Despite the collapse of two high-profile trials in the past four years, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner says he remains confident in the deputies and investigators who work for him.
Two weeks ago, the conduct of former investigator Louis Novak came to light during a lawsuit brought by Theophilus Hamilton, who argued the officer framed him in the brutal 2008 beating of Brian Lanese of Bluffton. The criminal cases against Hamilton and co-defendant Harry C. Battle Jr. fell apart in 2010, and a judge acquitted both men.
The Sheriff's Office, a defendant in Hamilton's lawsuit, was not found liable.
However, the jury did not hear from Novak, who could not be located, according to the plaintiff's attorney. They also did not see his personnel file, which included at least one reprimand.
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Hamilton's lawsuit was argued less than four months after mishandling of interrogation recordings delayed the trial of three men charged in the 2012 shooting death of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton on Hilton Head Island. After the Sheriff's Office conducted an internal examination, Tanner fired one deputy, disciplined a senior investigator and three other officers, and pledged to improve handling of recorded evidence.
In both cases, crime suspects have claimed coercion by Sheriff's Office employees.
Tanner said those cases indicate no pattern because the circumstances of each are dissimilar. He added that Novak's 2011 firing is evidence of the high expectations he sets for his officers and the repercussions that come from not meeting them.
"I do have confidence in my deputy sheriffs and my civilian employees to do their jobs, and they do a great job every day," Tanner said Thursday. "Occasionally, one will trip and fall.
"We're only human."
Kenneth Gaines, a professor at the University of South Carolina Law School, agreed even good agencies have problem officers from time to time." The key, he said, is having a sheriff willing to handle them appropriately.
But Colin Miller, another USC law school professor, said the collapse of the cases is troubling.
"You see a cockroach in an apartment, it's likely not the only cockroach," Miller said. "I think most people looking at this would say it's easily the tip of the iceberg, and (that) this is a department that's not under control and is having issues."
Novak's threatening interview with a third suspect in the beating case and a spotty disciplinary record were not presented to the jury that on Aug. 6 ruled against Hamilton in his civil lawsuit. Judge Brooks Goldsmith ruled the evidence inadmissible.
Goldsmith's ruling followed an earlier decision that the statute of limitations had passed to argue the Sheriff's Office was responsible for the actions of a rogue investigator.
Hamilton's attorney, Eric Erickson, said he tried to bring Novak into court, but he couldn't be located. Novak told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Friday that he now resides in New Jersey, but he has lived in greater Bluffton in recent years.
The evidence, still available in court documents, indicated that Novak:
The newspapers have requested a copy of Novak's personnel file. Tanner has indicated he will provide it but said last week the file must be retrieved from storage and is not immediately available because Novak hasn't worked for the department for some time.
Tanner said he first heard Novak's Nov. 8 interview of Fields before Hamilton and Battle went to trial in 2010.
"There's no question about those things being inappropriate," Tanner said. "Some of the comments he made, sad but true, were some of his poor tactics in trying to get information."
In a later interview Nov. 24, Fields named Hamilton and Battle as his accomplices, though Hamilton argues interrogators used coercion.
During the Nov. 8 interview at the Sheriff's Office on Hilton Head Island, Novak told Fields "you have to sleep with one eye open" to avoid being raped at the Beaufort County Detention Center, according to a transcript included in Hamilton's lawsuit.
Novak also threatened to get search warrants for every member of Fields' family and drag them into the streets, the transcript states.
"I'm going to make your life a living hell. And your family," Novak said, according to the suit. "I'll go pull grandma out and put her out in the front yard and everything. ... Don't make me put your grandmother out in the street like that. Especially since it's getting ready to rain."
Tanner said he could not remember whether Novak was disciplined as a result of the interrogation. He added that he would counsel and train a deputy, rather than fire him or her, over "poor tactics used to try to gain the truth."
Novak said no one told him the sheriff thought his interview was inappropriate.
"I didn't write anything or do anything unless my supervisors OK'd it. Everything of that case was supervised," Novak said. "You can't take a sip of water without going over all that stuff with them."
AN OFFICER'S HISTORY
Novak was previously counseled in 2006, after then-Cpl. Eric Calendine was issued a county credit card to buy meals when he and Novak traveled to New Jersey for an investigation, according to a disciplinary action included in court records.
They bought $55 worth of drinks with a meal, and then lied to supervisors about the charge, the report said.
Tanner said he though both men were embarrassed about the incident. Each was disciplined with a three-day suspension and probation, he said.
Novak said he did not have control of the card and did not want to get his supervisor, Calendine, in trouble.
Novak was later involved in a domestic disagreement with a girlfriend, according to Tanner. The sheriff did not remember what happened or when, and the Sheriff's Office did not find a report on it following a request by the Packet and Gazette.
Novak said he was the victim in the case and made a report but did not press charges.
Court records show at least one officer on the office's six-member disciplinary unit recommended Novak be fired. He was not.
Six officers review each disciplinary incident. It is not uncommon for them to disagree, Tanner said.
"I don't want cookie-cutter responses to these things," Tanner said. "If everyone feels the same way, then that's fine, but I want to fully vet it and I want different people looking at it."
Novak was ultimately fired in 2011 after he did not appear at a meeting, according to the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, which collects employment records on all officers. Tanner said Novak had been suspended for insubordination for calling Lanese's wife after he gave his deposition in the woman's civil suit against Beaufort County paramedics.
Novak was called to Deputy Chief Mike Hatfield's office to be fired, but he did not show up, Tanner said.
Novak disputed that, and said he was called to Hatfield's office for the deposition but had to tell his supervisors he could not attend because of a medical emergency in his family.
"They didn't want to hear it," Novak said. "We had a falling out."
Novak said he tried to resign, but the Sheriff's Office refused.
Tanner said he told the officer who delivered the news to Novak that he was fired: "Enough is enough. Go collect his gear and get all his other stuff and let's move forward."
The Lanese case came to a close with the end of Hamilton's civil trial. Battle settled out of court for $30,000.
The Singleton case continues, and the man accused of shooting the child, Tyrone Robinson, could be tried as early as September. He will be tried separately from Aaron Young Sr. and Aaron Young Jr., the two other defendants.
Attorneys for the Youngs have said they plan to argue their clients were coerced and falsely promised they would not be charged with murder. A video tape of an interview with Young Sr. did not surface until the day the trial was to begin.
Miller, the law professor, said those promises and the mishandled evidence raise doubts about the department.
"Regardless of the (Youngs') guilt or innocence, it's clearly a case that hasn't been handled with (the) appropriate care and diligence you might expect," Miller said.
S.C. Sheriff's Association deputy director Jarrod Bruder, however, said some cases come together and some cases fall apart.
"Sometimes it's not bad policing, it's just what's out there, what you can prove," he said. "I have full confidence Sheriff Tanner and his deputies are doing things in the proper way."
Gaines added that ultimate responsibility does not rest with the Sheriff's Office.
The department is an agent of 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who is ultimately responsible for the case, Gaines said.
Reached Saturday, Stone agreed, adding he is responsible for the outcomes of cases regardless of who was at fault. Sometimes that means trying cases without crucial evidence if it was improperly gathered, reducing charges or dismissing cases.
"Prosecutors play the hand that they are dealt," Stone said. "But we are ultimately responsible for the outcome of all criminal cases."
Tanner noted that the solicitor cannot be sued in his role as a prosecutor for the state.
"Even though we all supposedly work together, it seems when it all gets down to being held accountable, it's only the law enforcement that's held accountable," Tanner said. "It's not just Louis Novak."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.