When Todd Kohlhepp applied for a South Carolina real estate license in 2006, he was required to explain how he was convicted of kidnapping in Arizona two decades earlier. As part of the application process applicants must acknowledge if they have any past criminal convictions and explain the nature of the offenses to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Kohlhepp filed a two-page summary of his conviction with the application.
Kohlhepp wrote, in his 2006 letter about the 1986 incident, that he had been in a heated argument with his girlfriend, they were both 15 at the time, they ended their relationship and afterward chased his dog and returned to his house.
Police showed up at the home, after having been called by the girl's parents, who were concerned they could not reach her by phone, Kohlhepp wrote.
He explained in the letter that the kidnapping charge stemmed from a firearm he was carrying and because "I had told her not to move while we talked this out."
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Kohlhepp said he had been carrying a gun because he was concerned about crime in the Phoenix area and chalked it up to a youthful mistake.
Court documents obtained by the Independent Mail through its sister paper in Arizona offer a different account.
Kohlhepp pleaded guilty, according to the records, in a plea bargain to kidnapping and committing a dangerous crime against children in the first degree and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
According to the records, Kohlhepp used his father’s handgun to force a 14-year-old neighbor to walk to his home, where he placed duct tape on her in his bedroom, tied her hands and then raped her.
When questioned about the crime, Kohlhepp told a probation officer that he wasn’t sure why he raped the girl but it could have been an act of rebellion because his father was out of town, according to the records.
The probation officer wrote in a pre-sentence report that allowing Kohlhepp to plead guilty to a non-sexual crime was a “travesty of justice.”
“It would appear that his behavior has been progressively worsening and now, it has escalated to the point where he has sexually assaulted an innocent child,” wrote Kim Otto, deputy adult probation officer. “One can only speculate as to where the defendant’s behavior will lead. It is this writer’s opinion that it is this type of individual, one with little or no conscience, who presents the greatest risk to the community.”
Kohlhepp appeared in court Friday, charged with kidnapping after a 30-year-old Anderson woman who had been missing was found Thursday chained up in a container on Kohlhepp's 95-acre property near Woodruff. (The State does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.) He owns a real estate firm in Spartanburg County that employs at least nine agents and lists more than a dozen homes and properties, according to the firm's website.
Real estate agents are required to disclose criminal offenses because of their close contact with buyers, often in a one-on-one setting. Agents and regulators continually talk about how to ensure both agents and clients are protected.
After Kohlhepp disclosed his offense and offered his explanation of the conviction he was granted his license. At the time he was a registered sex offender as a result of the 1986 conviction.
"Our community has been deeply disturbed by this," said Nick Kremydas, CEO of South Carolina Realtors.
He said many members of the organization are together at a conference in Florida and they have been talking, among themselves and with legislators, about ways to tighten rules on real estate agents.
"The alleged acts of this person are not representative of us," Kremydas said.
Kohlhepp does not have any formal action stemming from complaints during his decade of real estate work in South Carolina, said Lesia Kudelka of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. She could not say whether any complaints were filed that did not result in formal action.
Since Kohlhepp became an agent, state rules have since changed to require background checks on real estate agents, the rules came into effect in May 2015 but only require checks on new applications.
Kremydas said he believes there will be broad support among real estate agents to require background checks every two years when agents renew their licenses rather than just for new agents. It's not exactly clear how the proposed rules would have affected Kohlhepp's standing as a real estate broker.
Kremydas said there are 34,000 real estate licensees in South Carolina, and 19,000 Realtors.
"This kind of an event can only be described as shocking and horrific," he said. "We offer our prayers."
Jail records show Kohlhepp entered prison in October 1987 and was released in August 2001, serving the 15-year sentence and ending with no parole. After being released from prison, Kohlhepp moved to South Carolina, got a pilot's license, earned a degree at the University of South Carolina Upstate and he began pursuing his real estate career.
Kohlhepp said in his 2006 letter that his actions after 1986, including getting an education while behind bars, showed he would be an example of a law-abiding real estate agent.
Kohlhepp's application to take the real estate exam was granted and he was licensed on June 30, 2006, about three weeks after he applied.