SC Judge drops case where megafarm accuses neighbor of stealing wood
About 50 people jammed into the tiny courtroom in this Aiken County town on Thursday to support one of their own, a retiree on trial in criminal court because a mega-farm operator believed she stole some wood.
The crowd of folks from the surrounding countryside came in support of 5-foot-2 Diane Toth, a 61-year-old retired university researcher from Maryland who had locked horns with the operator of the farm that sprang up around her 41-acre spread in Aiken County.
There were so many people that the constable propped the door open so the overflow crowd could hear the proceedings from the hall.
“A lot of people took off work to be here,” said Marianne Hegedus, a close friend of Toth’s. “There were so many more people that wanted to come but had conflicts.”
It was the latest skirmish in a fight between some Aiken County residents and the mega-farms in the Edisto River Basin that critics claim are lowering water levels, spraying aerial herbicides, and stripping and burning thousands of acres of forest.
Toth had complained that workers with the Woody agribusiness group ran noisy heavy machinery night and day, burned huge piles of felled trees that filed their property with smoke, and knocked down Leland cypress trees she had planted.
“Heavy machinery going ‘beep, beep, beep’ all night,” said Toth.
The smoke forced them to wear masks outside, and “We had to move the horses,” she said.
Toth said she complained to the workers’ supervisor, DHEC, the S.C. Forestry Commission, even the Aiken County Sheriff’s Department.
“Everybody and their uncle but nothing happened,” she said.
Brandon Woody, the operator of the agribusiness group, testified Thursday that Toth’s complaints had risen to him. “I had some trouble with her, yes.”
He declined to speak with The State after the trial.
On March 1, she was arrested, handcuffed and led off to jail by the Aiken County Sheriff’s Department. The charge? Petty larceny for allegedly stealing about $600 worth of heart pine planking from a dilapidated shack on an adjacent 28-acre lot. That land was purchased a little more than a year ago by the Woody agribusiness group.
Toth said the previous owner had given her permission to take the wood so her husband, Steve, could make tack boxes for the local equine rescue organization as a fundraiser. The Toths have two rescue horses.
Her accuser was Brandon Woody.
The troubles were not what she and her husband envisioned when they retired in 2006 and settled in Aiken County. They were avid “horse people” who wanted to live their golden years in the state’s horse country.
They spent about $800,000 to purchase 41 acres on Fairwind Road in Windsor. They built a house, guest house, two barns and riding trails, all surrounded by forest.
But in December of 2015, the Woody agribusiness group bought the land around her property. The group is one of two out-of-state farm corporations that have bought nearly 10,000 acres in Aiken and Barnwell counties during the past four years and established mega-farms to grow potatoes and corn.
During Thursday’s trial in the tiny courtroom in Wagener, Woody said he noticed the wood missing on July 7, 2016. A police report was filed that same day.
But magistrate Donna Williamson threw out the case before it went to the jury, ruling that the prosecutor did not prove whether the wood was taken before or after the Woody group bought the property.
The crowd broke out in applause, which Williamson quickly quashed.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Toth said. “I was in court ... as an example of what happens when you go up against them.”
Woody denied that he pressed the charge out of retaliation. “We have had some trespassing, but that’s what everybody continues to do. They think it’s normal. I don’t think it’s normal.”
Some in the crowd questioned whether Sheriff’s Department Detective James Criscillis should have made the arrest in the first place.
“All this is a waste of taxpayer money,” said David Busbee, owner of Busbee Truck Parts in Wagener.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s department defended Criscillis, who also prosecuted the case in court, saying he was doing his job.
“We present what we have and if a judge finds that there is probable cause then an arrest warrant is issued,” said Capt. Eric Abdullah. “It’s the criminal process, and she was found not guilty.”
Toth, a retired University of Delaware researcher, said she had never been arrested before. She said she paid $6,000 in legal fees fighting the charge.
She also sold her house in September for $625,000, alerting the buyer about the corn farm nearby.
“I think maybe I was made an example (by Woody) for the rest of Windsor,” she said. “I did absolutely nothing to deserve this. And it makes no sense to me.”
Staff writer Sammy Fretwell contributed.