MARLBORO COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — When I rounded the corner of Academy Road and found the old two-story farmhouse, a group of lawmen were standing outside a Ford truck waiting for a meeting that should’ve never happened.
Law enforcers aren’t supposed to meet with reporters this way. Especially when they’re about to do what those lawmen did on that rural Marlboro County farm on Nov. 16, 2021.
They were there to tell their side of what they believed was a climate of corruption in the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office, involving Marlboro County Sheriff Charles Lemon and others.
“If Charles Lemon knew you were standing here right now talking to me today, what would happen,” I asked. “In his words to me, he’d fire the hell out of us. Immediately,” one of them said, “He could ride by right now and he’d stop and fire us on the damn spot and you’d have to take us home.”
The group included the head of the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit, Lt. Trevor Murphy.
The lawmen seemed eager to talk. At points, one grew angry as he detailed some of the cases where he claimed Sheriff Lemon interfered with law enforcers’ pursuit of justice. The men explained failed attempts to have past incidents investigated by media and outside law enforcement and got no response. At one point, the anger appeared to drive one of the men to tears.
A frustrated cry. One of those cries where you feel like you’re speeding down an avenue of last resort with no way to make a U-turn.
“We’ve been trying to get someone to listen to us for two years. We’ve been holding this stuff for two years. I just think it’s time for someone to listen to us and the community needs to know what’s going on with law enforcement. We need to earn their trust back because right now we don’t have it and we’ve got to start somewhere,” one of the men told me.
WATCH: Part 2 ‘Lost Trust’:
The meeting happened the day after we aired an investigation showing Sheriff Lemon never investigated the criminal allegations against Marlboro County Deputy Probate Judge Tammy Bullock. The allegations were uncovered in our ‘Final Disrespects’ investigation. During our investigation, Lemon ignored multiple South Carolina Freedom of Information Act requests I filed with his office seeking information on the Bullock investigation and his handling of the case.
The sheriff refused to interview with us about his lack of investigation into the deputy probate judge. We found him on patrol on Nov. 9 and attempted to interview the sheriff as he hurried to his patrol truck. “Uh, uh…I’m good,” was Lemon’s only response to questions asked about the estate case concerning Bullock.
Murphy contacted me the next day asking to meet at a farm near the North Carolina line.
One of the men opened a green folder that held more than a half dozen incident reports from 2017 through 2021. In each case, the lawmen outlined what they believed were unethical and illegal acts committed by Sheriff Lemon and former members of the sheriff’s office.
“Several incidents where I feel he used his authority to override some of our decisions and some of our investigations,” one of the men said flipping through the police reports. None of the men wanted to go on camera but agreed to a brief on-camera interview outside the farm house that day so that if they were fired before our investigation finished, they could prove they were trying to get this information out to the public beforehand. The group planned to go on-camera in a formal interview in the future but eventually backed out.
Only one of the men eventually stepped forward: Lt. Trevor Murphy.
The group admitted they were afraid of the sheriff and of losing their careers over this. One of the men was nearing retirement eligibility; arguably with the most to lose.
“That’s who signs our paychecks. We have to feed our families, so we do what we’re told, but at this point, we just feel like it’s time to go forward and we feel like we’ve got somebody that’s going to listen to us and we just hope it works out for the best because the citizens deserve to know,” one of the lawmen told me.
“I’m born and raised in Marlboro County; I love the community and I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” one said, “Transparency is big in law enforcement, and I know everybody uses the word ‘transparency,’ but I’m going to use the word: know. Everybody needs to know what’s going on.”
The day after the meeting with the group, Lt. Trevor Murphy texted me a cell phone recording of a body camera video from May 3, 2020. The recording showed a Marlboro County deputy using a Taser on an inmate multiple times as the man lay naked on the county jail floor.
The video showed Sheriff Charles Lemon berating an inmate, identified as Jarrel Johnson, who stood outside a cell door with his hands cuffed behind his back. Here’s the transcript of the beginning of that video:
SHERIFF: “You got your taser? Is it hot?”
DEPUTY: “Yes, sir.”
SHERIFF: “It’s hot? (inaudible)…tase the hell out of him. Take the cuffs off of him. Step, step right here. Take the cuffs off of him. One of y’all take the cuffs off of him. When he turn around, stick that taser to his head. Ain’t nobody playing with you. It’s Sunday morning, man, I’ve got to go to church, you acting fool. I know your whole family, I know you (inaudible) ain’t nobody (inaudible). If he turn around, pop it to him. Give him what he asked for.”
As soon as a jailer removed the handcuffs, Johnson lunged toward the sheriff. Deputy Andrew Cook hit Johnson with the stun gun part of his Taser, which caused Johnson to fall back into a wall and slide to a sitting position on the floor.
