July 1, 2014

Metts pleads not guilty, out on $100K bond

Suspended Lexington County sheriff James Metts will remain free on $100,000 bond; His net worth is more than half a million dollars.

Suspended Lexington County Sheriff James Metts pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal misconduct charges and will remain free on a $100,000 bond.

Federal Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges agreed to prosecutors’ request for a six-digit bond once Hodges learned that the law enforcement veteran has a net worth in excess of $500,000.

Metts also recently took out two mortgages on his home that total $600,000, prosecutor Jay Richardson said during a 10-minute hearing. Richardson said he had no details about the mortgages, and one of Metts’ two defense attorneys, Sherri Lydon, declined the judge’s invitation to explain the mortgages.

According to Lexington County property tax records, Metts’ home on 4.7 acres near the Saluda River is assessed at $332,030. But he and his wife also have owned other pieces of land and rental homes over the years and currently own eight properties, including 83 acres near the Aiken County line, according to county records.

Metts also was ordered to surrender any guns he owns as well as his passport. Both are standard conditions of release.

Metts, in a business suit and tie, said little during the hearing at the Matthew Perry federal courthouse other than to answer the judge’s routine questions.

The longtime sheriff wore a serious, though not stern expression and chatted quietly with his legal team as he waited 45 minutes while Hodges took pleas and set bond on four other men charged with crimes. Some wore red jail jumpsuits from the Lexington County Detention Center.

Metts is accused of taking bribes to get illegal aliens out of the jail so they could return to work at Mexican restaurants owned by Greg Leon. Leon is charged separately under state law.

Metts, 67, declined to answer questions from a group of television and print reporters who followed him for nearly a block until he climbed into a Toyota Highlander SUV near the Governor’s Mansion and road away with his wife, Carol, and two attorneys. Metts’ attorneys also declined to comment.

The scene is what’s commonly called a “perp walk,” as accused perpetrators enter or leave a police station or courthouse with lenses and microphones trained on them.

It was a stark irony for the man who spent 42 years wearing a badge in Lexington County and is now an accused felon.

The suspended sheriff also was confronted by a protester and longtime critic, Debra Gutierrez. “The gates of hell opened and claimed one of their own today,” Gutierrez shouted as Metts walked out of the courthouse gates. She held a handmade sign that read: “Metts Retire In Jail.”

Her daughter, Jessica, disappeared on June 6, 1986, at age 41/2. Debra Gutierrez blames Metts and the prosecutor’s office for being at odds with each other rather than filing a charge.

Gutierrez said in 1989 that she found new ammunition in her struggle to convince authorities that a family friend was responsible for her daughter’s abduction. That remains her suspicion, Gutierrez said Tuesday.

Lydon asked why prosecutors requested a bond as high as $100,000 – though Metts does not have to post money or property to secure the bond.

The defense attorney pointed out that Metts is not a risk to flee. He has lived in the same home for 46 years, and he and his wife have three daughters and nine grandchildren.

Richardson said $100,000 is “commensurate” with Metts’ wealth but not an “onerous” figure.

Hodges agreed.

After the hearing, Lydon said, in a statement, “He got an unsecured bond, and the government went so far as to say he doesn't need to be monitored by probation officials.” Lydon is a former federal and state prosecutor.

After the hearing, Lydon said, in a statement, “He got an unsecured bond, and the government went so far as to say he doesn't need to be monitored by probation officials.” Lydon is a former federal and state prosecutor.

Metts faces a 10-count federal public corruption indictment that alleges that the sheriff took bribes in exchange for letting at least four illegal immigrants out of the county jail so they could return to work for Leon, owner of several local San Jose Mexican restaurants.

The arrested illegals should have been reported to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which deports people who are in the nation improperly.

In Lexington County, the sheriff oversees operation of the jail.

The veteran sheriff denies the allegations and will fight the charges, his lawyers Scott Schools and Lydon have said.

On Nov. 14, 2011, Metts accepted an envelope with cash from Leon at the sheriff’s department headquarters, the 28-page indictment states. The payment was in exchange for freeing an illegal who had been arrested the day before by West Columbia police on a charge of reckless driving.

Metts also is accused of conspiracy to violate federal law and interfering with government functions.

He faces maximums of five to 10 years in prison, plus fines as high as $250,000.

The sheriff has been suspended without pay from his $117,399-a-year job.

Metts’ onetime No. 2 officer, Lewis McCarty, has been named acting sheriff. McCarty has chosen a new leadership team at the department.

When FBI agents searched Metts’ office at sheriff’s headquarters on June 20, they seized computers, appointment books, written notes, incident reports and an iPhone. They also took from Metts’ desk incident reports involving members of the Flynn family, The State newspaper reported Sunday. Some Flynn family members have ties to gambling, including online gambling.

Metts has been criticized for not strictly enforcing gambling laws in Lexington County.

Staff writers John Monk and Tim Flach contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.


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