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SLED investigations, discrimination allegations, and lawsuit made the news in 2013

Charles Warner Editor

January 2, 2014

UNION COUNTY — Investigations by SLED into the deaths of two men in police custody, a federal investigation into allegations of sexual discrimination by the school district, and a federal lawsuit against a county official were among the stories that made headlines in 2013.


On April 10, Union Public Safety Officers were dispatched to the scene of an automobile accident on the Duncan Bypass. When they arrived, however, the responding officers discovered the accident had actually occurred outside their jurisdiction on the Sardis Road. Deputies with the Union County Sheriff’s Office were then dispatched to the scene along with the S.C. Highway Patrol.


When they arrived, they found a 1997 Honda Accord with a badly damaged front setting just outside the city limits on Sardis Road. Deputies also found a 2005 Dodge pick-up truck sitting wrecked on Sardis Road further out from the city limits. Sheriff David Taylor later said that the Honda struck the Dodge from the rear as they were traveling east on Sardis Road. He said the collision caused the Dodge to wreck and damaged the Honda so badly it could not continue moving.


The driver of the Honda was later identified as Jackie McBeth, 21, of Fountain Inn. Taylor said that McBeth’s passenger, his twin brother George, a resident of Harwood Heights, Union, and the driver of Honda, Union resident Mike O’Shields, were both transported from the scene to Wallace Thomson Hospital where they were treated and released.


Even though the wreck occurred outside the city limits, the attention of law enforcement soon shifted to nearby Hart Street within the city where an altercation was taking place. Public safety officers went to intervene followed by deputies responding to officers’ call for assistance.


The incident report subsequently released by the public safety department states that an officer dispatched to the wreck went to 524 Hart St. after witnesses told him an assault was taking place there. When the officer arrived, he found McBeth assaulting a white male in the front yard. After the officer got out of his car and issued verbal commands, the report stated that McBeth began heading toward him. The officer used his Taser on McBeth, but it appeared have no effect. McBeth hit the officer in the face and knocked him to the ground.


A second officer saw McBeth attacking the first officer and used his Taser on McBeth, again with no effect. The officers managed to get handcuffs on McBeth but his hands were in front of him and he continued to resist. The officer McBeth had attacked used his Taser on him again, but this too proved ineffective. He then radioed for assistance.


More officers arrived as did county deputies who placed leg irons on McBeth’s ankles, enabling the first two officers to get up off the ground and seek medical attention. Two deputies were also injured while trying to subdue McBeth and had to seek medical attention as well.


The report stated that during the fighting, McBeth spit blood and saliva on several of the officers. It was shortly after he was restrained that McBeth lost consciousness. Union County EMS personnel were called to the scene where they began treating McBeth and transported him to Wallace Thomson Hospital where he died.


In the aftermath of McBeth’s death, SLED was called in to investigate. Public Safety Director Sam White said that anytime an officer is involved in an incident in which someone dies, SLED is called in to investigate as a matter of policy.


An autopsy was performed on McBeth’s body the following day by Newberry Pathology Associates


In August, Union County Coroner William Holcombe announced the result of the autopsy and a SLED toxicology report. Holcombe said that McBeth died as a result of “excited delirium.” He said that a contributing factor in McBeth’s death was his struggling against the physical restraints he’d been place in shortly before he died. He said this lead to McBeth suffering “terminal cardiac arrhythmia” or cardiac arrest.


Holcombe said that as result of this the manner of McBeth’s death has been determined to be accidental.


In his statement announcing the cause of McBeth’s death, Holcombe said that SLED’s toxicology report found that McBeth tested positive for marijuana and marijuana metabolites but negative for any other drugs.


SLED presented its findings to Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett who announced that, after reviewing the evidence and facts uncovered by the investigation, he’d concluded that “criminal charges are not warranted for any party involved in this incident.”


Brackett’s decision not to recommend criminal charges was addressed by Derrick Mobley, a Lexington attorney retained by McBeth’s parents, during a press conference on the front steps of the Union County Courthouse. Surrounded by a small crowd of McBeth family supporters, a number of whom were wearing shirts with Jackie McBeth’s photo on them, Mobley said that while the family would continue to respect the legal process they were disappointed by Brackett’s decision.


Mobley said that while the family did not dispute the events that led up to the confrontation between McBeth and law enforcement they were concerned “about the amount of force, the amount restraint” used on McBeth. He pointed to a video of the incident that he said showed McBeth on the ground in handcuffs, his ankles shackled and with a member of law enforcement with their arm around his neck. Mobley said at that point McBeth had been subdued and the use of force against him by law enforcement should have stopped. However, Mobley said evidence shows that there was continued use of stun guns and a chokehold against McBeth even though by then he was no threat and in physical distress.