Johnson was tased several more times, even as he appeared to make his way into the jail cell toward the end of the recording.
Lt. Trevor Murphy was at the jail when Johnson was booked in. Deputies arrested Johnson earlier that day after witnesses said Johnson beat his father with a baseball bat. Murphy thought a jail cell might not be what Johnson needed and left the jail to find Johnson’s mother to ask about his mental state.
“When asked simple questions like what his name was, he was giving answers that clearly showed you that his mental state was not healthy at that time, which is why I left the jail,” Murphy told us. “I told them he was calm and collected, just standby with him. Let me go speak with a family member of his and find out what his mental health history is, what we need to do to help him right now. We weren’t familiar with him. We hadn’t – never locked him up before. So, we need to know more about this guy before we just stick him in a jail cell.”
Before Murphy could get back to the jail, the sheriff walked into the jail have a word with Johnson. The sheriff’s voice was captured on the body camera recording ordering Cook to “Pop it to him” multiple times throughout the two-minute video recording.
Johnson’s mother confirmed she met with Murphy that day concerning her son’s mental health.
“I’m going back to the jail, I got a phone call from a deputy who was employed at that time, who was at tears and wanting to meet with me at my office and he showed me a video from his body cam footage that was sickening, disturbing, and just outright; almost unbelievable what happened,” Murphy said. Murphy had Cook complete a use of force report and Murphy said he turned that over to Lemon and his command staff.
“It was clear that it was a bad tase and I told the sheriff that day that’s a bad tase; that’s wrong. It was blown off. Nothing was done about it. And I realized that they weren’t going to do anything about it so tried to go around and get the right eyes on it. We contacted ex-law enforcement – he was a current law enforcement officer at the time, but we contacted him through an anonymous number and we contacted two media sources through anonymous numbers, letting them know hey, there’s a man at the Marlboro County Detention Center that’s just been unlawfully tased you need to look into the situation. Sheriff Charles Lemon was present, there’s body cam footage,” Murphy said.
But neither the law enforcer nor the reporters responded, according to the group of law enforcers we met with on Nov. 16. The lack of response seemed to confirm what Murphy and his fellow officers feared most: the sheriff was untouchable.
“When you’ve reached out to people that are your out, are your way out, and you’re realizing we’re telling these people stuff that’s going on and they’re not responding, we have no help. There is no safety net. You’re taught in school, something happens, you tell the teacher. We tried to tell the teacher and we didn’t get the help we asked for.”
On Nov. 18, I got an email from Murphy’s sheriff’s office account with an attachment containing a 76-page report titled ‘Lemon Laws,’ a packet of allegations named for Sheriff Charles Lemon. The document was also given to South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agent Lt. Tina Carter. The document contained more than a half-dozen examples of what Murphy and his team described as “unethical or illegal acts committed by fellow members of the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office.”
The report contained a description of the Johnson tasing under a paragraph titled ‘Police Brutality.’
On Nov. 23, Lt. Trevor Murphy decided to end the anonymous campaign to expose the details contained in the ‘Lemon Laws’ packet. Murphy agreed to be interviewed to discuss the packet he and his investigators compiled against the sheriff.
Other law enforcers showed up to the interview with Murphy but backed out seconds before. Murphy, with a sigh and look of disappointment, left the group and sat down in a chair under a large television light.
Earlier that day Murphy said he was questioned by SLED agents at the agency’s Pee Dee Region Office in Florence about the packet he delivered to SLED five days before. As soon as Murphy got back to Marlboro County, he walked into the county administrator’s office to hand in his resignation.
“I cried outside. I’m just a kid from McColl that grew up loving Marlboro County. I love the people here. The same people that fed me when I was a child, helped my mom buy Christmas presents for me, had me at their houses, transported me back and forth to sporting events. These are people that cared for me and for the last eight, nine, ten years I’ve been able to return that favor and care for victims that are in need here in Marlboro County,” Murphy said.
With the resignation, Murphy was ending that relationship.
“Knowing that stepping out and doing what I’m doing today is going to cost me that job and that position and put me in a bind in a very tough spot was hard for me, but it was also necessary. And if I’m going to be the man I want my son and my daughter to know me as being, then I had to do this.”
Another member of the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit, Sgt. Robbie Tryon also resigned the same day. Both men agreed to work through Dec. 17.
The theme of the allegations detailed in the ‘Lemon Laws’ report had to do with cover-ups and abuse of power. The packet detailed cases where the lawmen claimed the sheriff had people charged without the legal authority to do so.
