CHESTER, S.C. — A federal prosecutor suggested a suspended sheriff in South Carolina has tried to intimidate former deputies from cooperating with investigators that continue to look into corruption charges.
[PAST COVERAGE: Interim sheriff sworn in after Chester County indictments handed down]
The lawyer for Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood called the case an assault on law enforcement and denied he made any threats during his arraignment on charges he jailed a man videotaping a police investigation from his front lawn on trumped up charges, then created a false police report, tried to destroy the man's cellphone and lied to the FBI.
Underwood, his Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse and sheriff's Lt. Johnny Neal Jr. face several federal charges ranging from civil rights violations to lying to police. All three men appeared in court Tuesday and pleaded not guilty. They were indicted earlier this month.
The charges against Underwood and his deputies stemmed from a man, Kevin Simpson, videotaping the aftermath of a wreck after a police chase in November from the yard of his Fort Lawn home.
(Watch a clip from Simpson's Facebook Live)
The video shows Simpson arguing with Underwood and moments later the former sheriff used excessive force to grab Simpson and illegally arrest him, according to federal documents.
[PAST COVERAGE: FBI, SLED agents seen at Chester County Sheriff’s Office]
The documents also stated Underwood unlawfully jailed Simpson, searched his home without a warrant, tampered with his phone and even lied to the FBI about what happened.
Prosecutor Alyssa Richardson on Tuesday asked for monitoring of Underwood while he awaits trial because of threats made against deputies and witnesses as the investigation into Underwood's activities as sheriff continues. She did not give specifics.
The judge agreed instead to an order barring Underwood from contacting anyone involved in the case or sheriff's office employees. Underwood, a longtime state agent and sheriff of Chester County since 2013, also was ordered to give up his guns until his trial.
The sheriff will fight the charges in court, defense lawyer Stanley Myers said.
"This is an assault on law enforcement. They were going out on an active manhunt in rural Chester, South Carolina. One side of the story has been painted. We look forward to giving our side later on," Myers said outside the courtroom.
After seeing Simpson outside, Underwood ordered him to go back to his porch. Simpson refused and kept recording for 25 minutes, prosecutors said.
Underwood and his deputies eventually arrested Simpson, keeping him in jail for three days without a reason, prosecutors said.
The deputies then created a false police report, which they gave to FBI agents that said Simpson stepped out of his yard into the public roadway and cursed at police, according to the indictments.
The courtroom Tuesday was packed with supporters of Underwood with about a dozen people having to stand because they didn't have seats.
Myers didn't go into details about Underwood's defense, but said he plans to fight the charges.
"Once Mr. Underwood has an opportunity to take the witness stand to give his side of the story, I think that will shed a lot of light on this indictment," Myers said.
Underwood didn't speak as he left the courtroom but gave a thumbs up to reporters standing outside.
Underwood, 55, faces up to 51 years in prison if convicted of five charges against him. Sprouse, 44, faces up to 70 years behind bars if convicted of five charges and Neal, 39, faces a maximum sentence of 35 years if convicted on three counts.
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Underwood's wife, Angel, was elected again Monday as the chief magistrate for Chester County, which has about 32,000 people and is about 60 miles north of Columbia.
Sources said the FBI is still investigating Underwood, related to how he has spent money. Underwood's lawyer said that the only case he knows of is what's in the indictment.
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