Crime & Public Safety

One Bluffton cop used drugs, another gave a minor beer. They might not be hired today

For years, the Bluffton Police Department has hired officers who were fired — or who resigned in lieu of being fired — from other police agencies in the county, which has hurt the department’s relationship with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and called into question the department’s commitment to maintaining public trust.

And in the future, the hirings may cause additional problems, affecting the prosecution of some criminal cases.

Those hires include an officer accused of providing alcohol to underage students and another who gave a confidential informant money for Christmas gifts, then created a false document to cover his tracks, according to personnel files for both of the officers. A third officer with a history of drug use resigned from his previous law enforcement job, then landed a spot on Bluffton’s drug team, according to his file.

The trio aren’t the only officers in Bluffton’s 50-plus person police force with questionable pasts. The Island Packet has previously reported on:

  • Officer Jonathan Bates, who while employed by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, struck a handcuffed inmate, according to his file. While on probation for the offense, he was hired by Bluffton police but later resigned after his use of force was questioned again — this time for shoving a handcuffed, intoxicated man during an arrest.
  • Officer Selena Nelson, who was fired from the sheriff’s office for unprofessional behavior in a local store, according to her file. She was hired by Bluffton police soon after, but later fired for an unspecified misconduct issue. She has since filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, alleging discrimination.

Incoming Bluffton Police Chief Chris Chapmond gathers a bundle of applications on Friday morning of those that have made the first cut to join Bluffton’s force. Chapmond and his executive staff have developed a strict policy that candidates must meet in order to join the force, which includes a disqualifier list, and among others, making it through an agility course. Drew Martin

Bluffton’s newly sworn-in police chief, Chris Chapmond, said the department’s hiring policies, enforced under the town’s two previous chiefs, were “a bit all over the place.” Just three months after taking the helm, he’s launched a large recruitment effort to hire more officers, saying that the department will use higher standards and deny jobs to applicants justifiably fired from other police departments.

“We’re putting a system in place to ensure that the Bluffton PD is staffed with the most qualified personnel that takes a lot of these questions and issues out of the equation because we’re going to address and deal with all that,” he said.

Job applicants will now be disqualified if they have been fired from another agency with cause or have used illegal drugs within a certain time frame. The changes will eliminate about two-thirds of applicants, Chapmond said.

Applicants will also undergo agility tests, which have never been required by Bluffton before. Job candidates will do “things you’d expect a police officer to be able to do over the course of his day” such as climbing through windows and up stairs, Chapmond said.

“There has to be a standard (for physical fitness because), we’re expected to go out there and save someone’s life if necessary or save our own life,” Chapmond said. “It’s an important part of the job.”

He said with this new policy in place, the department will not be accused of having a “good ol’ boy system.”

“It is a professional system that will be consistent and will be fair,” Chapmond said.

Several current officers likely would not have made the cut under the new hiring process.

However, when asked specifically about the three officers who gave a confidential informant personal money, used drugs illegally and partied with minors, Chapmond said all three are doing outstanding jobs for the police department.

“The officers that are currently here are performing their duties in a professional manner and doing extremely well,” he said.

Town Manager Marc Orlando — who supervises the police chief and approves all officer hirings — also defended the three officers, saying they are doing good jobs.

Orlando did not comment on whether he thought the hires were good ones at the time he signed off on them, saying only that he trusted the police chiefs.

“I cannot speak to (former chiefs Joey) Reynolds or (Joseph) Manning, but at the time they supported (those officers),” Orlando said. “I know they fully supported them and their hires and took the information they had and made the best decisions they could.”

PJ Tanner portrait
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner was recently re-elected to head the countywide department that is contracted to provide police services by the Town of Hilton Head Island. Staff file

Nevertheless, the hirings hurt Bluffton’s relationship with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.

In a July interview, Sheriff P.J. Tanner told The Island Packet he was in disbelief when the Bluffton Police hired officers he’d fired for honesty issues.

