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A Dark Cloud Falls Over My Old Home Town

By: Guest Columist Carl Langley
web posted July 10, 2007
GUEST COLUMN – The Mafia, in all its hideous glory, could have learned a thing or two about the crooks, criminals and others who have run afoul of the law in my old home town.

I am thankful that unlike the New York crime syndicate, the crooks in my old home town are the stupidest people one could ever imagine. I daresay that if you picked out six of them their collective IQs wouldn’t tally up to 100.

I was born in an old unpainted farmhouse a few miles outside Lake City, S.C., many years ago, and although we weren’t among the uppity crust citizens of Lake City it was just as much our home town as it was theirs. It was an affiliation of our choice for the city dwellers tended to look down their noses at those of us who depended on the hoe, shovel and mule-drawn plow to eke out a living.

Times were very hard during the years of the Great Depression and we depended on our gardens and livestock for sustenance. We learned early in life that had work paid dividends. It was also a blessing to live in a rural setting where folks went into town on Saturday without locking their doors.

That is no longer true. Leave home these days without locking your doors and you likely will return to an empty house. I found out how far my town has fallen by reading an internet website published by the Florence Morning News, the county newspaper.

It was astonishing in its revelations about Lake City, its elected officials and its police department. And its own home grown crime wave. Who needs the Mafia with the conclave of criminals who have been running my old home town?

The article told of the arrest in late June of a female Lake City police officer and another woman, and then the paper went on to recount the many incidents of lawbreaking that has made Lake City the laughing stock of the state. It also caused me to ask, “Are there any honest people left in my home town?”

Police Sgt. Shanita McKnight, 34, and Albergail McFadden, 52, were indicted for drug trafficking, while McKnight also was charged with extortion for using her position to “wrongfully obtain monies from other individuals.“ In short, she was accused of taking bribes to keep from writing tickets and making arrests. The two women could gete prison terms of up to 20 years and fines in the millions.

McKnight’s fall from grace last month is the latest in a long-running series of crime stories, in which most of the real criminals are alleged to have been police officers and elected and appointed officials. How easily power and money corrupts some people! Now, let’s all get down on bended knee and give thanks for their stupidity, which eventually proved to be their undoing..

A time line published in my home town paper depicts what went on over a period of nearly two years. Where have I been while the shades of darkness have fallen over my home town like a death shroud. It goes back more than two years. At least that’s what the record shows. This gang has been in charge for many years.

In February 2005, Lake City Police Lt. William Webb was charged by federal agents with selling cocaine during an investigation into drug activity in Lake City. The talk is he was selling the mind-altering substances off the hood of his police car, and laughing all the while..

Three months after Webb was snared, three police officers, one of them McKnight, had their police certifications suspended by the state’s Criminal Justice Academy after they failed polygraph tests in which questions were asked about drug dealing. They should have been fired on the spot but they were allowed to hang around and create more mischief.

Despite having his certification pulled and being placed on administrative leave, officer Maurice Ponteau, one of those failing the lie detector, issued a traffic ticket to a local motorist. McKnight was back on the job and lasted nearly two more years before her indictment. And I don’t know what happened to the third officer.

Two days after the news about the three failing the lie detector tests came out, the town police chief, Kenneth McCaster, was fired by the city administrator, George Simmons, after just six months on the job.

McCaster’s offense was he wanted to fire Ponteau and McKnight but Simmons wouldn’t let him. Simmons later said it was because of differences in opinion with McCaster that “I’m here and he’s not.” How’s that for arrogance? But McCaster didn’t go quietly. He went public.

The ousted police chief, noting the failed polygraph tests, called Lake City a “thug-run city” and “a society of illegal administrative practices, sexual relations at work, political favors, nepotism, voter fraud, election fraud, intimidation, bad court practices, ticket fixing, political pressure, and defiance and arrogance toward other law enforcement agencies.

I think he covered all the bases, and at the same time told the world that a dark shadow had fallen over my home town. I was glad that I made my decision to leave many years ago, but I feel sorry for those who are still trapped there. But only for the honest ones. The crooks can take a hike.

The media chronology dealing with the breaches of trust, the thievery, the corruption and outright criminality of Lake City’s modern day upper crust was lengthy and concise.

In July 2005 the Florence paper and the Florence television station reported that policeman Elesto Bradford’s law enforcement certification was suspended. Although the town suspended him his certification was soon reinstated. No one knows how that happened.

In August 2005 McKnight was arrested by state law enforcement agents and charged with accepting money to conceal offenses, including misconduct in office and obstruction of justice. The state agents said she tipped off drug dealers and was present at drug transactions. After nearly two years she was still on the force with no court date set.