One case happened in June 2018 when deputies stopped a car and found “a large amount of marijuana” inside. The driver claimed the drugs and the passenger, then 20-year-old Dasia Harrison, told investigators the driver had more drugs and money inside their Fletcher Street home. Harrison allowed investigators to search the home and Murphy’s unit got a search warrant and Harrison let them in.
The investigators said they didn’t tell Lemon about the drug warrant until it was being executed.
Harrison was sitting on the couch when Lemon arrived and “immediately began starting at Harrison,” according to the ‘Lemon Laws’ report. The sheriff “began chastising” the woman about “drugs in Marlboro County” and “young black boys that won’t work,” the investigators wrote in the report.
Harrison rolled her eyes at the sheriff.
“Sheriff advised her that if she rolled her eyes again, he would ‘lock your black monkey ass up,'” according to the report. Harrison rolled her eyes and “sucked her teeth” at Lemon’s statement. Lemon grabbed Harrison off the couch and took a pair of handcuffs from another deputy and ordered the deputy to charge Harrison with public disorderly conduct, according to the investigators’ report.
Harrison was not in public at the time.
Murphy said he told Lemon the woman was “being fully compliant” and had “not broken any laws and asked that Sheriff Lemon release her.” The sheriff told Murphy and a fellow investigator to “stay in their lane and that he was the Sheriff,” according to the report. The report shows Murphy and Investigator Walter Baker “pleaded with Sheriff to release Harrison due to her not violating any laws and helping us out so much,” but the report shows Lemon refused.
Sheriff Lemon told the investigators, “…if we wanted her out of jail to ‘call the judge yourself,'” the report shows. Murphy said he called the county magistrate and told her what happened. The judge “immediately granted Harrison” a no-cash bond and released her from jail.
Harrison confirmed she was released from jail in less than an hour. She also confirmed the details about her interaction with Sheriff Lemon contained in the ‘Lemon Laws’ report. Harrison initially agreed to an on-camera interview for this report, but later declined.
POTENTIAL LIFE SENTENCE
The ‘Lemon Laws’ document also detailed a 2017 case where two Bennettsville men were facing burglary charges that, if convicted, could have sent them to prison for life. The report alleges the sheriff, working solely off a crime victim’s assumption, had former Deputy David Douglas, Sr. swear two first-degree burglary warrants after a Pringle Drive home was burglarized.
The victim estimated the burglar made off with $100 in change.
The report names two men as “persons of interest”. The packet shows arrest warrants for Curtis Jackson and Jerome Jacobs – warrants authorized by a county magistrate without the probable cause required, according to the sheriff’s investigators.
Jacobs was arrested on the charge in September 2017 and given a $30,000 bond. Jacobs was close to being prosecuted on the charge and his case file in the Marlboro County Courthouse shows he was indicted on the charge just three months later. It took Fourth Circuit Deputy Solicitor Elizabeth Munnerlyn another five months to dismiss the charge, writing on the indictment, “Dismiss with leave to refile.”
The charges were never refiled.
Murphy said the sheriff’s office never processed the home for evidence and had “less than zero evidence” to charge the men. We contacted former Deputy Douglas on Dec. 8 to request an interview, but Douglas never responded. Jackson was never arrested on the charge and his warrant is still active, according to the ‘Lemon Laws’ report.
Murphy included texts between himself and Douglas concerning the probable cause in the Pringle Drive case. The texts came as Murphy was later auditing unserved arrest warrants and found Jackson’s warrant was still pending and never served.
MURPHY: “You signed warrants on Monte Jacobs and Curtis Jackson but if I remember right, Sheriff Lemon swore the probable cause for them to the judge. Jacobs was arrested on his warrants and it was later dismissed. Jackson’s warrants are still active but I couldn’t find a case file. I was trying to see if you remember what the probable cause was to arrest them (if any) and if it’s worth picking Jackson up on or if we should just rescind the warrants on him and move on”
DOUGLAS: “Are you good?”
MURPHY: “Sorry for the long message trying to get a bunch of old stuff cleared out lol
DOUGLAS: “The probable cause was the sheriff. The old man said he knew the two of them took his change
MURPHY: “I thought I remembered that but I wanted to be sure. I remember being with you with [sic] Sara called you to go sign them but I couldn’t remember if we had a statement from a witness or some evidence somewhere that could make it worth picking Jackson up”
DOUGLAS: “I would rescind it [sic] was I felt let’s make a citizen happy”
When contacted by Queen City News in December, Jacobs denied having anything to do with the burglary and confirmed the details spelled out in the ‘Lemon Laws’ document. Jacobs did not know the charge was still showing up on his criminal record and was still open for public inspection in a case file in the county courthouse.
