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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Melvin Trial Underway

COLUMBIA (Item)- Fifteen jurors heard opening arguments and the testimony of three witnesses Monday in the trial of former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin, who is facing 47 counts related to drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.
Prosecutors portrayed Melvin as a corrupt public official, while his defense attorney advised jurors to consider the credibility of others charged in the case who have agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.
Among those testifying Monday was the current chief deputy of the Lee County Sheriff's Office who previously headed the department's narcotics division under Melvin. Testimony also was given by Lee County's finance director and a convicted drug dealer whose testimony will continue at the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse.
Melvin, 47, dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt, dark slacks and a blue and gray striped tie with a pale star at the tip, leaned back in his leather chair with his hands clasped in front of his face and his eyes shut as if in prayer, and rocked slightly while U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie explained the charges to jurors that Melvin is facing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Debbie Barbier told jurors during the government's opening statement that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, calling Melvin "the most powerful man in Lee County," and the most corrupt.
Wiretaps and video were used during the undercover operation that netted several other drug dealers and Melvin, she said, and promised a glimpse into a world "that existed for a very long time in Lee County." Though Melvin took an oath as sheriff to serve and protect, the only person he served was himself while protecting a group of drug dealers, she said, while using his position to "line his own pockets."
Eventually the word got out, she said, which reached state Law Enforcement Division and the FBI, that Melvin, known on the street as "Big Dog," was taking money from dealers "for the right to sell drugs."
"If you wanted to play, you had to pay," she said, later referring to Larry "Hawk" Williams and Erick Hickmon - who have pleaded guilty to drug charges and are cooperating with authorities - as Melvin's "key associates."
When FBI and SLED agents gave Melvin a list of people they thought were drug dealers on April 19, Melvin's calls were already being monitored, and "what happened next is almost unbelievable."
Melvin called Chris Peeples and Larry Williams - two dealers on the list - and planned a shakedown, she said, while also using the list to scare other dealers into paying him cash to keep them from being investigated.
Melvin had Peeples and Larry Williams get Lucious Delane to hand over $3,000 to get his name off the list, she said, later explaining that Melvin used the Lee County Sheriff's Office to further a pattern of multiple acts of criminal activity, which is the definition of racketeering.
Melvin took kickbacks for contract work for the Lee County Sheriff's Office, she said, and conspired with Angela Ruth, then the Victim's Advocate for the sheriff's office, to steal $7,000 from the fund for that office.
A year before his May 1 arrest, Melvin took a $1,350 bribe from Ricky Prescott, she said, half of a $2,700 payment to get Prescott's charges for dealing marijuana dropped.
Melvin's attorney Jack Swerling told jurors during his 10-minute opening statement - about half the length of Barbier's - that the "United States of America vs. E.J. Melvin is a pretty awesome statement," which brings a "sense of being overwhelmed and overpowered."
Swerling said a case brought by the federal government "and all the power behind it," needs checks and balances, which is what jurors do. Melvin is presumed innocent, he explained, with the burden of proof falling on the government, which has to prove Melvin's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Your job is to sit as jurors and decide the facts of the case," he said, without taking prejudice or bias into account while being fair and impartial with no preconceived notions or opinions.
Swerling said he would attack the credibility of the drug dealers set to testify against Melvin, noting the dealers accepted plea bargains to hopefully lessen their sentence.
"You have to decide the credibility of these folks," he said.
The dealers who will testify, he said, are not humanitarians or good citizens, but are testifying "because they're gonna get something out of it."
Lee County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tim Clavon took the witness stand first, explaining how he's been with that office about 25 years, which was preceded by service in the Air Force and S.C. Air National Guard. He also worked for a year as a private contractor in northern Afghanistan starting in November 2007, and took some time off in 2009 following the death of his wife.
Clavon has known Melvin since the early 1980s, he said, when Melvin was a trooper with the S.C. Highway Patrol. Clavon said he had knowledge of Melvin not following proper procedures and protocol in working with informants.
Clavon explained how the Sheriff's Office works with informants and confidential sources and how they sometimes get paid or get charges tossed. He also told jurors how he got acquainted with Jeff Carter, a SLED agent, when both men worked on a tri-county drug task force in the mid- to late '90s when Carter worked for the Clarendon County Sheriff's Office. Clavon learned about Melvin's arrest from Carter, he said, later noting he and then-Maj. Daniel Simon met with counterparts from Florence County just weeks before Melvin's arrest to talk about drug dealers, but Clavon and Simon were unaware their boss was being wire-tapped.
During a 40-hour week, Clavon said they would see Melvin "every now and then," sometimes only a "couple hours a day."
Under cross exam, Clavon talked about how funds to pay informants came from a forfeiture and seizure account. Informants aren't always reliable, he said, admitting that one in Lynchburg swapped cocaine for flour after controlled buys.
Melvin would pass along information gleaned from informants, he said, like other deputies, later admitting it was a common practice for officers to field phone calls from people looking to get traffic tickets reduced. Officers usually met with informants with another officer, but sometimes met them alone.
Clavon told Swerling that when he and Simon met with Florence deputies on April 19, Delane, Williams, Hickmon and Peeples were not on the list that Lee County Capt. Lynn Blakely compiled and shared.
Angie Helms, Lee County's finance director, then took the witness stand and explained how when before she took her post about three years ago, the county's finances were in disarray and devoid of any checks and balances.
She worked from 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at first, she said, to right the ship, noting Lee County is the 44th most poor county out of 46 in the state, with the lowest property tax rate in the state.
Former Administrator Jimmy Lacost told her not to send out 10-99 tax forms for certain people, she testified, referring to returns for work performed by individuals or small businesses for the county; those procedures didn't comply with state law.
Once Bobby Boland replaced Lacost, she said, he hired Thaddeus Dickey as the procurement officer and new rules were put in place. It was hard to reach Melvin to explain the new rules, she said, explaining that his intermediary was Angela Ruth.
Several invoices Melvin submitted didn't follow proper procedure, she said, noting she butted heads with him. Melvin endorsed checks meant for third-party vendors, she said, later explaining how David Ruth submitted invoices for $750 to wax, buff and clean the floors of the LCSO and the magistrate's office.
Swerling objected throughout her testimony, which Currie often sustained.
All agencies had problems with accountability, she said under cross examination, which was county-wide. Swerling also produced a May 3 invoice with then-Acting Sheriff Daniel Simon signed off on, which countered proper procedure as there was purchase order.
Perhaps the most compelling testimony came at day's end, as convicted drug dealer Quinton Davis, 27, told jurors how he dropped out of school at age 15 because his first of six children was on the way. Davis supplemented his income from McDonald's by selling marijuana, which soon escalated to selling crack and powder cocaine, which was purchased from Larry Williams, who also supplied Hickmon, Davis' roommate in 2005 and 2006.
Another man named Seneca Moore later sold Davis larger quantities of cocaine, which Davis mixed with baking soda and microwaved to make crack, Davis testified, which usually doubled his profit margin.
When Davis and Hickmon lived on Spring Hill Road, Davis was being supplied by Moore and George Patel, he said, a businessman who owned a convenience store. (Earlier testimony showed Patel has moved to New York.)
Patel, Davis said, was "scary," meaning the businessman was overly cautious and careful. Davis then told Assistant U.S. Attorney J.D. Rowell that he saw Patel with Melvin, whom Davis had known since he was a kid when they lived in close proximity on Raccoon Road.
Davis' testimony will continue at 9:30 a.m. today. Source

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