“Bluffton is in Beaufort County so when I terminate your employment in Beaufort County, another municipality picking you up for employment within the same county is a problem for me,” Tanner said.

Report: He drank with minors, then lied about it

On his 2015 job application for the Bluffton Police Department, officer Jason Rodriguez wrote that he was asked to resign from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office two years earlier after an “underage drinking incident where (he) unknowingly provided a minor with a single beer.”

There is much more to the story, according to an internal investigation the sheriff’s office launched in May 2013, when Rodriguez was accused by Bluffton High School staff of partying with students. The investigation determined that Rodriguez lied.

After hearing several students talk about “partying on the (May River) sandbar with some cops over the weekend,” school staff told the sheriff’s office about the incident, saying there were photos that showed Rodriguez and another deputy standing with high school students and people under the age of 21, holding beers on multiple Facebook accounts, according to the sheriff office’s report.

When investigators contacted the parents of some of the students pictured, one mother said her 21-year-old son — who had previously been arrested by Rodriguez for underage possession of alcohol — watched Rodriguez “toss beers to kids that everyone knew were under 21 years of age” and say, “Let’s shotgun” to a group that included “obvious minors,” according to the report.

The son said Rodriguez told him he was sorry for arresting him, but was “after the other person who he also arrested that night,” the report said.

In his interview with investigators, Rodriguez “adamantly denied” all of the claims and said he never gave beer to anyone but the of-age people with whom he went to the sandbar.

A polygraph test, however, detected dishonesty. Rodriguez subsequently admitted that he lied to the investigators and gave beer to other people, but he still claimed he did not know they were underage. He was allowed to resign in June 2013, ending a 10-year career with the sheriff’s department.

Bluffton police Chief Joey Reynolds, who resigned in 2017 after questions were raised about his extensive traveling on taxpayers’ dime, hired Rodriguez anyway.

In the notes of Rodriguez’s background check for the Bluffton job, sheriff’s office chief deputy Michael Hatfield told the department that Rodriguez “is a good officer who made a single poor judgment call.”

Since his hiring at the Bluffton Police Department, Rodriguez has had no disciplinary issues. He is currently a K-9 officer and has risen through the ranks to become a master police officer.

Investigation: He paid an informant, then falsified a document

Officer Walker Michaud joined the Bluffton department in July 2015 after resigning from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, ending a 10-year career with the agency. He too was accused of deception.

In February of that year, Michaud admitted to giving a confidential informant money for personal reasons, creating a false document to reimburse himself and lying to a fellow sergeant, according to an internal investigation report by the sheriff’s office.

Around Christmas 2014, a confidential drug informant asked Michaud — a sergeant at the time— for money, saying she couldn’t afford food for a Christmas dinner or a present for her son. He took the last $80 out of his own wallet and left it in a Christmas card on an undercover car for her to pick up, the report said.

“He said he knew he was not supposed to (give the informant his own money), but he felt sorry for her and her child,” the report said.

Both Bluffton police and the sheriff’s office use police bank accounts to pay informants when they provide certain information for investigations. That money cannot be used for other reasons, such as helping informants with personal expenses.

But a few weeks later, Michaud withdrew $80 from the sheriff’s office account and asked a fellow sergeant to get the informant to sign a form, saying Michaud had given her the money for “drug information,” and backdate it to when he made the ATM withdrawal, the report said. That sergeant told investigators he trusted Michaud, so he did it, according to the report.

Michaud submitted his resignation letter in February 2015 and, two months later, requested his personnel files from the sheriff’s office “to attempt to further (his) career elsewhere,” according to a letter in his personnel file. He had a job with the Bluffton department three months later and is now a sergeant and patrol supervisor there.

Michaud’s past misconduct, however, may affect his ability to do his new job:

  • In October 2016, a man found guilty of drug and weapons charges in 2014 filed a post-conviction relief, claiming he was being unlawfully imprisoned because “several officers” involved in his case committed misconduct and “numerous officers of the drug task force (have) been (disciplined), terminated, etc.,” according to court documents. In the same case, he subpoenaed the sheriff’s office for all of Michaud’s records, including ones related to disciplinary actions.

