Former Kershaw Co. sheriff files $2M lawsuit against county

Published: Jul. 11, 2011 at 3:50 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 11, 2011 at 3:52 PM EDT
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CAMDEN, SC (WIS) - Former Kershaw County Sheriff Stephen McCaskill is suing current sheriff Jim Matthews for $2 million in a defamation of character suit filed last week in Camden.

McCaskill claims because of comments Matthews made during the campaign he, "has sustained severe and continuing reputational damages, emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and a potential loss of earning capacity," according to the filing.

In 2010, McCaskill decided not to seek a fifth term as the county's sheriff and endorsed his investigator, David Thomley, as the candidate to fill his seat. Thomley lost the election to Sheriff Jim Matthews by 2,349 votes last November. Thomley is now the Patrol Captain at the Conway Police Department.

"If he's so concerned about his reputation, the last thing that he needs is for there to be public scrutiny of what we have actually found in the sheriff's department since I've taken office," Matthews said, "I don't think he wants the public to know what we've really found."

On Jan. 4, 2011 Matthews called in SLED to conduct an audit of the sheriff's department and the department's evidence locker. Matthews said he wanted the evidence and state of the department documented before he moved his administration in. SLED has not released its audit report.

The lawsuit points to statements Matthews made before the Kershaw County Council on Jan. 4, 2011. It was the same day Matthews was sworn into office. McCaskill points to a statement Matthews made that McCaskill's administration "was misusing victims' advocate funds." The statement came after he looked at a financial audit that showed mismanagement of the funds through the Governor's office, according to Matthews.

McCaskill also points out that Matthews told council that evidence inside the sheriff's office was "mishandled," "to the point of negligence," according to the suit. The sheriff's comments stemmed from an August 17, 2009 murder case where a gun collector was gunned down inside his home. The murder happened after deputies said three men: Lamar Watson, Joshua Stapleton and Carl Mendez broke into Derick Lee's Elgin home. The men plotted to rob Lee of his guns and money, according to investigators. All three were murder and grand larceny, but only Stapleton has stood trial.

At Stapleton's November 2010 trial, a jury found him not guilty of murder, but Stapleton pleaded guilty to grand larceny, according to Kershaw County circuit court records. The sheriff's office could not come up with ballistic evidence in the case, because it was misplaced by the sheriff's office. The evidence was a bullet pulled from the murder scene that had been processed by SLED.

Mendez and Watson are still awaiting trial.

McCaskill wants Matthews to pay for statements that McCaskill's administration, "failed to properly maintain appropriate policies and procedures, deputy training and hiring, and the Sheriff's Department vehicles," according to the suit. When Matthews took office, a local newspaper quoted the new sheriff as saying, "there was no ammunition," at the sheriff's office when he took office. The suit quotes Matthews, "maybe they just shot it up and never replenished it." Matthews said the department did not have enough ammo to qualify deputies for firearm certification at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy when he took office. It was weeks after taking over that Matthews said his deputies found a box of "loose rounds" tucked away inside a closet inside the building. "This accusation was false and known by the Defendant (Matthews) to be false," the suit claims, "because ammunition housed at the Sheriff's Department was abundant and highly visible."

"I hate the fact that the former sheriff and his attorney are trying to line their pockets by suing me and it's not going to look good for the former sheriff if there's public scrutiny," Matthews said. Matthews said he knew McCaskill was planning to sue for months, and said it was a direct result of how the election turned out and breaking up a "good ole boy system in Kershaw County, "I think it's definitely a case of sour grapes. There's definitely a lot of bitterness; there's still lingering bitterness over my victory."

Matthews said he hopes McCaskill drops the "frivolous" suit, but if he doesn't, Matthews vowed to make the audits and his evidence public before a jury, "He had pushed me into a corner now. He had brought this action on, not me. So, he opened up Pandora's Box and what's going to come out will not be very flattering to the sheriff."

"If he's going to be an effective sheriff, he needs to know when to talk and when to keep quiet," McCaskill's attorney, Louis Cromer, said. Cromer said he would let a jury decide the facts of the case, but he said McCaskill had the evidence to support his claims. As for Matthews, Cromer said "I hope he can control the law enforcement resources at his disposal better than he controls what he says."

McCaskill is looking for $1 million in actual damages and another $1 million in punitive damages. There is no trial date set for this case.

Taxpayers will pay for the county's legal bills associated with the lawsuit, and any possible damages awarded to McCaskill.

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