In first interview since indictment, James Metts expresses regret

RAW: James Metts has a few regrets as he prepares for prison
Published: Apr. 27, 2015 at 3:23 PM EDT|Updated: Feb. 16, 2016 at 8:17 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Monday's sentencing for former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts comes on the heels of a 42-year career for the former Lexington County sheriff after the department was essentially built from the ground up during his tenure.

It all started for Metts back in the 1960's when Metts took jobs that ultimately led him to become a police officer in West Columbia. After a few years, Metts left the West Columbia Police Department to work for what was then a tiny and grossly underfunded Lexington County Sheriff's Department.

"When I went there in 1969 as a deputy, I had to buy my own car, my own radio, my own siren, and blue lights, my own gun and all the equipment," Metts recalled. "The only thing the county gave me was a few shirts. The rest I had to have purchased. And when I took over, this was in 1972, that's what I ran into. A run-down facility, a handful of employees. No records. Didn't even know who was in jail."

MOBILE USERS: See photos of James Metts through the years.

Metts worked for three years as a deputy and managing the county's family court office before running for sheriff. He would go on to claim a virtually unprecedented victory as a Republican at the age of 25. However, his new department only boasted 15 employees.

"It would take days to get to routine type calls like break-ins," Metts said. "I remember on the lake, there'd be a lot of cabins up there at that time, it would take weeks sometimes to get around to a break-in. And I knew that we had to right away establish priorities and develop support from council."

In less than three years as sheriff, Metts helped lead effort to build the Lexington County Law Enforcement Complex on Gibson Road which would later bear his name and soon become staffed by a drastically larger, more sophisticated, and far better equipped law enforcement force.

In 1985, Metts and his department would face what might be their most serious test to date in their search for serial killer Larry Gene Bell.

Metts organized the largest manhunt in South Carolina history, which saw his department along with state and federal authorities working around the clock to track and eventually arrest Bell for the kidnappings and murders of Shari Smith and Debra May Helmick.

"It was one of the first cases," Metts said, "psychological profiling at that time was in its early developmental stages with the FBI Behavioral Science Unit and John Douglas, who actually worked with me in the department on this particular case. And he was right on."

Bell was convicted for both murders and sentenced to death twice.

The execution was carried out in the state's electric chair in 1996, five years after the release of a TV movie on the murders starring William Devane as the sheriff. That case was just one of many to convince voters to re-elect Metts over and over while scaring away potential challengers for his position.

However, Metts veered away from the job he held for so long making a puzzling run for governor as a petition Republican in 1998.

"I thought at the time that I had some good ideas of things that could enhance the quality of life for the citizens of South Carolina," Metts said. "And I wanted to put those forth and I did so and realized after I got into it, it was going to be very hard."

That difficulty Metts referred to came in part because his candidacy infuriated members of the Lexington County and state GOP.

Metts also fought with some council members in Lexington County, often over funding for his department.

In 2001, he alienated leaders in Batesburg-Leesville by suggesting that the community was dying after running into opposition against his plans to open a catering business there.

Although Metts may have had some political missteps, the long-time sheriff helped build the Lexington Republican Party into a dominant force.

"I wasn't politically-oriented, I was service-oriented," Metts said. "I wanted to do what was in the best interests of the citizens of Lexington County and enhance their quality of life. So I think that was why I ran, not because I was a member of one party or the other. I could kind of run on any party back in those days."

Along the way, the stress of politicking, being sheriff, and other factors took their toll on the sheriff's health. Metts was hospitalized due to chest pains in 1998 and later survived a diabetic crisis that nearly took his life in 2004.

"I was on the verge of going into a diabetic coma," Metts said. "And I have other problems, heart problems, kidney problems. I have problems with bleeding in my eyes. I have problems with neuropathy and I have a whole array of problems. I see somewhere around seven or eight doctors."

Now at the age of 68, Metts' physical condition played a major role in his argument to avoid going to jail. Before sentencing on Monday, he told Judge Terry Wooten that if sent to prison, "I don't think I will come out of there alive."

Judge Wooten rejected that argument as well as others offered by Metts' attorneys, who pleaded with the court to reconsider his charitable and community service along with other professional firsts including hiring school resource officers, female deputies, victim advocates, and drug screening just to name a few.

While they were all valid contributions, Judge Wooten did not believe they were enough to consider a no-prison sentence. Now, a remorseful Metts has been sentenced to 12 months in prison.

"I'm sorry," Metts said. "I'm sorry to the people of Lexington County who put their trust and confidence in me. And that I made a mistake. One mistake in my 49 year career that cost me the office that I so dearly loved. I had the opportunity to serve the people, that's my regret and to my family who I didn't spend the time with I should have and put them in priority behind my job. And that's one of the few things that's come out of this is I realize there's more than being sheriff of Lexington County.things that's come out of this is I realize there's more than being sheriff of Lexington County."

However, Metts vows that he will not linger in the shadows once his sentence is served.

"With the help of God and my family, I intend to be back," Metts said. "And I intend to do everything I can to restore my good name that I took part in destroying. So, I will be back and I will continue to serve others. But I'll tell you this. Never will I let my family be second again."

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