The Columbia Police Department failed to find a note left behind by a missing lobbyist. And they searched an office tower where he worked four times before discovering his body in a room behind two locked doors in the building’s parking garage.
The handwritten, three-page letter and an empty box that was the original packaging for a gun were found Tuesday morning in Tom Sponseller’s locked desk drawer after employees at the S.C. Hospitality Association broke into the chief executive officer’s desk, Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said. The employees called the police chief after their discovery, and investigators searched the building again, he said.
Scott said he was disappointed in his department’s investigation into Sponseller’s whereabouts.
Sponseller, 61, was found dead Tuesday, 11 days after his family reported him missing to the police department. He apparently shot himself in the head with a 9mm handgun, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.
Scott said he will take lessons learned from the case to improve his department’s police work. He said he felt bad that Sponseller’s family had to spend more than a week living with so much uncertainty.
“I’m really disappointed that the family had to go through this many days of grief,” Scott said. “I can tell you it’s going to make us take an even more in-depth look at how we do business. We’re not perfect. But I’m a little disappointed. I’ll be quite honest with you. We will get better at what we do.”
Several people affiliated with the Hospitality Association statewide expressed anger over the department’s handling of the investigation. They said police should have opened Sponseller’s desk on the first day that he was reported missing and insisted that all of the building’s doors be opened at the outset of their search.
The disappearance of Sponseller, a lobbyist known statewide for his influence in the tourism industry, has been a high-profile case for the plice dpartment. It already had attracted national media attention even before the U.S. Secret Service said it was investigating missing money at the Hospitality Association.
Gov. Nikki Haley, S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and S.C. Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell called the Hospitality Association to offer concern and support shortly after Sponseller was reported missing. Last week, about 300 people attended a candlelight vigil for Sponseller, and community leaders had volunteered to organize search parties.
The room where Sponseller’s body was found is on the second floor of a three-level, underground parking garage at 1122 Lady St. The Hospitality Association’s offices are on the building’s 12th floor.
The room appears to house the building’s utilities, such as a telephone wiring system. A few old office chairs were in the room, Watts said. Cigarette butts were scattered on the floor.
People would have to know about the room to find it, and it was accessible on weekends only by walking through the parking garage, Scott said.
Police began a door-to-door search of the parking garage Tuesday morning after Scott was shown Sponseller’s letter. They were escorted by the building’s maintenance supervisor, who recently had obtained a master key to the office tower, Scott said.
Tuesday morning’s search was the fourth visit police had made to search the building.
Investigators assigned to the case searched the building Feb. 18, the day Sponseller was reported missing. And about 20 officers combed the building Feb. 19, Scott said.
On Saturday, dogs trained to find deceased human bodies searched the building, including the parking garage. But those dogs failed to locate Sponseller even when they were led to the door behind which his body eventually was found, Scott said.
The Columbia Police Department does not have cadaver dogs on its K9 team, said Jennifer Timmons, the department’s spokeswoman. Columbia police used S.T.A.R.R. Team, a Swansea-based volunteer organization that provides free search and rescue assistance to police, Timmons said. The group’s website says it has specially trained cadaver dogs.
Timmons and Scott could not explain why the department used the volunteer dog search teams rather than requesting assistance from another law enforcement agency’s K9 team.
On the three previous searches of the building, police were not able to gain access to the room where Sponseller’s body was found, Scott said. A building maintenance worker did not have keys to the room, and the building’s owners ordered new master keys to be made over the weekend, Scott said.
But investigators only asked to be let into the room in the parking garage after Sponseller’s letter was found.
Investigators had been inside Sponseller’s office to look for clues after he was reported missing, Scott said. But the chief had few answers as to why they did not perform a more detailed search of Sponseller’s office.
Sponseller had the only key to his desk, he said.
Investigators are not permitted to break down doors and pry open locks in missing person cases, Scott said.
“There’s a distinct difference between a missing person and a criminal investigation,” Scott said without elaborating on that difference. “We just didn’t have a lot of information. When you go into detailed searches, you have to have certain probable cause.”
Scott insisted his investigators worked hard on the case, following every clue called in to the plice dpartment. He cited investigators checking out a tip last week that Sponseller had been seen at the Dorn VA Medical Center on Garner’s Ferry Road.
“We did not take anything for granted,” he said.
Even if police had found Sponseller sooner, it would not have made a difference in saving his life, Watts said.
“All indications are if they had found him 15 minutes after this happened, it wouldn’t have made a difference as far as the outcome for him,” Watts said. “He would have been dead pretty much instantaneous.”
Scott said his department would learn from the investigation.
“I’m not disappointed in the department’s effort. The department made the effort,” he said. “I’m disappointed that we did not locate him. Anything we do we learn from, and we definitely learned from this. We’re not done. This investigation is still ongoing.”