I spoke with Jacobs by phone on Dec. 8 and he confirmed his arrest. Jacobs also confirmed the sheriff went to his home right after his arrest, telling Jacobs’ family, “He knows Jacobs did it” and “had evidence” Jacobs was involved. Jacobs denied any involvement in anything to do with the break-in.
Jacobs said he knew the homeowner who accused him. The owner was once related to Jacobs by marriage, but a divorce later terminated the familial relationship between Jacobs and the homeowner.
Jacobs now lives out of state.
We were unable to locate Curtis Jackson and we got no answer at the Bennettsville address listed on his warrant. We could not find a working phone number for Jackson.
“COVER UP”: FIREMAN PROSTITUTION INVESTIGATION
In October, Lt. Trevor Murphy said he sat down with a woman for a two-hour recorded interview inside the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office. The woman told Murphy she met with an on-duty Bennettsville fireman at the department’s Northside Fire Station where she was paid to perform oral sex on an on-duty fireman.
It happened “at least 10” times, according to the ‘Lemon Laws’ report.
The report shows Murphy received messages from a confidential informant showing online payment transfers between the fireman and the woman. Murphy said his investigators obtained Facebook messages showing communications between the fireman and the woman.
Earlier this month, we filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office interim sheriff’s administration and the Bennettsville city manager for any reports or documentation related to the sheriff’s office investigation.
“I have went through Law Track and I can’t find any incident reports you’re looking for, asked about, or inquired about,” interim sheriff Larry McNeil’s Chief Deputy Larry Turner said. Turner said he searched every database in the sheriff’s office – even searching boxes of files in suspended Sheriff Charles Lemon’s office – and could not find a case file on the fireman allegations.
“Why would they not be here,” I asked Turner. “That I can’t answer. I have no clue,” Turner responded.
Bennettsville Fire Chief Chris Burks said he wasn’t aware of the sheriff’s office investigation, but received a phone call accusing his fireman of similar allegations last fall. Burks said he interviewed the fireman who denied the allegations and the chief “found no evidence” to support the allegations.
The city attorney told us in a response to an open record request that Burks did not document either the complaint or his investigation.
Since the complainant would not file a written complaint, Burks said the city did not consider it a formal complaint, and city “practice” is to only document formal complaints. We’re not naming the fireman or any of the others involved since no charge was filed and no disciplinary action was ever taken.
Murphy said he called SLED’s lead in the Pee Dee Region Office, Captain Glenn Wood, who “advised it was not a misconduct issue” and to forward the case to the city for “administrative handling,” according to the ‘Lemon Laws’ document. Deputy Solicitor Elizabeth Munnerlyn also told Murphy the same, according to the report.
We spoke with the accused fireman on Jan. 10. The fireman confirmed the contents of the text messages we obtained in our investigation but denied he paid the woman for sex. The fireman said he loaned the woman “$20 here and there” because she “was down on her luck.”
I contacted the complainant and confirmed he was the one who reported the allegations to the fire chief. The man said he obtained a phone that once belonged to the fireman and accessed the fireman’s Facebook messages with the woman, then turned the messages over to the sheriff’s office. The man would not detail how he gained access to the messages.
The Facebook messages, which all occurred in August 2021, showed conversations where the fireman and the woman discuss a $40 payment for a cell phone plan, “so that I can get my activation and new phone” the woman wrote. Other messages show the fireman directing the woman to a particular door to enter, “The side door is cracked for you. The one by the apartments.”
“Let me know. [sic] If you can’t come now let me know so I can go to HQ for a minute and ill [sic] take a pill for you,” the fireman wrote. The next message shows the woman arriving at the fire station at 11:16 p.m. When asked about what he meant by taking a pill, the fireman told me “I don’t know nothing about no pill, I take medication at night. That must have been a typo or something or other,” and denied his statement to the woman had anything to do with a sex act.
The fireman said he knew who filed the initial complaint and that it was someone he “had a falling out with” and the complaint was retribution. We contacted the woman who Murphy interviewed in October, but the woman did not respond to our outreach.
Murphy said he turned the case over to the sheriff in October, but the sheriff told him he knew the fireman and the fireman was “a good fella” and to “sit on” the investigation “until he (the sheriff) decided what to do with it. “Present it to the sheriff and was told, as of now, just sit on it; that the guy that’s alleged to be doing this activity is a good guy and he’s not sure how to handle it, so let’s just sit on it,” Murphy said.
“I was instructed to give that to somebody with his (fireman’s) agency or in that realm and they still don’t have that paperwork or information because I have been instructed just to sit on it until he tells me what to do with it,” Murphy told us in November.
The city confirmed the sheriff never forwarded anything related to the investigation and the city considers the matter closed unless a formal complaint is filed.