  • And in a second unrelated case, a man arrested by Michaud for a minor drug offense in 2015 sued to get a copy of the same information.

Officers with a history of deception face additional obstacles on the job, said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former Tallahassee police officer.

“If an officer is testifying (in court for a case), an important part of their testimony is credibility,” Stoughton said. “The jury has to be able to believe the officer is honestly and accurately providing information to them.”

He said there are prosecutors across the country that keep a list of officers with credibility issues and do not prosecute cases when someone on that list is the sole source of information.

“I think it’s important for society to acknowledge good faith mistakes and have a high tolerance for that. But it’s good for society to have a low tolerance for deception in the context of policing,” he said.

Despite a history of drug abuse, he got a job on the drug team

Not all of Bluffton’s hires came after the officer was fired or resigned in lieu of being fired. At least one officer left the sheriff’s office of his own accord and admitted to illegal activity during Bluffton’s hiring process.

On his application to the Bluffton Police Department, Craig Karafa admitted to previously buying and using illegal drugs — most recently as 2017 when he took a pain pill that wasn’t his. The department hired him, placing him on its drug enforcement team that combats drugs in the community by targeting street-level and mid-level narcotics dealers.

In his 2017 job application to the Bluffton department, which asks numerous questions about drinking and drug use, Karafa admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol in 2010 and 2011 and under the influence of drugs or narcotics in 2003; using marijuana “numerous times” between 1999 and 2003, and five times in 2007; using hashish once in 1999; using cocaine 30 to 50 times between 2001 and 2003; using LSD twice in 1999; using mushrooms once in 2003; using steroids once in 2003, 2008 and 2010; sniffing inhalants 10 to 15 times in 1996; taking multiple types of medication not prescribed to him in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2017 and purchasing illegal drugs.

Most of the instances happened before or during 2003 — the year he graduated from high school. Karafa said he “regrets all his bad decisions and now has changed his life,” according to the background investigation report in his Bluffton personnel file.

“If you take note of his application, that was all when he was younger. It is in his past,” Chapmond said. “Karafa is a success story of how you overcome things from your past to be able to accomplish really good things. He’s been an outstanding police officer everywhere he’s worked and continues to do a good job for us.”

The Bluffton police sergeant conducting Karafa’s background check raised additional alarms in her report, including his arrest for underage drinking, discrepancies between answers given on his job application and polygraph exam and three job rejections from other law enforcement agencies for failing or scoring low on their civil service tests.

Former Bluffton police Chief Joseph Manning approved the hire. Manning “was aware of Karafa’s past” and he was in “good standing” during his time with BCSO and recently passed a drug test, according to the sergeant’s report. After three years with the sheriff’s office, Karafa submitted his two-weeks notice on Nov. 6, 2017, the same day he received a conditional employment offer from Bluffton.

Karafa, as well as Michaud and Rodriguez, declined to comment for this story through Capt. Joe Babkiewicz, spokesman for the Bluffton Police Department.

Bluffton isn’t alone in trying to improve its police ranks.

Statewide efforts are also underway to better track officers such as Bates, Nelson, Rodriguez and Michaud who have been found guilty of misconduct by employers. State law, amended in July, now requires police departments to report misconduct to the S.C. Justice Academy.

That information is available to police departments researching job candidates and lessens the odds that officers with histories of misconduct get hired by other police agencies, said Jackie Swindler, director of the academy.

“I commend Bluffton for what they’re planning on doing and they’ll be successful,” Swindler said. “If you hire well to start with, you have better chances of being successful at the end.”

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet

Lana Ferguson has reported on a smorgasbord of news for The Island Packet & Beaufort Gazette since June 2018. Before coming to the Lowcountry, she worked for publications in her home state of Virginia and graduated from the University of Mississippi, where she was editor of the college’s daily newspaper.
Support my work with a digital subscription