ROCK HILL — Former Lancaster County Sheriff John “Johnny” Cauthen was arrested Thursday, accused of firing slingshot pellets, marbles and paintballs at his neighbors’ homes in Rock Hill, police say.
Police charged Cauthen, 58, with one count of malicious damage to property over $2,000 and one count of damage to personal property, $2,000 or less, according to Rock Hill Police arrest warrants. On Thursday, Cauthen turned himself in to authorities after two women last month told police he shot items at their houses.
Cauthen was sheriff of Lancaster County from 1997 until 2009, when he retired for medical reasons. In 2008, he said he was injured while playing with his young son, resulting in surgeons removing a portion of his calf muscle and leaving him with limited mobility and in constant pain. He said running for re-election was not feasible.
A Municipal Court judge gave him a personal recognizance bond Thursday, which allowed him to sign himself out of jail as long as he promises to appear in court when he’s scheduled.
On June 6, a woman, 32, reported to police that she kept hearing popping noises near the front of her house, according to a Rock Hill Police report. The woman looked outside and saw her neighbor, whom she identified as Cauthen, at the back corner of his house facing her home. The woman told police she heard another pop before glass shattered.
She opened her front door, the report states, and found that the glass door was broken. She yelled at Cauthen, police reported, who ran after she shouted. A witness who was walking her dog on the street told police she saw Cauthen at the back corner of his house and felt he was “acting strange.” She watched as Cauthen quickly ran behind his house.
Police found slingshot pellets, marbles and paintballs in the woman’s front yard, the report states. Arrest warrants show her vinyl siding panels were damaged, along with her garage door and frame. The total damage was estimated at nearly $4,000. Police also found slingshot pellets in Cauthen’s front yard, though he denied owning a slingshot or paintball gun.
Less than two hours later, another neighbor reported that when she went to work June 5, she noticed small dents in her windshield as if someone shot her car with a pellet gun, according to a second Rock Hill Police report. When she arrived home June 6, she realized that her house had been pelted with slingshot pellets, marbles and paintballs. Police noticed a small dent in the woman’s car windshield, but didn’t find any other damage to the car.
A day later, police returned to the woman’s home and noted several cracks in the vinyl and on the side of the victim’s home, police reported, “caused by someone shooting slingshot pellets, marbles and paintballs at her home.”
Arrest warrants signed by police detectives Thursday accuse Cauthen of using his “personal slingshot” to fire “several pieces of slingshot ammo” at the homes.
During a bond hearing Thursday, Cauthen told Rock Hill Municipal Court Judge Dolores Williams that he’s disabled and spent his entire law enforcement career at the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, serving as sheriff his last 12 years there. He moved to Rock Hill about four years ago.
Neither of the victims listed in the police reports appeared at Cauthen’s bond hearing. Avanette Lee, Rock Hill Police’s victim advocate, said neither woman wanted any kind of no-contact or restraining orders signed against Cauthen, whom they had been cordial with in the past and did not fear.
“Your honor, I’m not going to contact them in any way, any form whatsoever,” Cauthen said, addressing a jail camera. “I understand thoroughly.”
“So is this your very first arrest?” Williams asked Cauthen.
“Yes, ma’am, yes, your honor,” he said. “I don’t even have a traffic ticket, your honor.”
Records with the State Law Enforcement Division show that Cauthen has no criminal history.
Williams allowed Cauthen to sign himself out of jail on a personal recognizance bond, “basically promising to be in court on your court date as scheduled.”
“I really appreciate it your honor,” he said. “Thank you.”
Because the malicious damage to property charge covers damages more than $2,000, Cauthen will have to report to General Sessions Court at the Moss Justice Center in York on Sept. 2 for an initial appearance. A trial date has been set for Oct. 28. The damage to personal property charge is a municipal court charge with a July 30 court date.
Reached by phone after leaving jail Thursday, Cauthen said: “I am pleading not guilty.” He declined to comment further.
‘No one is above the law’
Cauthen started at the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office in 1977 before he became its chief deputy in 1985. He was elected sheriff in 1996 when he ran uncontested.
Current Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile told The Herald on Thursday he hasn’t spoken with Cauthen since 2009.
“I haven’t seen him since he left office,” Faile said. “So, I don’t know what has transpired since he left.”
Faile, who worked under Cauthen before his own election, said he “didn’t seem to have a problem” while he was sheriff.
“No one is above the law,” Faile said. “We’re held to a higher standard and rightfully so. We go out here and enforce the law each day. That doesn’t give us the right to disobey the law or break the law.”
In the past two-and-a-half years, at least six South Carolina sheriffs have been indicted, charged with misconduct in office, misusing public funds or embezzlement, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff’s Association.
“It has never really hurt the reputation of the association,” said Moore, adding, “I really think that’s because people separate ... the individual from the organization.”
When sheriffs get in trouble with the law, the “good guys resent it and are very upset over it,” Moore said.
The Charlotte Observer contributed.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082