MURDER CASES ‘INTERFERED’ WITH
Marlboro County Detention Center records show Ronald Thomas walked out of the Marlboro County jail at 7:10 p.m. on June 22, 2021; free on bond on a shoplifting charge. He made his way back to McColl where he lived with his wife. “Patches” is how everyone in town knew him.
Just five hours and ten minutes later, investigators found Patches lying in the middle of a rural county road just feet from the North Carolina line. Patches had multiple gunshot wounds, one to the head. Patches’ car was parked on a pull-off on the shoulder of the road about 100 yards away from his body.
“The car was parked back towards the line, and we found the victim here lying in the roadway on the bridge, in a pool of his own blood. Whatever happened, happened at the car and he was potentially running for his life, trying to try to live and his life was taken from him right on the roadway on the bridge,” Lt. Trevor Murphy said standing in the spot on Pea Bridge Road where he stood over Patches’ body that night in June 2021.
Investigators soon caught a break; two witnesses said they saw Patches’ murder and knew the man who shot Patches as he ran for his life toward the bridge. “We had two witnesses – eyewitnesses – come forward and they both gave a statement on what happened that night, and what they saw with their own eyes. And they both implicated a killer; somebody they knew somebody, they recognized somebody they observed, take the life and kill Patches,” Murphy told us.
“They identified the shooter by name, by clothing description. They knew him from past experiences living in the same town as him. They knew exactly who it was and they both watched him take the life of another person,” Murphy said.
Investigators found the man and took him in for questioning.
“We interviewed him, offered him a polygraph; to which he did not do well on. Based on that we locked him into his alibi for where he was at night and who he was with. Subsequently, we interviewed those potential witnesses who could confirm his alibi and none of them could confirm his alibi. They all denied being with him that night and said that he was not with them, which completely ruined the story he gave us,” Murphy recalled.
The next step: investigators presented their case to the solicitor, and Murphy said they got approvals for a murder warrant in July. But, six months later, a charge was never filed.
“Unfortunately, once we let Sheriff Lemon know about the evidence we gathered and our approval for warrants, we were put on hold and told to wait because he had another person of interest, he wanted to look into first,” Murphy told me. Murphy said the sheriff never gave the approval to charge the man they believed murdered Patches.
Another Marlboro County murder was heading for the unsolved file.
“Absolutely, had the sheriff not interfered, if he’d just allowed us to do our job and present the probable cause that was established and seek out that warrant, then a person who was seen by two people to take a life would be in jail right now,” Murphy told us as he stood on Pea Bridge Road in December.
We continued our patrol with Murphy that day. As we made our way through the “Greasy Corner” neighborhood in McColl, Murphy spotted Patches’ widow, Charlotte Seagraves walking along a side street headed for town and rolled his patrol truck window down to chat.
MURPHY: “Hey, gal.”
WIDOW: “Hey, how you doing?”
MURPHY: “You doing all right?”
MURPHY: “How you holding up?”
WIDOW: “I’m making it.”
WIDOW: “You need anything?”
MURPHY: “Nah, I’m good.”
MURPHY: “We, um, we’re still working.”
WIDOW: “I know.”
MURPHY: “We’re still working on it—”
WIDOW: “Yeah, they was telling me about it.”
MURPHY: “Okay. We’re still on it, so, you heard anything new?”
WIDOW: “No, still the same. If I hear anything I’ll let you know.”
MURPHY: “We’re still on it, and we’re going to make something happen.”
WIDOW: “I know y’all are…thank ya, baby.”
Murphy rolled his window up and drove away. He said he couldn’t tell her the truth than about what really happened to stall the arrest in the case.
“One of the heartbreaking things about that case was, we were going to get the search warrant signed at the office for SLED, and on the way, we actually saw his wife walking downtown near the laundromat and we picked her up and interviewed her. And in that interview, she told us that she thought he was still in jail for a shoplifting charge, which he had just been released, you know, four or five hours prior to being killed. We had to tell her at that point, he’s not in jail…he’s actually been murdered,” Murphy recalled of the night he and his men broke the news to Patches’ widow.
“Heartbroken. Just devastated. Kind of in disbelief; didn’t really know if we were telling her the truth, we were playing with her, like, she took it hard. That was a hard notification to make.”
But that’s not the only murder Murphy said the sheriff told his men to hold off on. The other was January 2020 when investigators found a man’s body in a field in Marlboro County. Murphy didn’t want to give many details on that case explaining there was still evidence that could still be collected and details of the crime could be used in questioning a man investigators identified some two years ago.
