CHESTER, SC (WBTV) – As sheriff of Chester County, Alex Underwood ran his agency with fear and intimidation, sometimes using his power and authority to intimidate political rivals, a former deputy who worked for Underwood told WBTV in an exclusive interview.
Underwood was suspended from office by Governor Henry McMaster last week, just hours after an eight-count federal indictment was announced against him, his chief deputy and a lieutenant at the department.
The federal indictment made public last week stems from the November arrest of Kevin Simpson, who was arrested on his front porch by Underwood.
Prosecutors allege Underwood unlawfully arrested Simpson—who was streaming a manhunt happening in front of his house live on Facebook when Underwood took him into custody—and then assaulted him once in handcuffs. Underwood, his chief deputy, Robert Sprouse, and the lieutenant later searched Simpson’s home and arrested his mother, Ernestine.
The Simpsons spent four days in jail over the Thanksgiving holiday. Their charges were dismissed by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office last week.
The indictment accuses Underwood and Sprouse of falsifying a search warrant to make it appear as though the search of the Simpsons’ home was lawful. The indictment includes charges for lying to the FBI.
Underwood has not released any public statements in response to the indictments.
Similarly, his attorney did not respond to multiple emails and a phone call from WBTV seeking comment for this story.
Multiple sources tell WBTV the federal investigation into Underwood continues.
Two weeks ago, agents with the FBI and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division showed up at the Chester County Sheriff’s Office with a search warrant.
Agents spent the day, sources say, searching and removing computers and cell phones. A person who was in the office at the time of the search told WBTV agents took the cell phones of both Underwood and Sprouse, among other items.
The focus of the investigation has moved from Underwood’s alleged civil rights violations to other alleged misconduct in office.
Some of those allegations were detailed by a former deputy who worked for Underwood, who spoke exclusively with WBTV in the days following Underwood’s indictment.
The former deputy asked we take steps to mask his identity out of fear he may face retaliation for speaking out.
“It wasn’t that bad at first,” he said of working for Underwood. “But then, as years progressed, he tried to supervise by intimidation.”
The former deputy characterized Underwood as a “micromanager” who was frequently involved in small tasks being performed by his staff and who would ask his deputies to perform tasks they may have felt uncomfortable performing but were afraid to turn down.
“Did you go to work out of fear for what might happen to you?” a WBTV reporter asked.
“Yeah, if I wouldn’t have done what I was told, yeah,” the former deputy responded.
One instance came when Underwood asked the former deputy to pull over a then-state senator with whom Underwood is known to have had a political conflict.
“He called me one day, called me to the office and he told me that one of the senators was getting ready to come down a certain street and he wanted me to go set up on him, follow him and pull him over for-- and write him a ticket or whatever, just because,” the former deputy said. “He was pissed off at him or he had done something to him or something.”
The former deputy said he pulled the senator over for speeding and wrote him a ticket.
That senator, Creighton Coleman, confirmed the incident in an interview with WBTV.
“I knew when this went on it was unusual because a county deputy pulled me in the city limits of Chester,” Coleman recalled. “I knew that something was wrong but I didn't think, I didn't think that anybody would stoop that low.”
Coleman said he questions the way Underwood ran the department and, specifically, the level of involvement he had as sheriff in individual cases. He said, he welcomed new leadership at the Chester County Sheriff’s Office.
“I don't want what (Underwood) did to rub off on the good law enforcement people we have across our state and across our country,” Coleman said.
In addition to giving orders like the one to pull over a political opponent of Underwood’s, the former deputy also detailed work he and other deputies were ordered to perform at Underwood’s home.
Specifically, the former deputy said, he and up to a dozen others would spend their shifts working to build a barn on Underwood’s property.
“I spent many a day out there. We met out there on working hours to build the barn,” he said. “Drove a county vehicle to go pick up supplies for it. Sometimes they’d supply us food, sometimes they’d supply us beer out there while we was working.”
“So, in essence, he had his own personal construction crew that the taxpayers were footing the bill for?” a WBTV reporter asked.
“Yeah, building his own personal barn,” the former deputy replied.
An attorney for Underwood did not responding to multiple emails detailing allegations levied by the former deputy, which specifically included details of being ordered to work on Underwood’s personal property during shift.
But Underwood has told other media outlets in previous stories that deputies volunteer to work on the barn during their off-hours, on their own time.