Crime & Courts

Man gets 22 years for abusing elderly SC Methodist minister to death

Donald Chewning had lost his job and needed money.

So he tied his ailing 79-year-old stepfather James Chewning, a retired Methodist minister, to a bed and for months ran through the elderly man’s bank account and cashed the $5,600 in pension and Social Security checks.

That was according to Assistant 11th Circuit Solicitor Robby McNair who addressed state Judge Frank Addy in a hushed Saluda County courtroom on Monday.

“At the time of his death, he (the retired pastor) only had 93 cents left in his account.”

At the hearing’s end, Judge Addy sentenced Donald Chewning to 22 years in state prison for abuse or neglect of a vulnerable adult resulting in death. Chewning, 53, pleaded guilty last week.

“You bled your father dry both literally and figuratively,” Judge Addy told Donald Chewning minutes before sentencing, mentioning crime scene photographs that showed his deceased father with bruises about the head where, according to evidence in the case, he had been beaten while tied to a bed.

Not only had the retired minister been beaten in the head, he had been tied down to the bed with wire ties, rags stuffed in his mouth so he couldn’t call out and duct tape placed over his eyes and mouth to keep the rags in, prosecutor McNair told Addy.

McNair gave the judge an overview of the case, saying that after James Chewning retired from his pastor’s job in Saluda, he went to live at Methodist Oaks, an Orangeburg County retirement community. He had more than enough money to pay the community’s roughly $1,600 monthly cost, since he got some $4,300 from his monthly Methodist pension check and $1,300 in monthly Social Security.

Early in 2016, the retired minister suffered a stroke and became wheelchair-bound. His stepson assumed a power of attorney which gave him the ability to take over his stepfather’s financial affairs. In December 2016, Donald Chewning moved his stepdad out of Methodist Oaks into his Saluda home, where the stepson’s wife and two adult daughters also lived.

By June of 2016, transactions in the minister’s checking account indicated Donald Chewning had begun cashing checks on his stepfather’s checking account and making numerous ATM withdrawals, said McNair, who was assisted by prosecutor Bradley Pogue.

In August 2016, Donald Chewning lost his job, and “at that point, he and his wife appear to be living exclusively out of his father’s account,” McNair told Addy.

In all, by the time his stepfather died in November 2017, Chewning ran through about $60,000 in his stepfather’s checking account, McNair said.

For months before he died, the Chewnings sought no regular medical treatment for the retired minister, even though he had a pacemaker for his heart, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a heart valve problem, McNair said.

The retired minister also was covered by Medicare and supplemental health insurance and could have easily afforded regular medical treatment, McNair said.

Early in his stay with the Chewnings, the retired minister told visiting nurses that “his son and daughter-in-law were keeping him in the house for money” and he wanted to leave, McNair said.

Also speaking Monday at Chewning’s sentencing was SLED agent Phillip Turner, who investigated the case with SLED agent Kimberly Clamp.

In all his years in law enforcement, Turner told Addy, “none of us were prepared for the horrific story this turned into.”

Stepson: Not all my fault

Although the minister had adopted Donald Chewning and gave him love, the stepson returned that love in a very different way, Turner said: “He had robbed him, beat him, stole from him, took his dignity, tortured him and ignored him — treating him worse than a dog that was out in the yard, Your Honor. The dog was well fed. Mr. Chewning was emaciated.”

Wires that tied the minister down “had ate through to his bones,” Turner told the judge. “They turned the stereo up so the neighbors couldn’t hear him.”

Chewning is the kind of man “we pray our children never come in contact with,” Turner said.

Chewning told the judge he accepted responsibility for his crime and that he was “very, very sorry.”

“I loved my father, and he loved me. Anyone who knows me knows that,” Chewning told the judge. “I’m not this evil person they are trying to make me out to be.”

Matt McGuire, a Columbia lawyer who represented Chewning with James Ervin, told the judge that his client had a rough and lonely childhood, going from foster home to foster home, and never had regular parents.

“Rev. Chewning is the first and only father he ever knew,” McGuire said.

McGuire, who asked the judge for no more than a 10-year prison sentence, told the judge that his client’s family members were the ones most responsible for the minister’s death. It was the minister who asked to live with his stepson’s family, McGuire said.

And six months before the minister died, Donald Chewning fell out of a tree, broke his hip and leg, and he was unable to oversee treatment of his stepfather, McGuire said. Treatment passed to his wife and daughters, McGuire said.

Chewning’s wife and daughters also face charges in the minister’s death. They will be tried at a later date.

Addy said he was aware of Chewning’s lawyers’ representations that Chewning would die in jail if given more than a 10-year sentence, but the seriousness of the crime called out for more prison time.

“If anything more than a 10-year sentence is a life sentence, then so be it,” Addy told the lawyers. “I have never seen someone taken advantage of on such a horrendous level.”

Addy added, “The first obligation of the law is to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”

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John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, and that of child killer Tim Jones.