University of South Carolina board of trustees member Charles Williams of Orangeburg made a first appearance in federal court Wednesday, pleading not guilty to seven counts of unlawfully trapping and killing multiple federally protected migratory hawks.
Three associates of Williams, 65, a politically connected lawyer from Orangeburg, also pleaded not guilty to fewer, but similar, charges.
“I don’t have anything to say,” said Williams on Wednesday, walking from the federal courthouse in Columbia after his arraignment. “Why you want to put something in the paper like this” – he shrugged his shoulders as he walked past a reporter – “whatever.”
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Earlier, in the courtroom, Williams told a reporter, “I didn’t know the damn birds were valuable.” He declined further comment.
Jimmy Aiken, 56, and John Dantzler, 66, are each charged with taking part with Williams in separate, unlawful hawk killings. Alejandro Renteria Noyola, 56, faces a single charge of unlawfully killing a hawk.
Hawks may be killed if someone holds a special federal permit usually issued for research purposes.
Officials have not said what evidence they will use to try to secure a conviction in the case, which involves alleged illegal activities on private property, the vast 1,790-acre Willcreek Plantation, owned by Williams.
State and federal wildlife officers are allowed on private property to conduct surveillance as long as they do not go in the vicinity of houses on such property. In a 2014 case on an 8,000-acre S.C. plantation in Jasper County, wildlife officers erected hidden surveillance cameras and gathered evidence that way, according to court documents.
Federal authorities have not revealed a motive for Williams’ alleged hawk killings. However, some owners of large S.C. land tracts buy thousands of quail for hunting purposes. Quail are tiny game birds that fly only short distances. Hunters like to hunt and kill quail, which is said to have a chicken flavor. But hawks hunt quail, depleting the stocks.
All three of Williams’ associates are from Orangeburg County. All four told Magistrate Judge Paige Gossett they wanted to be represented by the same two attorneys: Gedney Howe of Charleston and Brad Hutto, a Democratic state senator from Orangeburg and Williams’ law partner. Howe is considered one of the state’s top criminal defense lawyers.
Before allowing the four to be represented collectively by two lawyers, Gossett went over a checklist of the rights the defendants were giving up. Each defendant in court is entitled to be represented by his or her own individual lawyer because conflicts of interest may develop among defendants as the case goes along, Gossett said. But the four insisted they wanted Howe and Hutto as lawyers, and each signed a waiver.
Along with Hutto, Williams’ political connections include his late father, state Sen. Marshall Williams, a Democrat who was Senate president pro tem at the time of his death in 1995. Williams’ late wife, Karen, was a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia.
Williams has been a member of the USC board of trustees since 2010. His term expires in 2018.
The charges are misdemeanors and carry a six-month maximum prison sentence for each one as well as a fine of up to $15,000 for each count.
Although Noyola lives in Orangeburg County, he is a Mexican citizen living legally in the United States. Gossett told Noyola his legal status might change if he is convicted.