South Carolina

Judge who looks like Santa lets arrested pregnant woman go home

The city of Rock Hill Municipal Court had just one bond hearing on Friday. Just a single case to be heard from a Christmas Day arrest.

A Walmart employee went to work Christmas night at the Dave Lyle Boulevard store and left in a police cruiser, charged with felony breach of trust with fraudulent intent.

Shaska Bernetta Dye, 24 and pregnant, allegedly stole three iPads worth $1,700. Rock Hill arrest warrants say Dye was caught on store video.

Dye and another employee arrested earlier in the week are accused of taking the tablets Sunday from a secure cage in the back of the store and pretending to ring them up at a register before strolling to the parking lot, according to the arrest warrant.

It is unclear what happened to the stolen iPads, including whether they were gifts on Christmas Day that brought joy to someone who had no idea the tablets were as hot as a fire.

The judge on call Friday was longtime city municipal Judge Ray Long. A Baptist minister, Long has white hair and a white beard and bears more than a cursory resemblance to Santa Claus.

Long, a magistrate judge for 18 years who has set tens of thousands of bonds, walks most days at 5 a.m. in the same Rock Hill Galleria mall, the same Walmart, where Dye works the overnight shift.

Long, after an almost 30-minute hearing, gave out one last Christmas present on Friday – he let Dye, a pregnant woman with two previous shoplifting convictions, go home on a personal recognizance bond.

“I am showing mercy,” Long told Dye. “I am going to trust you. I believe there is some good inside you.”

Long told Dye that if she appeared before him again, there would be no Christmas get-out-of-jail-free card again.

“Don’t ever come in front of me again,” Long said.

Dye and her mother, Brenda Dye, 48, who arrived halfway through the hearing, embraced in tears.

The accusation against Dye is serious. Court records and court testimony show that Dye has two previous shoplifting convictions, from 2008 and 2012.

Because of the previous convictions, Rock Hill police leveled a property crimes enhancement charge. That means the case won’t be sent to magistrate court, where jail time is a month or less for a conviction on a misdemeanor. It means the possibility of worse.

Long knew all this as he spoke to Dye on Friday.

“I know you,” Long told Dye as the hearing began. “You have seen this old man walk at Walmart almost every morning, haven’t you?”

“I seen you too – I checked you out one time,” Dye told Long.

Long looked through Dye’s conviction records.

“You have been arrested again, for the same thing,” Long said.

Dye tried to explain, but Long cut her off, saying her case would be heard in a higher criminal court.

Long, 75, asked Dye whether she knew, as an employee, that surveillance cameras would be recording what she did at work. Dye, even her mother, tried to explain but Long was having none of it. An initial court appearance is not a trial, but a hearing to set bond. Yet, Long is the judge, and when he holds court, he is not there for just bonds, he said, but to help people.

Long, a father and grandfather, explained how he grew up “poor as poor could be” as a son of mill workers. He spoke at length about how young people have opportunities to do all they want in life. “Nothing breaks my heart more” than when young people get in trouble.

“You are the only one who can decide, ‘I’m gonna make my life count for something,’” Long told Dye.

He reminded Dye again how he had spoken to her when walking at Walmart. He said that her case merits a $10,000 bond, which would require at least 10 percent of the bond total – $1,000 – from a bondsman for Dye to get out of jail while waiting for trial. The mention of that kind of money to a pregnant 24-year-old and her mother who cleans at a hospital made legs turn to rubber.

All shook their heads over the amount.

But Long took the $10,000 bond off the table, with the condition that Dye is banned from Walmart until the case is resolved. Long mentioned to Dye that she could, and should, ask her court-appointed lawyer, when one is assigned, whether she is eligible for pre-trial intervention, where a person pleads guilty but undergoes counseling and other conditions to have the conviction wiped clean.

He told Dye to apologize to her mother, who was crying with relief. The mother works in housekeeping at the Chester Regional Medical Center. The mother worked on Christmas Day, cleaning floors, sheets and blankets.

Long, a devout minister who believes in second chances, gave a Christmas gift a day afterward.

“I think you are going to make it,” Long told Dye. He gazed at her, held her eyes with his even when she tried to turn away. Judge Long’s gaze is a tractor beam.

“Thank you,” said the accused as she was led out of the tiny office that serves as a bond courtroom.

Long took off his judicial robe. Underneath was a plaid shirt and jeans. Not even a red suit on the day after Christmas.