February 28, 2014

SLED to probe Chester sheriff arrest of two Chester firefighters

West Chester Chief Andy Martin and his brother were arrested after a confrontation with deputies, but fire chiefs claim police mishandled the incident.

The state Attorney General’s Office has asked SLED to investigate a scuffle two weeks ago that pitted two Chester County volunteer firefighters against sheriff’s office officials at an accident scene.

Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office asked the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate after Chester County’s volunteer fire chiefs and Sheriff Alex Underwood asked for a state probe into the Feb. 14 confrontation. The incident led to the two firefighters’ arrests the next day.

The fire chiefs want the state to determine whether Underwood and his deputies committed misconduct in office by interfering with firefighters at the scene. Underwood declined Friday to specify why he sought a SLED investigation.

“We are confident that SLED and the (attorney general’s) office will look fully, fairly, and impartially in the review of this matter,” said attorney Mark Moore, the former federal prosecutor who has been hired by the Chester County fire chiefs. Moore was hired because of the chiefs’ concerns about how Underwood and other deputies handled both the wreck scene and the arrests.

Underwood said West Chester Fire Chief Andy Martin and his brother Tommy Martin launched a profanity-laced tirade at the wreck scene and put their hands on police, which will not be tolerated. The sheriff said Friday he and his deputies hold no animosity toward the fire department. He said he doesn't believe “two individuals who break the law represent all firemen.”

“The law is for everybody,” Underwood said, adding that if the Martins were not firemen, “this wouldn't be a story.”

Andy Martin, 57, and Tommy Martin, 61, were arrested after deputies allege both men assaulted Underwood and a police captain at the scene of a crash on S.C. 9 about 10 miles west of Chester. Both were charged with assault.

Andy Martin, the incident commander at the crash, wanted deputies to close the road. But after he was rebuffed by both deputies and a trooper, Andy Martin used the emergency radio to mention the 2016 election, when Underwood would face voters again if he seeks a second four-year term. Underwood and top deputies responded to the scene, and the argument followed.

Arrest warrants allege Tommy Martin pushed Underwood and scuffled with a police captain. Police claim Andy Martin assaulted a deputy who was trying to remove him from the scene.

Andy Martin was handcuffed for 10 minutes at the scene before being allowed to resume his responsibilities for several hours.

In a letter to the S.C. Attorney General obtained by The Herald, Moore, the fire chiefs’ lawyer, said the fire department is in charge at a wreck scene under state law. Additionally, Moore states, fire officials can prohibit anyone from being at a wreck scene and can remove anyone who interferes with the emergency operation.

“As you know, the men and women who staff our volunteer fire departments perform an invaluable service to the community - and the Chester County Fire Chief’s Association has substantial concerns,” Moore wrote.

Moore also takes issue with how both men were arrested a day later when no magistrate was available, which meant each had to spend the night in jail.

Underwood said Friday any claims about disrupting the firefighters’ operations at a crash scene “should be taken up with the Highway Patrol.” He said the sheriff’s office is not the primary law enforcement agency at an accident; rather, the office provides assistance. Deputies “just want to do our jobs,” he said.

“We want to work together (with the fire department),” Underwood said, and deputies still want to help firefighters when the need arises.

“Nothing's changed on the sheriff's office's side,” he said.

Richburg Fire Chief John Agee, chairman of the fire chief’s association, said the county’s 12 fire chiefs are unanimously behind the Martins. He declined further comment.

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