Lawyers for the suspect in the case of a missing Columbia teen are asking a judge to silence Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott with a gag order.
Lott has been holding regular press conferences about Gabrielle Swainson’s disappearance, causing a “media frenzy” that is unfair to their client, public defenders argue in a court filing.
Lott has repeatedly called Freddie Grant a “monster” and has said several times to the Columbia and national press that Grant “makes him sick to his stomach,” which the filing says will make it “difficult if not impossible to deconstruct or address” in court.
A hearing on the gag order is scheduled for this morning in a Richland County courtroom.
The request for the gag order, signed by chief public defender Fielding Pringle, mentions Lott’s two appearances on Nancy Grace’s national crime show on CNN and cites an Aug. 29 headline in The State newspaper: “‘Monster’ charged with kidnapping missing teen.”
“Mr. Lott has not arrested a monster; he is trying to build one,” the request says.
But Lott said Thursday he did not create that image.
“Freddie Grant created that description through his history of committed serious crimes, his violent behavior toward women and the kidnapping of Gabbiee,” the sheriff said.
The request also says Lott has downplayed the relationship between Grant and Elvia Swainson, the girl’s mother, painting them as acquaintances only and “heightening the public’s fear of the fictional stranger yardman/handy man.”
But Lott said that Elvia Swainson has been “very upfront and forthcoming” with his department about her relationship with Grant as an acquaintance she once dated.
“And that has no relevance in our finding Gabbiee and the kidnapping of Gabbiee from the home,” Lott said. “He did do yard and handy man work at the house.”
Fielding also criticizes Lott’s statements tying Grant to the disappearance of a 28-year-old woman who used to live with Grant as well as the death of a Camden man, saying no charges have been filed in either instance.
All of these things I say, Lott said, are “factual and can be proved.”
Gabbie, 15, disappeared Aug. 18 after her mother, a single mom, went to work early and left her daughter sleeping.
Grant has been held in Lexington since Aug. 26 on federal weapons charges after investigators found ammunition in his Elgin home. They searched his home after learning he had a criminal record, had a relationship with Gabrielle’s mother and had been doing flooring work at the family’s Northeast Richland home. Grant has a previous drug conviction and is prohibited from possessing weapons or ammunition.
A Richland County arrest warrant for kidnapping has been issued for Grant, but the warrant has not been served on him. That could become important if a judge decides the public defenders are prematurely stepping in on the case.
Lott said he wanted to know why public defenders are interested in the case.
“He has never been arrested by us,” Lott said. “So why is a defendant who has not been officially arrested and charged in Richland County being defended in a Richland County court?”
In the end, everything his department has done to garner media attention, including his appearances on national TV, have been to help in the search for Gabbiee, Lott said.
“All those appearances have generated tips,” he said. “This is not about me. It’s about finding Gabbiee.”
Neither Pringle nor her office returned phone calls Thursday for comment.
Gag order motion
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