“We identified a very specific person of interest due to some evidence we gathered. When we relayed this information to the sheriff, we were instructed not to approach this person. We had a plan of action in place to approach this person and do certain things, complete certain things that we thought may get us the probable cause we need to give this family some closure and we were instructed; my guys were instructed: don’t approach him. Don’t talk to him. And I believe that absolutely hindered us that investigation,” Murphy said.
“He told us not to pursue this person that he would talk to him and to my knowledge, as of right now, he hasn’t been talked to,” Murphy said in December. The sheriff’s office has never filed a charge in this case and Murphy said he’s certain the evidence they were after two years ago is likely lost forever.
MURPHY UNDER SUSPICION
On at least two occasions, Lt. Trevor Murphy said he met with SLED agents and gave recorded interviews about the ‘Lemon Laws’ packet. Each time, Murphy said agents only seemed interested in gathering information on the Jarrel Johnson use of force elements and didn’t question him about the other cases detailed in the report.
In one meeting, Murphy said SLED interrogated him about his reasons for coming forward. One agent mentioned Murphy and his men were likely disgruntled with the sheriff after the sheriff implemented a mandate they complete daily activity sheets last summer, according to Murphy.
“That’s absolute nonsense, man. It seems like they’re finding every reason to not pursue this,” Murphy told me following an interview with SLED in late November. “We tried giving SLED a heads up on some of these cases in the past in a way it couldn’t come back on us with the sheriff; anonymous texts, fabricated emails, and nothing. We never got a response from the Pee Dee Region to pursue these cases,” Murphy said.
Murphy had a text message sent to SLED’s Pee Dee Region Office leadership dated Oct. 8, 2021 – just three days after our ‘Final Disrespects’ investigation aired – asking for a meeting. Murphy said the SLED agent never responded to the request to schedule a meeting with him.
Murphy said his first punch in the gut came from a SLED agent in a November interview where the agent called Murphy and his men’s attempts to tip SLED off as “veiled attempts,” which appeared to Murphy as a critique of the investigators’ attempts to remain anonymous in getting the state law enforcement agency’s attention.
But the Dec. 9 interview caused Murphy to regret coming forward at all – an interview Murphy said he walked out on after about an hour of questioning. Murphy believed SLED had turned him into a suspect in their investigation into the May 2020 excessive force case involving the sheriff and the body camera recording inside the county jail.
The questions turned to who deleted the original body camera recording from the sheriff’s office video database.
“They were, in my opinion, trying to accuse me of deleting evidence on behalf of the sheriff; the same evidence I provided them a month ago along with other stuff. They’re trying to say—they’re insinuating that I deleted that evidence or somehow got rid of that evidence on behalf of the sheriff,” Murphy told me as he sat on the tailgate of his patrol truck outside the Marlboro County High School football stadium right after his SLED interview.
Murphy said he was angry with SLED over what he believed was agents turning their attention on him instead of to the people involved in the tasing of Jarrel Johnson. At the time, Murphy didn’t know the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office was presenting the body camera video to the Marlboro County grand jury in less than a week.
SLED had a point. The body camera video was missing and aside from the cell phone recording another deputy made right after the tasing, no other video record existed. Even the jailhouse recordings were gone, which the sheriff’s office confirmed in a January 2021 response to an open record request we filed seeking copies of those recordings.
Murphy said he explained to SLED during the interview, anyone inside the sheriff’s office can access – and delete – anybody camera recording. There are no safeguards in place to prevent the deletion of those recordings, according to Murphy. Following the Dec. 9 parking lot interview, Murphy offered to take me into the sheriff’s office to show how easy it would be for someone to delete video files.
WATCH: Tour of Marlboro County Sheriff’s Deputy Room
“I’m going to walk you in the side door, we’re going to take one left and then another left and we’re going to be in the deputy room and I’m going to walk you to the body cam computer and show you how anybody off the street can access this computer and delete video footage—not even just a deputy.”
I climbed into Murphy’s patrol truck and video recorded the ride to the sheriff’s office and the trip into and out of the “deputy room” where body cameras are docked and videos downloaded and stored. I followed along as Murphy used his key card to open a personnel entrance and led us to the deputy room.
“You can see all the videos,” Murphy said as he moved the cursor around on the laptop, which was not locked with a password at the time. Even if the laptop were locked, the password is on a label above the keyboard. “With a simple right-click on a file, you can delete, and it would delete it. I’m not going to, I’m going to cancel delete, but—that simple video files can be deleted,” the lieutenant said has he opened a file folder with a deputy’s name on it; a folder filled with months of body camera recordings sorted by date.
Murphy showed how not only individual recordings could be deleted, but an entire folder could be cleared from the laptop in seconds with a couple of clicks of a mouse.
“So there is no security on these videos,” I asked. “Absolutely no security and I have stressed that to the sheriff’s office for years and nobody’s cared,” Murphy responded. The room is also where deputies take citizens to file police reports; sometimes people are left alone in that room from time to time, according to Murphy.