Mobley said that while there were no plans by the McBeth family to take any legal action, he said the family would continue to seek justice for their son. He said the family would follow every possible investigative path to get to the truth and he called on those in the community to help them with these efforts.


In December, SLED was once again called in by local law enforcement, this time to investigate the death of an inmate at the Union County Jail.


The sheriff’s office reported that Robert Franklin Gregory, 4186 Jonesville-Lockhart Highway, Union was found unresponsive in a holding cell at the jail around 5:19 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7. Jail officers attempted to treat Gregory with an automatic defibrillator and contacted EMS for assistance in resuscitating him. EMS personnel responded but were unable to resuscitate Gregory and he was pronounced dead a short time later by Deputy Coroner John Fallaw.


At the time of his death, Gregory was awaiting a bond hearing on a criminal domestic violence charge.


Taylor said that his office had contacted both the South Carolina Department of Corrections and SLED about Gregory’s death. He said that when someone dies in jail the Department of Corrections has to be notified. As for calling in SLED, Taylor said he did so because Gregory had died in jail and therefore it would be a conflict of interest for his office to investigate his death.


Gregory’s body was sent to Newberry Hospital where an autopsy was performed the day after his death. Taylor said the results would be sent to SLED. He said he did not know how long the investigation would take.


Discrimination Allegation


Allegations of discrimination lead to a federal investigation of the Union County School District’s policies toward female athletes in 2013.


The allegations wer initially made in December 2012 when Jessica Sherbert — who had been told at two prior meetings of the Union County Board of Trustees that she could express grievances in executive session, but not in public — presented a letter to local media, accusing the school district of a Title IX violation in that “an all-girl athletic group has much harsher rules and consequences than that of its male counterparts.” Sherbert also stated that such discrimination falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Sherbert’s letter also expressed grievances regarding the way in which cheerleading tryouts were conducted, as well as responses she received from Union County High School Interim Athletic Director Will Hickson. She also complained about Hickson’s treatment of her husband, fellow coach and former Interim Athletic Director Scott Sherbert.


On Apr. 19, 2013, the school district received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in reference to a complaint filed against the district on March 25. The letter stated the complainant alleged the following:


• The high school treated the complainant’ niece (the student) differently from male students who quit or are dismissed from athletic teams when the student was not allowed to participate in soccer following her dismissal from the cheerleading squad.


• Female athletes at the high school are denied access to equitable funding.


• The high school and middle schools do not provide equitable equipment, including uniforms, and supplies for female athletes.


• The high school and middle schools deny female athletes access to equitable facilities, including the high school’s storage facilities, locker rooms, video rooms, and coaches’ offices; and the middle schools’ practice fields.


• The high school fails to provide equitable publicity to female athletic teams.


• The high school fails to provide equitable per diem funding to athletic teams on travel.


• The high school does not provide equitable medical and strength training services for female athletes.


• The high school and the middle schools discriminate against female athletes in the scheduling of their games and competitions.


The ensuring investigation was described by Superintendent Dr. Kristi Woodall as a detailed process that began with nine pages of document requests and a four-month period paperwork submission. Woodall said the district turned over volumes of written records, financial records, and student discipline records. This was followed by four attorneys from the District of Columbia visiting Union to interview principals, coaches, and students, and observing school facilities.


In a statement released to The Union Daily Times in September, the OCR stated that it found “insufficient evidence with respect to the individual allegation of different treatment on the basis of sex, and also found insufficient evidence that the district denied female athletes equitable per diem funding, equipment, supplies, publicity and medical training services.”


The OCR did, however, determine that the district failed to provide female athletes equal opportunities with respect to equitable facilities, including practice and competitive softball fields; strength training facilities and locker rooms; laundering of uniforms; pregame meals; scheduling and number of games; and maintenance of uniforms.”


It further stated that, on Sept. 24, 2013, the district “signed a Resolution Agreement to redress these Title IX compliance concerns.”


The district issued its own statement in response to the OCR’s findings, stating its intention to address the issues raised. On the issue of laundering uniforms, the district stated it would conduct a survey of all sports teams, both male and female, to determine which teams wanted their coaches to launder their uniforms and to ensure the coaches adhere to the desires of their athletes.


As pre-game meals, the district would begin providing them to any team, male or female, whose players are not allowed to leave after and will not have completed their athletic participation prior to the evening meal time.


The district would also work with the Town of Lockhart and Union County to ensure all middle school softball fields receive proper maintenance; provide dedicated transportation to practice fields for middle school softball players; ensure that all girls teams have access to and utilize the locker rooms provided for them; and conduct a survey of weight equipment available at the high school and purchasing additional equipment as needed.