In October 2005 Webb pleaded guilty in Florence’s federal court to conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. In January 2006, with McCaster off the job six months, Phil Grimsley of SLED was named police chief. Less than two weeks later, apparently picking up scents that the smell of corruption was still there, he resigned and went back to SLED.

On Jan. 12, 2006, the day after Grimsley left, Mayor LaRue Alford, whose date before the bar of justice was soon to come, asked police captain Billy Brown to serve as interim chief. He agreed and eventually became the permanent police chief. At last report Brown was still hanging on, but shelf lives for Lake City‘s honest policemen are not very long..

On Feb. 14, 2006, Brenda Reddix-Smalls, town attorney, handed in her resignation and at the same meeting four council members voted to fire Simmons as city administrator - for the third time. Simmons had been fired before but was reinstated by Alford, who said it took his approval to validate a council vote, and he was validating the firing. By then, the place was beginning to smell like 1920s Chicago.

On Feb. 16, 2006 U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten sentenced Webb to 13 years for selling drugs. And on April 19 Mayor Alford was arrested on charges of misconduct in office and obstruction of justice. He also was accused of circulating counterfeit money and allowing another person who had spent bogus greenbacks to hide from the law in his downtown business. To prove that criminals are no mental giants the cash being circulated was in $1 bills. That‘s right, the ones with George Washington’s picture on them. Can you get any dumber than that? The bill of choice for at-home printing usually is $20 and sometimes $100.

On April 29 Alford was freed on bond and Gov. Mark Sanford suspended him as mayor. On May 9, Lake City Council members voted 4-2 to terminate Simmons, who had lost his chief protector, and gave him six months compensation as required by his contract. You would think that by now the town wouldn’t have had a dime in its bank account the way the stealing was going on. I suggest the stolen funds should have come out of his termination allowance.

On July 27 Simmons was arrested by Florence County investigators on 19 counts of embezzlement of public funds and one count of misconduct in office. Among the accusations are that Simmons collected rental funds from tenants in public housing and converted the money to his own use. I don’t know how anyone can figure getting away with that but there’s always a few.

On Aug 7, Simmons was booked again, this time on charges of 11 counts of stealing public money. He was arrested again and released on another bond. On Nov. 2, Simmons and former Lake City finance director Juanita Cunningham Bradley-Wragg, who was not known to possess a CPA degree, were arrested on counts of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud and program fraud.

On Nov. 7 Councilman Lovith Anderson Jr. was elected mayor. The new mayor and council members should expect federal and state investigators to keep a close eye on the town, because it now is, as they used to say in the old days, prime hunting ground for law enforcement agents tracking thieves. Thank goodness the ones who hunt thieves are not bound by catch limits.

On March 1 of 2007 21 more charges were added to original indictments against Simmons and Bradley-Wragg and four days later Alford pleaded guilty to possession of the phony money. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000

On May 30 Simmons and Bradley-Wragg finalized plea agreements at the federal courthouse in Florence, avoiding jury trials. The newspaper‘s time line noted that each can get from 10 to 20 years in prison and fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars

On June 1 Alford was the first of what had become a totally corrupt and totally unholy gang of public officials to be sentenced. He was given five months in federal prison and is scheduled to begin his sentence in late summer. Simmons and Bradley-Wragg will soon be hearing the sound of jail bars clanging shut if justice is served.

While all this business had been going on in the federal courts the last few months, McKnight, despite her crippling resume, was indicted on the drug trafficking and extortion charges. The word is she has been thrown off the force but I’m not making any bets on that. She hung on for nearly two years despite being nailed by the lie detector.

I remember growing up in Lake City in the years before, during and after World War II. It was a place where the biggest crimes usually involved drunks being hauled off to the pokey on Saturday night, raids on poker games behind barns and warehouses and officers chasing rowdy teen-agers who had shaved the tail on some farmer’s poor old mule.

Sadly, a dark shadow has fallen across this once quiet community and things may never be the same again. The root of the evil is the public money lying around in city accounts, unnoticed and unprotected. I don’t expect things will get any better. So stay tuned. I predict there’ll be enough corruption in Lake City to keep federal and state agents gainfully employed for years to come.

The only salvation for honest folks lies in the fact that criminals tend to be totally and completely stupid, and the ones who have been running my old home town lived up to that image. It remains to be seen if what happened to Alford, Simmons, Bradley-Wragg, McKnight and all the others will put the fear of retribution in their hearts, minds and souls. I am an eternal pessimist, so you can expect that some of them will run afoul of the law sooner or later.


 



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