“It’s that simple and we’ve been in here 45 seconds. You can walk in, delete videos and walk out and nobody would ever know. And there’s no camera system at the sheriff’s office to document or add any security—no camera system whatsoever,” Murphy said as we walked outside toward his patrol truck. The sheriff’s office does have a camera system, but Murphy said at the time the sheriff’s office was delinquent on paying the camera vendor and was told the sheriff’s office no longer had camera service.
Murphy made a decision on his ride back to Marlboro County from SLED’s Pee Dee Region Office in Florence on Dec. 9: he was finished. When he resigned in November, told the county he’d work through Dec. 17, but following the interview with SLED, Murphy decided to end his career in Marlboro County.
“That’s what he said, he knew it was accessible, but still tried to make it out like I was trying to delete it or cover it up when I even put that there was body cam footage in my narrative of my warrant affidavit,” Murphy recalled of his conversation with SLED hours earlier. “Now it seems like they’re trying to say that I had something to do with hiding evidence that I provided them. That’s why I walked out of the interview with them, they’ve given me no reason to trust them at this point.”
“I understand now why people don’t trust the police when the police don’t trust the police. It’s just ridiculous, I took a leap of faith that they would do the right thing and now I feel like they’re trying to implicate me when I had nothing to do with it,” Murphy said.
Murphy dropped me off at my car outside the football stadium and told me he was headed home to clean his patrol truck out. He called the sheriff’s training officer right then to ask to meet so Murphy could surrender his gun and badge.
I waited outside the sheriff’s office and at 4:11 p.m., Murphy’s patrol truck rounded the corner and pulled into the parking lot. He grabbed a jacket with “SHERIFF” written across the back, threw it across his arm, and walked into a secured door. I could see Murphy through the front door hugging a woman who was crying.
She’d heard the news Murphy was quitting.
Exactly 13 minutes later, Trevor Murphy walked out the public entrance door of the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office in tears and walked the mile to his house in Bennettsville.
SHERIFF, DEPUTY INDICTED
We spent weeks working to verify the contents of the ‘Lemon Laws’ document. Calls and messages were sent to nearly every person in the report to confirm the information the lawmen relayed to us – and to SLED – was verifiable.
It’s the first step in journalism, really.
On Dec. 9, I spoke with former Deputy Andrew Cook by phone. Cook is the deputy who used a Taser on Jarrel Johnson in the body camera video. Cook wouldn’t agree to be interviewed on camera but said he wanted to tell his side of the story. His hesitation to be interviewed was the fact he believed he would likely be charged soon.
After all, Cook was interviewed by SLED a few days earlier.
Cook’s assumption was right. The Marlboro County grand jury indicted Cook and Sheriff Charles Lemon on Dec. 14, just five days after our phone call. Lemon and Cook were indicted on one count of misconduct in office and assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. The assault charge is a felony.
The indictments confirmed the details Murphy relayed to us and to SLED in the ‘Lemon Laws’ document. Murphy said he and his unit used anonymous means to tip off two news reporters and SLED the week after the tasing, but said no one pursued the tips. The case sat untouched for the next 19 months. In that time the body camera recording was deleted.
Court records show Johnson’s public defender didn’t file for discovery in the case until March 4, 2021 – 10 months and one day after the tasing happened, and Johnson was charged with assaulting Sheriff Lemon during the body camera recording. Johnson’s remained jailed without bond ever since.
Marlboro County Magistrate Mia Weaver, who is a licensed attorney and a former assistant solicitor in the Fourth Circuit, denied Johnson’s bond during a May 4, 2020 bond hearing. I asked Weaver why she denied Johnson’s bond, but Weaver said she couldn’t remember but would check the case file and update us by the end of that week.
Weaver never provided an explanation.
Neither Sheriff Lemon nor former Deputy Andrew Cook were arrested following their Dec. 14 indictments. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster immediately signed an executive order suspending Lemon from office on Dec. 14. The governor appointed former Bennettsville Police Chief Larry McNeil to serve as interim sheriff until Lemon’s prosecution is resolved or until the next election, whichever comes first.
A few hours after the indictments, we found Lemon outside the sheriff’s office cleaning his patrol truck out. A pair of SLED agents helped Lemon load personal items into an agent’s truck. One of the SLED agents drove Lemon home from the sheriff’s office. Lemon never agreed to any of our interview requests in the months before, so I took the opportunity to ask the suspended sheriff about the allegations against him contained in the ‘Lemon Laws’ document.
Here’s the transcript of that exchange:
BARR: “Mr. Lemon. Hey, I’m Jody with FOX Charlotte. Anything you want to say about these indictments?”