In October, the school district was notified by the OCR regarding a complaint filed on May 22. The letter stated that the complainant alleged that the district retaliated against her and her niece because other students one the cheerleading squad at the high school received their equipment/supply bills in December 2012 while the student did not receive her bill until four days before graduation, despite repeated requests for the bill.


The OCR stated that after reviewing all the information provided by both the complainant and the district as well as interviewing the complainant and district personnel, it “found insufficient evidence to support these allegations.”


The letter from the OCR stated that the district provided evidence that the mother of the student had received information about cheerleading costs as early as May 2012, and the student was informed as early as March 2013 that she had a cheerleading bill she needed to pay. Specifically, the student’s mother attended two cheerleading meetings in May 2012 at which the coach provided an estimate of the cheerleaders’ expenses for the 2012-2013 season.


Federal Lawsuit


The year also saw a former employee of the Union County Clerk of Court’s office file a lawsuit claiming she’d been wrongfully dismissed from her job and her civil rights had been violated.


Melanie Lawson ran for Clerk of Court in the Nov. 6, 2012 general election and was defeated by incumbent Freddie Gault. A little over a week after she was defeated, Lawson met with Gault and was informed by him that she was being fired from her job as Family Court Deputy Clerk.


After being fired, Lawson, in a telephone interview with The Union Daily Times, said she did not know why she’d been fired. She said that in her 23 years as an employee of the Clerk of Court’s office she’d never been reprimanded, either verbally or in writing. Lawson said that she was considering her next course of action.


Four months later, Lawson’s course of action became clear when she filed suit against Union County and against Gault, both in his capacity as Clerk of Court and individually. The suit was initially filed on April 4, but an amended version was filed on April 1. The amended version dropped Union County from the suit, but Gault, both as Clerk of Court and as individual, is still the defendant.


The amended suit states Lawson had been an employee of the Clerk of Court’s Office since 1992 and served as Union County Family Court Deputy Clerk. It further states that on March 30, 2012, she filed to run for Clerk of Court against Gault who at the time was her boss and the incumbent. Later that day, after being told by Lawson she was running against him, Gault placed on her on unpaid leave for the duration of the election process. The suit states that prior to this, on March 9, 2012 and on March 12, 2012, Gault told Lawson she would not be allowed to work in the Clerk of Court’s office in any capacity until after the election. It claims this was an effort to dissuade her from running.


After she filed to run, Lawson and Gault didn’t speak to each other again until the morning after the election when she called to congratulate him and he said he would like to meet with her. They met on Nov. 14, 2012 at which time Lawson was told she was being fired.The suit states Gault gave Lawson no reason for her termination other than that it was in the best interest of the office.


The suit claims Lawson was wrongfully discharged from her position, citing state law that makes it “unlawful for a person to … intimidate a citizen, discharge a citizen from employment or occupation … because of political opinions or the exercise of political rights and privileges guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution and laws of the United States or by the Constitution and laws of this State. A[ny] person who violates this provision of this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, must be fined not more than one thousand dollars, or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”


It also claims that Lawson’s “exercise of her political rights and privileges” are protected by both state and federal law; that “an employer who terminates an employee from employment for her exercise of a political opinion, right or wrong” violates both state and federal law; that as a result of the termination of her employment “for no reason other than her running for an open election,” Lawson has suffered “lost wages and benefits, humiliation, and other actual and compensatory damages;” and is entitled to “actual, consequential, and punitive damages, including back pay and front pay.”


The suit also alleges civil rights violation and claims Gault was “acting under color of law and color of his authority” as Clerk of Court. It repeats its claim that Gault attempted to deter Lawson from running against him by telling her she would be temporarily relieved without pay from her duties until after the election. It claims Lawson’s ability to run for public office is “a right and privilege protected by South Carolina and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” It alleges Gault’s actions “constitute intimidation” under South Carolina law “as well as an abuse of power resulting in a chilling effect on the freedom of speech.” It further states that under South Carolina law “all elections shall be free and open, and every inhabitant … shall have an equal right to elect officers and be elected to public office.”


By causing what it describes as the violation of Lawson’s rights, the suit claims Gault is liable under state law, the First Amendment, and Article I, Section 5 of the South Carolina Constitution for the injuries it claims Lawson suffered. It further claims Lawson has “suffered a serious deprivation of her liberty, grievous mental anguish and pain and suffering.”


Gault was asked about the suit when it was first filed, but declined to comment because it involved pending legal issues.


Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at cwarner@civitasmedia.com.