutchen. McCutchen went to the feds after he felt the sheriff was trying to steer him away from drug dealers investigations, mainly an investigation into Eric Hickmon's cocaine dealing.

McCutchen told the jury he sat in a patch of woods across from Hickmon's Herndon Road home for three separate days in the July heat, wearing a camouflage "bush suit," videotaping the drug trades at Hickmon's home. McCutchen said he took his video evidence to a county magistrate and got a search warrant. McCutchen, wearing an audio wire for the FBI, met with Melvin at 12:30 p.m. on July 27, and told the sheriff about his plan to execute the search warrant the following morning, "It's one of the nest ones yet," McCutchen told Melvin on the wire, "He should have plenty of dope." Melvin approved the search.

McCutchen told the jury that Melvin called him about 30 minutes later, and called him off the search, "It just dawned on me driving down the road," Melvin told his agent over the wire, "He's (Hickmon) one of my informants." McCutchen said Melvin didn't believe his evidence that Hickmon was dealing cocaine, telling McCutchen, "I know he smoke[sic] weed," Melvin said of Hickmon's drug involvement. "I told him he does a lot more than that," McCutchen told the jury.  The agent testified that Melvin steered him away from Hickmon, and the sheriff's office never made a case on him.

On March 9, 2010 the FBI asked a federal judge for permission to tap William's and Hickmon's cell phones. It only took agents 17 days to gather enough evidence to get a 30-day wire tap on Melvin's cell phone, where agents spend hundreds of hours inside the Columbia FBI office listening to the sitting sheriff hold conversations with convicted drug dealers.


After listening to Melvin make daily calls to Lee County drug dealers, SLED and the FBI felt they needed some way to set a trap for Melvin. The calls revealed a pattern of extortion, controlled and manipulated by Melvin and Larry Williams. SLED agent Jeff Carter, and FBI Special Agent Chris Garrett formed a plan to give Melvin a list of 14 dealers, many who operated drug rings inside Lee County, and a few who operated in neighboring Sumter County.

On April 19, the agents met with Melvin in the Florence Sam's Club parking lot, and a "brand new extortion scheme was born," Moore told the jury. Agents showed Melvin the list, told him they were looking to offer Melvin their help in investigating the list of dealers, and wanted to see what Melvin knew about each one. When agents got to a dealer called "Weasel," Carter said Melvin identified the dealer as Eric Hickmon. "He was just a marijuana user," Carter said Melvin told agents about Hickmon.

Agents left Melvin with the list, and stood by and listened as Melvin use his cell phone to call Larry Williams and made arrangements to meet. Williams testified that Melvin showed him the list and worked out a plan to tell dealers they were on the list, and they could pay Melvin money to get off it.

Melvin also showed the list to his barber, Chris Peeples, a convicted drug dealer who testified that he helped Melvin with names of dealers, not on the list, the pair could go after for money. Agents recorded 25 phone calls from Melvin to Peeples over the next five days, after the former sheriff got hands on the list.

On April 23, Carter and Garrett called Melvin to ask about Larry "Hawk" Williams, the man prosecutors said Melvin was in near-daily phone contact with. The agents spent several minutes in the wire tap, asking Melvin if he knew how they could contact Williams and start using him as an informant. Carter testified that Melvin denied knowing a phone number or address for Williams, and that the sheriff tried to throw the agents off Williams' trial, "I was trying to talk to him about Larry Williams, but he kept diverting me the whole telephone call," Carter testified. "I know he was in constant contact with Larry Williams by phone; they talked a lot," Carter said.


Just before the sun rose May 1, 2010 SLED and the FBI gathered in a Sumter parking lot to finalize their plan to arrest Sheriff EJ Melvin. Around 5:15 a.m., agents surrounded Monisha Jones' Littlejohn Lane home, and placed a call to Melvin. The sheriff answered, and agents told him to step outside where federal authorities put the sheriff in handcuffs.

Garrett sat Melvin inside a mini-van, told Melvin he was under arrest, and then read the sheriff his rights. The FBI asked Melvin to take them to Larry Williams' home, which he did according to Garrett. It was further proof that Melvin knew more about Williams than he told agents over the phone only weeks before, prosecutors said.

Sitting inside an interview room at FBI headquarters in Columbia, Lee County Sheriff EJ Melvin, answered questions from investigators about his drug dealings with the web of Lee County dealers. Agents said Melvin admitted to some of the allegations, before leading agents down a path "of lies," prosecutors said. Garrett said he terminated the interview with Melvin. That day, the man who was in the middle of his second term as sheriff, scribbled out a handwritten resignation letter. The letter was delivered to Governor Mark Sanford, ending Melvin's control over Lee County's law enforcement.


EJ Melvin made his first court appearance May 3, where a federal judge, at first denied the former sheriff bond.  Two days later, the judge granted Melvin a $200,000 bond, and seated in the courtroom was Columbia attorney Jack Swerling. After nearly a week behind bars, Melvin walked out of the Lexington County Detention Center to await his trial at home, under home detention.

Swerling soon after signed up to represent Melvin. Together, the pair came up with an answer to the FBI's allegations that Melvin was part of a drug conspiracy, and that he used "The List" as a means to extort drug dealers. Following a July 2010 court appearance, Melvin told WIS he was running a one-man drug investigation in Lee County, and the dealers arrested with him on May 1 were informants, providing him with information on drug dealing inside his county.

Prosecutors used the dealers as witnesses against the former sheriff during the two week-long federal trial in Columbia. Swerling attacked the dealers' credibility in front of the jury and pointed out the fact that each dealer had made deals with prosecutors for reduced sentences, in exchange for their testimony. "There is no honor among drug dealers…they will do whatever they have to," Swerling argued.

During Swerling's closing arguments to the jury Friday, it took nearly an hour and a half into the argument before Swerling mentioned anything about the hundreds of wiretapped phone calls to the jury. Swerling, referring to the wire taps as "calls," told jurors the amount of calls proved Melvin and the dealers, "…were in regular contact with each other, giving Sheriff Melvin information." "Sometimes you have to play along with them, talk like them to continue to use them as informants. Sheriff Melvin was trying to use his abilities as law enforcement in order to keep getting information from these people," Swerling said.

To explain "The List", Swerling told the jury that Melvin was "protecting his sources" when he told agents that he didn't know anything about Larry "Hawk" Williams, and other dealers on the list of 14. "He has every right to protect is sources. You protect your sources, you don't reveal who your sources are," Swerling explained, "You don't burn your sources…no one in law enforcement does."

As for prosecutor's allegations that Melvin was using his position, and the extortion to enrich himself, Swerling argued, "Where is the evidence of that?" "There is no evidence of him living above his means; there is absolutely nothing here to suggest Sheriff Melvin was living above his means."

Melvin's jury started deliberating his fate Monday morning. If convicted, Melvin faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years to life in prison, and up to $4 million in fines. You can count on WIS to bring you the verdict as soon as it is reached.

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