Man gets 20 years in SC corrections officer shooting

Published: Aug. 14, 2014 at 3:03 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2014 at 12:10 PM EDT
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Sean Echols (Source: SCDC)
Sean Echols (Source: SCDC)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS/AP) - Forgiveness and justice came simultaneously for a retired Department of Corrections officer after the man who conspired to have him killed was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison Wednesday.

Sean Echols, 30, of Orangeburg, pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to use interstate facilities in murder for hire after he admitted involvement in a plan to have now retired Capt. Robert Johnson killed at his Sumter home in March 2010. Echols used a cellphone smuggled into Lee Correctional Institution to organize the hit, which resulted in six gunshots to Johnson's chest and stomach. Johnson oversaw efforts at the prison to keep contraband from coming in for inmates.

Prosecutors say Johnson "foiled a number of shipments of contraband, such as drugs and cell phones, into the state prison and some of the inmates were unhappy about that," which is when the murder for hire conspired. One inmate used a cell phone to call Echols, who was recently released at the time, and the two discussed the plot to kill Johnson. Prosecutors say after that discussion, an initial payment was mailed to Echols for his role in the conspiracy.

"On March 10, 2010, you chose to kill me for nothing evil," Johnson, 61, said in federal court Wednesday. "You had no regard for your actions. You chose silence."

Both Johnson and federal prosecutors say Echols was uncooperative during their investigation by changing his story of what happened many times and not releasing details of who was involved in the plan to murder Johnson.

"If he wanted to cooperate, he would have," Johnson said. "I gave the attorneys my approval to do whatever was necessary to get everyone. If that meant giving him virtually no time. He knew that and he still played games."

Johnson said if Echols had come forward with the details of the hit, he was willing to request the government reduce Echols sentence to five years served concurrently with Echols' current state sentence.

"I'm going to be a man. I'm sorry," Echols said Wednesday in court. "If I knew the shooter and the driver, I would give it to you."

Echols said he gave prosecutors one name of the person he contacted, but said he had no knowledge of who the shooter was in the case.

Johnson said he was being watched before the shooting. He remembers someone coming to his home the night before the shooting asking for a jump start, but the Johnsons told the person they couldn't help. But the next day, as soon as Johnson woke up, he knew he was going to be attacked.

"As soon as the light came on, I heard the door kicked in," Johnson said. "I knew it was the hit. I yelled, so he would come to me. We had a tussle. He pushed me away, then pulled the gun."

After that, Johnson said he blacked out and only remembers waking up on his bathroom floor. His wife, Mary, was also at the home, but was not hurt.

"We've suffered greatly," Mary said. "It's your time to pay for what you've done."

Mary told the court that she could not eat for three days following the shooting because of fear someone would come back to kill her. Also, her lack of sleep following the incident caused her to fall asleep at the wheel while driving, leading to an accident.

Seventeen surgeries later and at least $1 million in medical treatment, Johnson forgave Echols during his sentencing hearing. Echols also apologized to the many individuals represented from the DOC in court Wednesday.

"Please forgive me. I'm sorry," Echols said. "There is no beating around the bush about it. I was wrong."

U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson gave Echols the maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison to serve consecutively to Echols' current state 15-year sentence for first-degree assault and battery and armed robbery. Once released, Echols will have three years' probation to include random drug testing and mental health treatment.

Following the sentencing hearing, Echols, whose arms and legs were restrained, started resisting escort by DOC officers and was yelling obscenities in the courtroom. Even after Echols was removed from the courtroom and the door was shut, Echols was heard yelling through the courtroom walls.

"He gave a double speech about a changed person he is, but he showed his true character," Johnson said following Echols' exit from the courtroom. "So I am content with what we were able to get versus nothing."

Moving forward, Johnson plans to continue his love of fishing and says now his home is more secure. He also has a concealed weapons permit and practices shooting and fast draw.

As for contraband in state prisons, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said it's their priority to eliminate contraband inside facilities.

"Every day we are working on trying to prevent contraband from coming in, but like I said, inmates are there all the time," Stirling said. "They are constantly thinking about how to bring contraband in. So for the safety of my officers and staff, we have to be constantly thinking about how to prevent it from coming in."

Johnson said technology should be used to stop cell phone signals from being transmitted at all DOC prisons to prevent this from happening. Authorities said he was the first U.S. corrections officer harmed by a hit ordered from an inmate's cellphone.

Copyright 2014 WIS. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.