A state probation officer had just left her office on Hilton Head Island after a brief and unannounced visit, and Maria Skrip needed some answers and reassurance.
It was late 2010 and Skrip, the broker-in-charge and owner of Re/Max Island Realty, had just hired Darrell Finch, a well-spoken and sharply dressed broker who had left another island real estate firm months earlier under circumstances that remain unclear.
Finch worked for Skrip until this past June, when he was fired after he became a person of interest in a rash of jewelry thefts from homes for sale on Hilton Head. He was charged last month by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and Georgia authorities in connection with those thefts.
Finch posted $2,130 bond on the Beaufort County charge last month and was transferred to the Chatham County Detention Center to face the Georgia charges, according to jail officials.
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It was unclear Friday whether Finch remains in jail or has since been released.
Scott Morris -- an agent with the S.C. Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services -- went to the Re/Max office on Main Street nearly two years ago to talk about Finch, who had applied to have his probation transferred from Florida to South Carolina.
The visit was standard. Morris had to make sure Finch was employed in South Carolina before agreeing to take the broker's case, which he later did, Morris said.
Skrip knew little to nothing about Finch's past, criminal or otherwise, both Morris and Skrip recalled in interviews this month.
"I would say she was very surprised that I showed up," Morris said. "It's not every day that a probation officer wearing a gun and a badge walks into a real estate office. It seemed (Finch) had not told her much about what happened in Florida, and there wasn't much I could say."
WHAT HAPPENED IN FLORIDA
Finch was chargedwith domestic battery in September 2008, but that is not why he was on probation, according to Florida records.
Finch was sentenced to three years' probation after pleading guilty to four felony counts of grand theft, two counts of credit card fraud, one count of trafficking in stolen property and one count of failure to appear in court, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
Morris got the verification he needed for his file and left, leaving Skrip to wrestle with what to do next.
Before she did anything -- before she fired him, before she returned his real estate license to state regulators -- she needed an explanation. So Skrip called Finch into her office.
In a lengthy meeting, Finch tearfully recalled a domestic dispute between he and his longtime male domestic partner that resulted in both being charged with domestic battery, according to Skrip. Finch told her that he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation, Skrip said.
What Skrip did next -- or what some say she failed to do -- remains one of her biggest regrets, she said.
She took his word for it.
"The way I run my businesses, I do not want to make a professional judgment about anyone related to something stupid they did that is in their past," Skrip said. "I tried to put myself in his shoes and think about what I would feel like."
LEFT IN THE DARK?
Skrip said neither Finch nor Morris told her about the felony convictions.
"Of course, I wish (Finch) would have told me the truth," Skrip said. "I would have made a different decision."
Morris could not recall whether he told her about the severity of the charges but said Skrip should have inferred from his visit that the crimes were more serious than a single domestic-battery charge
While working for Skrip in February 2011, Finch pleaded guilty to two counts of theft after being accused by the Richmond County (Ga.) Sheriff's Office of using checks written on a closed bank account to purchase two Rolex watches, valued at $1,500 each, from a jewelry store in Augusta, Ga.
Finch was again sentenced to probation, according to court records.
Skrip said she didn't learn of those charges until they were reported in The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.
On June 30, Finch filed paperwork to maintain his real estate license's inactive status and paid the state's $75 renewal fee, according to LLR records. That allowed the license to stay current in LLR's files, should he ever seek to reactivate it.
But if that happens, Finch won't be welcomed back at Skrip's firm, she said.
Skrip said this week that she regretted ever hiring Finch, whom she described as an "underperforming broker" -- he sold only a single, $60,000 home during his time with the company, she said.
A RENEWED FOCUS
Since firing Finch in June and returning Finch's real estate license to the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Skrip has become an advocate for mandatory background checks for real estate brokers in South Carolina.
The state doesn't require applicants for a real estate license to submit to a criminal background check -- unlike North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and many other states.
Skrip said she performed background checks on all of her brokers and other members of her staff last month, and she plans to push for a law requiring LLR to do the same for new licensees.
"I want to be at every public forum related to this issue ... because I want to make sure the voice of our Realtor community is heard loud and clear," Skrip said. "I would never want this for another Realtor. I don't want anybody to go through this, ever."
The last meaningful attempt at changing state regulations foundered in 2007, according to Nick Kremydas, CEO of the S.C. Realtor Association.
Kremydas said the bill, authored by Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, would have mandated background checks but died in conference committee after passing the House and Senate.
Kremydas said the group will ask state legislators to try again during its next legislative session in January.
Some local Realtors say they are not swayed by Skrip's seemingly newfound interest in background checks for real estate brokers.
Realtor Bob Clarkson, president of The Alliance Group Realty on Hilton Head, who also supports background checks, said Skrip pushing for such changes now is "disingenuous."
"What we have here is a clear case of a broker who chose to take the word of a convicted felon instead of following up and doing the right thing," Clarkson said. "She is simply trying to take the focus off the poor decision she made."
A NEW LEAD
The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office believes there may be new evidence linking Finch to the theft of jewelry from homes for sale on Hilton Head between April and late June, as well as older crimes.
Sheriff's Office investigators made contact this month with a Bluffton man who claimed he has been melting down jewelry and other precious metals purchased from Finch since April 2011, Sgt. Robin McIntosh, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, said.
McIntosh said no charges have been filed against the unnamed man, who is cooperating with authorities and has convinced investigators he had no reason to believe any of the items were stolen.
Investigators said they have recovered flatware, servewear and other, larger items that the man purchased from Finch but never melted down.
McIntosh said authorities are searching for the owners of those items, which also are believed to have been stolen.
Finch was charged by the Sheriff's Office with one misdemeanor count of receiving stolen goods after a pendant reported stolen from a home on Oyster Bay Place was found in Finch's impounded vehicle.
Finch also faces charges in Georgia, where he is accused of trying to sell stolen jewelery to a Savannah pawn shop.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.