COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A South Carolina sheriff dealt drugs from his police SUV and when state and federal agents gave him a list of possible drug dealers in his county, he immediately started calling to tip them off or extort money to get them off the list, according to the FBI.
The FBI tapped then-Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin's phone starting in March, and caught him saying he was going to arrange for a traffic stop on a drug dealer, take some of the cocaine he expected to find for himself and use the rest as evidence, according to a sworn statement from an FBI agent released Monday.
Melvin was arrested Saturday and remained in jail Monday after a preliminary hearing. Melvin resigned his office the day he was arrested. A spokesman said Gov. Mark Sanford will appoint an interim sheriff.
Melvin and six others were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of powder cocaine and 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. If convicted, the former sheriff faces a mandatory 10 years in prison and could face up to life behind bars.
Melvin's friends and family helped pack the courtroom Monday. He briefly acknowledged them as he shuffled in with his ankles and wrists shackled after a weekend in jail. But he spent most of the hearing with his eyes closed and his head titled back.
His family was stunned by Saturday's arrest, but said they are confident he will be found innocent.
"I don't believe for one second that he did those things," Melvin's brother Edward said.
The FBI agent detailed 17 phone calls between Melvin, other defendants and unnamed people who dealt drugs or helped with the investigation. Some of the people referred to Melvin by a nickname: "Big Dog."
In one conversation, the agent said Melvin relayed a threat he planned to make to someone he was trying to extort. "I ain't going to let you take me down," the ex-sheriff said according to the affidavit.
A witness told the agent about a conversation he had with a longtime drug dealer in Lee County, who told him, "If it wasn't for E.J., I wouldn't be doing the things that I do," according to the sworn statement. The same witness told investigators he saw Melvin deal cocaine from his sheriff's office SUV in November 2006.
The FBI agent also detailed a meeting between Melvin and a State Law Enforcement Division agent in April after the investigation against the sheriff had started. The agent shared a list of possible drug dealers and after he left, Melvin began tipping off his friends on the list and making plans to get money from others in exchange for steering agents away, according to court papers.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said it doesn't appear the conspiracy to sell drugs and protect dealers goes much beyond Melvin.
Bishopville in Lee County is about 50 miles east of Columbia.