Former SC sheriff ‘Big A’ Underwood claimed innocence for years. Now, trial date is set

Andrew Dys
·5 min read

For two years since the FBI raided his office and the South Carolina governor suspended him, and federal prosecutors claimed he was a criminal, the former Chester County sheriff known as “Big A” has said he is innocent.

Alex Underwood caught gang members who killed a Chester councilman. His friendship with a Pennsylvania boy warmed America’s hearts.

Underwood was born and raised in Chester County. And, he was the first Black sheriff in the county’s history.

Then he and two of his top aides were charged in 2019 for several crimes including falsifying records, violating a suspects’ civil rights, lying to the FBI and using taxpayer money for family trips, and more.

Underwood has said all along he wants a trial that would refute those charges. He appears poised to get that trial.

Federal judge Michelle Childs on Wednesday set a trial date of April 12 for U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutors to have the trial against Underwood, former Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, and former Lt. Johnny Neal.

Jury selection will begin March 31. The trial could last weeks, Childs said.

The federal charges

Underwood, Sprouse and Neal face a list of federal indictments, according to court records, including conspiracy to defraud the United States; depriving civil rights; tampering with a witness or victim; destruction, alteration or falsification of records in a federal investigation; conversion of property for personal use; and wire fraud.

The federal sentences for those charges range from one year to 20 years per count if convicted, according to federal records.

Underwood currently faces 17 indictments, Neal faces 12 indictments, and Sprouse faces 14 indictments, according to U.S. Department of Justice records.

Underwood, Neal and Sprouse were first indicted by a federal grand jury in May 2019. The charges are from a 2018 incident where a Chester County man, Kevin Simpson, was arrested after he videotaped an ongoing sheriff’s office manhunt near his Fort Lawn home. Simpson was jailed for days. His mother also was arrested. According to the indictments, Underwood and the deputies changed 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.

Later that year, a federal grand jury issued more indictments against Underwood and deputies, alleging conspiracy, misuse of county money for personal travel to Nevada and New Orleans, forcing deputies to work on his property, and directing security detail payments for off-duty deputies to avoid paying employment taxes.

Pleadings so far: Not guilty.

Underwood, Sprouse and Neal have each pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Although public federal court documents in the case state that there were plea negotiations over the past two years, there has been no change in the not guilty status of all three defendants.

Underwood’s lead lawyer, Stanley Myers, told The Herald after Underwood appeared in court twice in 2019 that he wanted a trial to clear his name.

Suspended Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, left, embraces his former chief deputy Robert Sprouse outside the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia. Underwood, Sprouse and former Lt. Johnny Neal are facing charges in federal court.
Suspended Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, left, embraces his former chief deputy Robert Sprouse outside the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia. Underwood, Sprouse and former Lt. Johnny Neal are facing charges in federal court.

“One side of the story has been told,” Myers said at the time.

Underwood, Sprouse and Neal have no prior criminal records. Each has been free on a personal recognizance bond since the indictments nearly two years ago.

Trial players, venue

The federal government has brought in prosecutors from its main Washington, D.C., office.

Underwood, Sprouse and Neal each have hired private defense lawyers.

The trial will be in Columbia at the federal courthouse, with jurors from around the state.

It is unclear if any or all of the defendants will testify.

South Carolina has charges, too

The federal charges are only the first set of criminal complaints against Underwood, Sprouse and Neal.

South Carolina prosecutors have pending criminal cases against all three defendants, according to court records.

After Underwood and the deputies were indicted two years ago by a federal grand jury, a South Carolina state grand jury that was conducting a separate investigation also indicted them on several charges.

The South Carolina and federal cases are separate and in two courts. So even if Underwood, Sprouse and Neal are found not guilty in a federal trial, the state charges are pending.

More about Underwood

Underwood was elected sheriff in 2012 after retiring from the State Law Enforcement Division where he was an agent for more than 20 years. He was re-elected in 2016.

In 2014, Underwood gained national attention when he befriended a boy who mistakenly applied for a police hunting and fishing trip in Chester, S.C., not where he lived in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Underwood heard about the mix-up and brought the child to Chester several times for trips. Their friendship was featured in local, state and national news reports.

Suspended Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, gives members of the media a thumbs up after pleading not guilty to federal charges at the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia.
Suspended Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, gives members of the media a thumbs up after pleading not guilty to federal charges at the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia.

Underwood and his deputies also solved the killing of former Chester City Councilman Odell Williams in 2014 after declaring war on gangs in Chester. All the suspects were convicted, including the shooter who is serving a life prison term.

That year, Underwood had a public battle with Chester County Council over funding for the sheriff’s office. Underwood’s actions led to thousands of dollars in contributions from the public for bulletproof vests and other equipment for deputies.

But Underwood also was accused of coerced sex by a former deputy in a civil lawsuit. In 2016, a Chester County jury vindicated Underwood denying the former deputy’s claim.

Then in April 2019, federal agents raided his Chester office during the investigation about Simpon’s video confrontation in Fort Lawn and the arrest.

Days later, federal prosecutors announced Underwood and the two deputies had been indicted by a grand jury. That same day, S.C. Gov Henry McMaster suspended Underwood from office.

While suspended, Underwood ran for re-election in 2020 against interim Sheriff Max Dorsey. Dorsey was appointed by McMaster after Underwood was suspended. Dorsey defeated Underwood in November.