Former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts is going to prison for nearly a year after a federal judge brushed aside his plea for mercy Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Terry Wooten sentenced the longtime lawman to a year and a day in prison along with a $10,000 fine, with supervised release for two years afterward.
The sentence means that Metts, 68, will serve approximately 10 months after pleading guilty to a federal offense stemming from his unlawful help in releasing two illegal immigrants from the county jail in 2011.
When and where Metts goes to prison remains to be determined, and he may serve part of his sentence in a halfway house.
The outcome ensures that Metts’ career as one of South Carolina’s most prominent law enforcement officials ends in the same way as many of the wrongdoers he helped put away during 42 years as sheriff.
“Today’s resolution is a step towards restoring the shine to the badge that Mr. Metts tarnished,” U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said.
Metts said he is “highly disappointed” at being put in prison but promised, “I’m going to serve my time and put it behind me.”
Wooten, a former prosecutor, told Metts that his actions were “a serious breach of trust,” refusing to agree to home confinement as the former sheriff requested.
“I don’t want to go to prison,” Metts said, his voice shaking at times before sentencing. “I have severe medical problems. I don’t want to go to prison because I don’t think I will come out of there alive.”
Metts also promised to undertake community service with Christ Central Ministries.
“In the name of the Lord, your honor, I would like to do that,” said Metts, who then pointed to wife, Carol, and his daughters.
“The ones who are suffering most are my wife and children,” Metts said. “If you send me to prison, she is going to be by herself. … I regret having made a mistake, but no man is perfect. ... Put yourself in my shoes, your honor, I am not a criminal.
Metts went on, “I am a broken man. I am definitely ashamed.”
Wooten focused on what he saw as Metts’ abuse of power.
The offense – technically called harboring illegal aliens – concerned a scheme whereby Metts allegedly took money and released two Mexican immigrants from jail as a favor for a friend, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors have not made public how much money Metts took. Nine other charges against Metts were dropped in return for his plea.
Leniency was not merited, Wooten said, after listening to remarks from Metts and his lawyers, Scott Schools and Sherri Lydon.
The three urged mercy due to Metts’ age, numerous medical ailments and charitable works contributions to law enforcement.
“He’s not elderly – he’s not infirm,” Wooten said. “He is able to work with his (medical) condition. He may well have been working today if he hadn’t been indicted.”
Metts’ betrayal of public trust outweighs other considerations, the judge said.
“Mr. Metts was the law. He was sheriff. His conduct did not promote respect for the law,” Wooten said.
“Mr. Metts was sheriff and it was his job to enforce the law,” the judge continued. “In this case, he decided to violate the law ... he violated the public’s trust.”
Metts told the judge he has “no real explanation” for what he called “an awful mistake.”
“To be honest, I trusted people I never should have,” he added.
Wooten said federal prisons are equipped to handle any medical situation. He
also said a prison sentence for Metts would send a message to other public officials about what they can expect for misconduct.
“If you commit crimes, there are consequences,” the judge said.
Federal prosecutor Jay Richardson called Metts’ offense “ limited in scope” and had agreed with defense pleas for no prison.
But Metts had taken part of a corrupt way of doing business, the prosecutor said.
“He chose to be part of a good ol’ boy system and help a friend in a way that was totally unacceptable,” Richardson said.
Richardson and fellow prosecutor Jim May declined to say whether investigations continue.
Metts apologized to his family, to his former deputies and “to the citizens of Lexington County who put their trust in me.”
He was the longest-serving active sheriff in the state when he stepped down shortly before his December plea, although he does not hold the all-time record tenure for S.C. sheriffs.
For many of the county’s 270,000 residents, he was the only top county lawman they had known.
“Today’s sentencing should bring closure to an unfortunate situation and continue the healing process,” new Sheriff Jay Koon, elected last week, said after the sentencing. “Our focus is to look toward the future.”
Former County Auditor Lee Hendrix, a longtime friend of Metts, likewise said the outcome “starts bringing some closure.”
She was among more than 100 supporters who sent letters urging mercy.
Although Metts is unhappy with being sent to prison for what may be several months, “it could have been worse,” Hendrix said.
Metts is the ninth South Carolina sheriff to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010.
Meanwhile, charges are pending in state court against restaurant owner Greg Leon and former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier for allegedly delivering bribes to Metts in exchange for freeing the two immigrants so they could return to work for Leon.
Leon, who owns Mexican restaurants, is accused of passing along money to Frazier to deliver to Metts, prosecutors have said.
Frazier once worked as an aide to Metts.
Community service with the ministry will be part of his personal rehabilitation once he leaves prison, Metts said.
The group has several branches aiding the poor and former prisoners across Lexington County.
His experience in law enforcement and community ties will be “quite an asset,” ministry leader Rev. Jimmy Jones said.
The disgrace he has faced since his indictment June 17 is “the worst punishment I could ever endure,” Metts told the judge.
“I’m a proud man, perhaps too much so.”
Others in trouble
In addition to former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, other eight sheriffs have been in trouble with the law since 2010:
▪ Suspended Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael Johnson was sentenced to 30 months in prison, after being found guilty in September of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson and another man created fake police reports so customers of the man’s credit repair business could claim their overdue bills were caused by identity fraud. Johnson got 30 months in prison.
▪ In April 2014, a state jury found Sam Parker of Chesterfield County guilty. He received two years in prison and three years’ probation for letting inmates have unsupervised visits with women and sleeping outside the jail with access to TV and alcohol.
▪ In January 2013, Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin pleaded guilty to misconduct in office for receiving kickbacks from county funds paid to a local auto body shop and for using a state prison inmate to do work on his personal vehicles and property. He resigned from office, got probation, 100 hours of community service and had to pay $4,445 in restitution.
▪ Jason Booth pleaded guilty in 2012 to misconduct in office for misusing state prison inmates who were at his Saluda County jail. Evidence in the case said Booth used a convicted methamphetamine trafficker to dig a pond and construct a shed on Booth’s private property. In return, the inmate was allowed to leave the detention center, have conjugal visits with his girlfriend, have use of an SUV and attend parties on Booth’s property. He received a $1,000 fine and five years’ probation.
▪ Sheriff Larry Williams in Orangeburg County died in 2010. In 2012, investigators revealed he had apparently stolen some $200,000 in county money, taking reimbursements from state and federal sources and spreading it around to 11 different bank accounts, according to a lawsuit Orangeburg County filed against his estate. The county last year received $35,000 each from the fiancee of Williams and the credit union where she worked, but the two did not admit they did anything wrong.
▪ Former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin was sent to prison in 2011 for taking bribes from alleged drug dealers. He was sentenced to 17 years after being convicted on 38 charges of drug conspiracy and racketeering.
▪ In September 2010, former Union County Sheriff Howard Wells was sentenced to 90 days in prison for loaning money to an informant for exorbitant fees, not reporting the earnings and lying to federal agents. Wells became well known during the arrest and trial of Susan Smith, who is serving time for killing her two young boys 20 years ago.
▪ Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt resigned just before he was indicted in February on drunken driving charges, leaving the scene of a crash and failing to stop for police from a crash in December. He is awaiting trial.