LEMON: “Yeah, we got a murder down there, why don’t you go down there and see if you can help solve that murder.”
BARR: “I’ve been down there. Is there anything you want the public to know about these charges?”
BARR: “Do you regret anything that happened on May 3, 2020?”
BARR: “Do you have a number—we’re working on several other investigations concerning allegations of your conduct in office, do you have a way I can reach you so we can run those by you? I don’t want to report those without you having a say, man.”
BARR: “How about the Pea Bridge homicide. Your investigators tell us you told them to hold off on securing murder warrants on that case in July. And here it is December, and that case is still unsolved.”
BARR: “How about the Pringle Drive with Jerome Jacobs, Curtis Jackson…any of these cases at all we can talk to you about?”
To continue questioning the sheriff was useless as he remained silent for the rest of the encounter. We left Lemon an open opportunity to explain his side in our ‘Lost Trust’ investigation, but the sheriff never took us up on the invitation.
One week later, Lemon and Cook were arrested following a Dec. 21 arraignment in Florence County. Both men pleaded not guilty to the charges and asked to be tried by juries. The judge set bond on each man at $25,000 and ordered them to have no contact with anyone at the sheriff’s office.
SLED agents drove the men from the Florence County courthouse back to the Marlboro County Detention Center where they had their mugshots taken, fingerprints entered into the statewide database and released. Lemon did not have handcuffs on when a SLED agent let him out of the front passenger door of a Dodge Charger inside the jail’s sally port. Cook, though, was still handcuffed as a female SLED agent opened her patrol car door and walked Cook into the jail.
Murphy told us following the Dec. 14 indictments his faith in SLED was somewhat restored but was still frustrated with the agency that it took a news investigation to bring the spotlight to Marlboro County.
“What’s going through your mind,” I asked Trevor Murphy on Dec. 14 in an interview in the jail parking lot a few hours after the indictments were announced. “A lot of emotions. It’s been a crazy few years; really crazy few months since we started this process of righting some wrongs from the past,” Murphy said.
“I’m happy right now for the citizens of Marlboro County, they can finally have some transparency. We knew when we went to SLED with this and when we went to the AG – and to you – with this stuff that we had to have our Is dotted and our Ts crossed and when we got what we needed and brought it to them, just thank God that some action’s being taken and we can continue moving forward—this wasn’t the only incident. There are many more that need to be investigated and looked into, but this is a start,” Murphy told me.
During that interview, Murphy said he hoped SLED would take the rest of the ‘Lemon Laws’ packet seriously.
“What do you think caused today,” I asked Murphy. “You are a huge part of that. When you started doing some investigative reporting into him (Sheriff Lemon). Obviously, first of all, that’s when we had eyes on it. You’ve been provided the documents that SLED’s been provided. When these thing’s happened in the past, we reached out to SLED through third-party sources, anonymous sources. We reached out to other media outlets, we tried to get the word out there, but our requests became unanswered. A couple of months ago when we were able to acquire some evidence that was indisputable; there’s no denying it, at that point we knew that anonymous wasn’t working anymore, that somebody had to step out. I wish I’d done it a year ago, two years ago when some of this stuff happened, but now that we had everything ready to go forward on it, it was time to step out and I know I needed to do it.”
“It was scary that you’re potentially standing up to the most powerful man in the county who’s backed by a system that’s been historically oppressive, it’s very scary. But, we knew it had to be done and it was necessary.”
SLED confirmed its investigation into the ‘Lemon Laws’ packet is active and ongoing. Lemon and Cook remain free on bond as their defense attorneys and the state work to resolve the charges against them.
Murphy said he still feels “sorrow” for what’s happened to both the sheriff, the former deputy, and for the people of Marlboro County.
“You hate nobody, even him. The things he’s done are wrong, yes, but you hate nobody. So, we’re still praying for him, praying for the deputy that was charged, but also praying for the families who have been involved and treated wrongly by his position, by the sheriff’s office in certain instances,” Murphy said.
When we interviewed Murphy in November, the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office’s Major Crimes Unit had five members: Lt. Trevor Murphy, Sgt. Robbie Tryon, Investigator Antonio Alford, Investigator Walter Baker, and Investigator Clay Anderson.
Murphy and Tryon resigned with their final day with the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office as Dec. 17. Baker left the sheriff’s office in November to take a law enforcement position with the state. Investigator Alford is still employed with the sheriff’s office.
McColl Town Hall confirmed Robbie Tyron started work as police chief in McColl on Jan. 24, 2021.
Trevor Murphy said he was not invited back by interim Sheriff Larry McNeil and remains unemployed in law enforcement.