A sheriff who resigned after using an inmate to build a party shed at his home is asking voters in Saluda County to trust him with a second chance.
The current sheriff is putting “In God We Trust” stickers on all of his patrol cars.
So who will voters put their trust in? The incumbent who turns to the Lord in an election year, the ex-sheriff or a third candidate who was once a chief deputy?
At stake is a powerful position in South Carolina. Sheriffs only answer to voters. They have unlimited hiring and firing powers and decide whether fighting drugs, traffic offenses or other crimes will be the priority.
The current sheriff, John Perry, has lived his whole life in this county of 20,000 about 60 miles from Columbia. So have his opponents, former Sheriff Jason Booth, and Robin Freeman, who was Booth’s chief deputy.
Booth resigned after authorities said he was improperly using inmate labor and allowing that inmate unusual freedom, including unsupervised visits from a girlfriend that led to her getting pregnant.
He is campaigning with the slogan “A New Beginning.” Under state law, since prosecutors accepted a plea deal to a misdemeanor and $900 fine in August 2012, he didn’t lose his law enforcement credentials. Six other South Carolina sheriffs who have pleaded guilty or been convicted of using their offices for personal gain in the past five years have stayed out of law enforcement.
Booth did not respond to several interview requests.
His former chief deputy said he has no plans to emphasize Booth’s troubles.
“I’ve been to about 250 houses since I started campaigning. Trust me, they remember,” said Freeman, who promises to have a deputy in every school and to require county jail inmates do work such as pick up trash on the roadside before they get perks. He currently is a police captain in the town of Saluda.
Freeman and Booth are Republicans in a county that seems to be turning more GOP. The current sheriff, a Democrat, is seen as vulnerable because he only received 55 percent of the vote in 2012 even though his only opponent was a petition candidate.
Freeman questioned the timing of the sheriff’s “In God We Trust” stickers. Filing for the office begins next week. “As a Christian, I can’t question John’s heart. I can question his timing a bit,” said Freeman, who left the sheriff’s office by mutual agreement in 2012 when Perry was elected.
Perry said his re-election campaign has nothing to do with the stickers. He said they were inspired during a church service for Lent because the safety of his deputies keeps him up at night.
“Regardless of their personal beliefs, I know my God will keep them safe as they protect our community. This is why I want to give back to Him,” Perry said Monday as he unveiled the stickers at a news conference.
Some county residents have questioned whether Perry’s administration is serious about cracking down on crime. Carton Oswalt, who lives in a rapidly growing area near Lake Murray and the Columbia suburbs, said he had cash and guns worth $5,000 stolen from him last year. He said the investigator seemed to think he did it to get an insurance settlement and never looked for fingerprints or other clues.
“I’m not the only one who thinks they do nothing,” Oswalt said.
Other people aren’t ready to trust the ex-sheriff.
“He’s a crook,” said James Rauch, eating a piece a fried chicken sitting on the tailgate of his truck outside a barbecue joint. “If just about anyone else did that, we would have been in prison.”