The trial of former Chester County Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood on public corruption charges is set to begin Monday morning at the federal courthouse in downtown Columbia.
Underwood and two of his former top deputies, Lt. Johnny Ricardo Neal Jr. and Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, are alleged to have been part of a conspiracy in which they illegally used their positions for private gain, according to an indictment in the case.
All three have pleaded not guilty.
The trial could last several weeks. Dozens of witnesses are expected to be called. Federal Judge Michelle Childs is presiding.
Among the specifics of an alleged conspiracy by Underwood and his top deputies is a claim that they used lower-ranking on-duty deputies to drain a pond and turn a building on his property into a “party barn” with a sumptuous “man cave,” according to evidence in the case.
Underwood and Sprouse and their wives are also alleged to have used county money to fly first class to Reno, Nevada, an indictment alleges.
Underwood and Neal are also charged with depriving Chester County resident Kevin Simpson of his civil rights and Neal allegedly knocked Simpson to the ground, “further violating his rights,” an indictment and evidence in the case says. The indictment also claimed Simpson was held in jail for days.
The Simpson charges resulted from a 2018 incident, when he was arrested and jailed after he videotaped an ongoing sheriff’s office manhunt near his Fort Lawn home. His mother also was arrested. According to the indictments, Underwood and the deputies altered police reports and documents against Simpson and his mother to fit the narrative that Simpson and the mother had committed a crime.
South Carolina prosecutors dropped the charges against Simpson and the mother just days after Underwood was indicted and stripped of his sheriff job in May 2019. Simpson filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office for the alleged false arrest.
“The evidence at trial will show that the defendants used their positions at the Sheriff’s Office to enrich themselves by obtaining and retaining money and property to which they were not entitled, cover up their misconduct, and obstruct investigations into their misconduct,” according to a prosecution statement of the case made public last week.
Underwood, Sprouse and Neal induced a “climate of fear” in the sheriff’s department to secure obedience among subordinates, an indictment in the case alleges.
Underwood attorney Stanley Myers of Columbia said, “It’s been almost three years (since the indictment) and Alex very much looks forward to the facts coming out in the courtroom.”
Attorney Andy Johnston, who represents Neal, said, “Johnny Neal has pled not guilty to all charges. We’ve been working together closely for many months. His whole family stands behind him and we all have confidence in his defense.”
Micheal Laubshire, who represents Sprouse, could not be reached for comment.
Underwood was first elected in 2012, won re-election in 2016 and was suspended from office in 2019, when the first federal indictment was issued. He lost a bid for re-election last year to current Sheriff Max Dorsey.
In all, Underwood faces 17 charges; Sprouse, 14; and Neal, 12, according to court records.
The federal sentences for those charges range from one year to 20 years per count if convicted, according to federal records.
In the last 10 years, numerous S.C. sheriffs have run afoul of the law. Each has been forced out of office. Sheriffs are elected officials and, once in office, have few checks on their power.
▪ In 2011, a jury found former Lee County Sheriff E. J. Melvin guilty of racketeering, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, extortion, theft from a government agency, illegal financial transactions and making false statements to a government agent. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
▪ In 2012, former Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth left office after pleading guilty to charges of misusing inmates at his county jail. He received probation.
▪ In 2013, former Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin stepped down after pleading guilty to misconduct in office for receiving kickbacks. He was put on probation and sentenced to 100 hours of community service.
▪ In 2014, former Chesterfield County Sheriff Sam Parker was convicted by a jury on charges he gave inmates at his jail access to women, weapons, alcohol and the internet. He received two years in prison.
▪ In 2015, longtime Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts was sentenced to a year in federal prison for his role in a scheme to help undocumented immigrants get out of his jail.
▪ Also in 2015, former Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson was sentenced to 30 months in prison in an identity theft scheme he facilitated by helping an accomplice create false paperwork on official sheriff’s office documents.
▪ In 2019, former Greenville County Sheriff Will Lewis was sentenced to a year in prison last fall after a jury convicted him for using the power of his office to coerce a female employee into an extra marital affair. Lewis served several weeks in prison but has been released on bond. Remaining charges against him were dismissed in February, according to the Greenville News and other media reports.
▪ In January 2020, former Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone pleaded guilty to embezzlement in connection with charges of stealing funds from his office to spend on personal matters. Boone was sentenced to five years in prison but that sentence was suspended to probation. However, in March, after Boone was charged with domestic violence, and he was sent to prison for four and a half months for violating probation. In December, Boone pleaded guilty to domestic violence and again received probation, this time on condition he undergo 26 weeks of domestic abuse counseling.
▪ Also in 2020, former Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland was sentenced to probation after being found guilty of various charges including getting deputies to work on his property and beating his girlfriend.
Sprouse is represented by Columbia attorney Michael Laubshire, and Neal, by Spartanburg attorney Andrew Johnston.
Because the U.S. Attorney’s Office had a conflict in the matter, the case will be prosecuted by a team of U.S. Justice Department lawyers in the department’s public integrity section including Rebecca Schuman and William Miller.
Also listed as Underwood’s attorneys are Jahue Moore, Lester Bell, Sierra Carini and Ed Dawson, all of the Columbia area.