COLUMBIA, S.C. – An ex-sheriff was convicted Tuesday of more than 30 drug conspiracy and racketeering charges in what prosecutors said was a wide-ranging corruption case in a small South Carolina county.
A federal jury of eight men and four women deliberated 15 hours over two days before deciding that E.J. Melvin conspired to extort money from drug dealers in exchange for protection from investigation. Prosecutors played hours of taped conversations that they said proved his guilt. Melvin faces life in prison.
One witness told an FBI agent that a long time drug dealer had told him, "If it wasn't for E.J., I wouldn't be doing the things that I do." The same witness told investigators he saw Melvin deal cocaine from his sheriff's office SUV in 2006.
Melvin, who showed no reaction as the verdict was read, ruled Lee County like a kingpin for a decade after being elected sheriff, soliciting bribes from drug dealers, extorting businessmen and fixing tickets for a fee, prosecutors said.
His bond was revoked immediately after the verdict, and he will remain in jail until his sentencing, which has been scheduled for January. He also could face millions of dollars in fines.
In April, state police shared a list of possible dealers with Melvin. The sheriff later began tipping off those dealers and making plans to get money from them in exchange for steering agents away, prosecutors said. Melvin was arrested weeks later.
Melvin's attorney argued the sheriff was trying to protect his confidential informants and was playing along during the taped conversations.
The others charged with Melvin in the case testified against him. Defense attorney Jack Swerling said those people couldn't be trusted because they cut deals with prosecutors to have their prison time reduced.
As jurors deliberated Melvin's fate Tuesday afternoon, a judge sentenced several co-defendants to terms between nearly three years and 22 years in prison.
Prosecutors praised the work of the state and federal agents who set up and followed dozens of wiretaps among the co-defendants.
Swerling said he respected the jury's decision and planned to visit his client in jail Wednesday.
"Naturally we're disappointed," Swerling said.