EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was produced in collaboration with The News & Reporter of Chester, an Uncovered partner.

COLUMBIA — The call could come at any time. It didn’t matter if deputies were on patrol, completing training or keeping tabs on a known criminal.

The lieutenant’s instructions were always the same: Drop everything. We’ve got to go to the sheriff’s place.

Deputies at the Chester County Sheriff’s Office knew what that meant. For weeks at a time, they were regularly called away from their professional duties for “work days” at the personal property of Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood.

On the sheriff’s 11-acre tract in piney Chester, deputies in plain clothes cut firewood and hauled rocks from a stream. They landscaped and graded the land around a pond. They devoted dozens of hours to renovating an old horse stable into a “party barn” — decked out with wired lighting, a stage, sound system and fully-stocked bar.

“MAN CAVE,” a sign beside the bar read.

These “work days” — unwittingly funded by taxpayers — were just one of the many ways Underwood leveraged his powerful position to benefit himself, a pattern of behavior that would ultimately catch the attention of federal investigators and play out in a high-stakes criminal trial. The picture that emerged from testimony was that of a rogue lawman who bent the system to his will.

During Underwood’s seven-year reign as Chester County’s top cop, he ordered deputies to spy on and ticket his political opponents. He and top deputies collected paychecks for work they didn’t perform at a DUI checkpoint, skimming money from their own employees who did the work.

And when Underwood siphoned public money to fund first-class travel for himself and his wife, an employee was ordered to white out and falsify details of the spending so the county treasurer wouldn’t catch on.

Underwood and his supporters defended his behavior, describing the sheriff as a good boss and dedicated public servant whose worst offenses were nothing more than minor policy infractions.

Federal prosecutors saw it another way. His conduct, much of which was first exposed by The Post and Courier in a string of 2019 investigative stories, prompted federal indictments alleging public corruption, abuse of power and obstruction.

On April 23, a jury of 12 deliberated less than 10 hours before returning a resounding verdict: Underwood — along with two of his top deputies — were guilty of breaking the same laws that, as career law enforcement officers, they swore to uphold.

Underwood and former deputies Johnny Neal and Robert Sprouse, who will each be sentenced this summer, were convicted on a combined 23 counts. The charges on which they were convicted carry sentences of three decades or more if stacked together, but prosecutors expect each man to face no more than 20 years behind bars.

Underwood is just the latest example of South Carolina’s disturbing trend of crooked sheriffs. Over the past 11 years, 14 sheriffs among the state’s 46 counties were charged with crimes — more than one in four. Underwood is the 13th to be convicted.

His downfall comes amid The Post and Courier’s “Uncovered” project. The newspaper is partnering with 16 local news outlets to expose how public officials across South Carolina abuse their power when they think no one is watching.

Underwood’s nine-day federal trial offered a rare window into how that kind of corruption manifests when officials wield near-absolute power, and how employees and taxpayers fall victim along the way.

In example after example, deputies testified about being caught in the middle. They were bound by state law that requires them to “serve at the pleasure” of the sheriff. Even facing a corrupt agenda, they felt pressure to go along.

Asked later why they listened to their boss, they said they had no choice.

“You weren’t allowed to have personal feelings about what you were directed to do,” testified Brad Bowers, a former narcotics lieutenant. “You just did what you were told, or you knew you didn’t have a job.”

Above the lawUnderwood broke barriers with his election as Chester County’s first Black sheriff in 2012, promising to bring professionalism to the sheriff’s office and put an end to the “good ol’ boys” system.

But in the end, he proved to be more of the same. It’s just the latest chapter in South Carolina’s legacy of sheriffs intoxicated with the might of their positions, wielding immense powers with little oversight.

South Carolina’s sheriffs have bullied employees and treated themselves to lavish perks on the public dime. They have ordered deputies to surveil and harass political opponents and stolen taxpayer dollars. They have been accused of sexual misconduct and lying to cover up their wrongdoing.

The cases, detailed in The Post and Courier’s 2019 investigation Above the Law, date back as far as Darlington Sheriff Grover Bryant’s arrest during a federal moonshine sting in 1964. But the lawlessness picked up again in recent years.

In the past 16 months, sheriffs in Colleton, Florence and Chester counties have been convicted of crimes ranging from corruption, to theft, to domestic violence. Another sheriff, David Taylor of Union, was indicted last year on charges of misconduct in office and disseminating obscene material. Those charges are still pending.

Like those sheriffs, Underwood and his top deputies made a critical mistake, prosecutors argued: They thought the rules — the law — didn’t apply to them.

Underwood’s own attorneys at least partly agreed. They posited that as sheriff, Underwood could spend public money however he wanted.

Ordering deputies to monitor, cite and arrest the sheriff’s political opponents was OK as long as those people were guilty of the wrongdoing that Underwood had suspected.

Building the party barn was nothing more than a team-building exercise, they suggested, since the sheriff hosted annual Christmas parties there. Besides, it wasn’t as nice as prosecutors suggested, Underwood attorney Stanley Myers said.

“It’s a barn,” Underwood attorney Stanley Myers told the jury. “They want to make it sound as if it’s the Taj Mahal.”

‘A personal issue’

But testimony from Underwood’s former deputies laid bare the myriad ways they were expected to do his bidding.

Like when deputies helped tear the walls out of Underwood’s old stable. That was the piece of the sheriff’s property he had converted into a party barn.

Bowers, a former narcotics lieutenant, and half a dozen other deputies testified they spent as many as 40 hours — during work days — completing that and other projects at Underwood’s home. Neal, the lieutenant, instructed deputies to report the hours on their government timecards, Bowers said.

Then there was the day Bowers spent in Fairfield County — well outside the Chester sheriff’s jurisdiction. There, he was ordered to tail the brother-in-law of Richard Smith, Chester’s former sheriff with whom Underwood had quarreled.

Bowers followed the man for 30 minutes in an unmarked car, tailing him from a Fairfield boat landing to his home in Chester. Other agents were positioned along the route, watching for any wrongdoing.

Underwood’s department did not alert Fairfield authorities to its investigation, even though that was customary. Underwood said he suspected the man was driving drunk. Bowers had other suspicions.

“It was a personal issue,” Bowers testified at trial.

In another May 2015 incident, orders came down for a team of deputies to spy on a group of Chester officials while they dined at a breakfast spot in Richburg, a small town just east of Chester. The word was that Underwood counted all of them among his political opponents.

The next month, Underwood instructed Deputy Matt Faile to tail state Sen. Creighton Coleman and pull him over for speeding. Underwood didn’t give a reason. But Coleman and Underwood didn’t get along. So, Faile stopped the senator and ticketed him.

At the time, Angel Underwood — the sheriff’s wife and Chester’s chief magistrate — was under investigation for failing to disqualify herself when handling the sheriff’s cases in court. Meanwhile, Coleman expressed concerns about reappointing her.

Angel Underwood faced a suspension, but was later reinstated by the South Carolina Supreme Court. She remains the county’s chief magistrate. Coleman lost reelection in 2016, and Faile eventually dismissed the ticket.

In the earlier incident, at the breakfast diner, deputies kept tabs on a former county supervisor, a local fire chief, a Chester schools superintendent and the county coroner. Underwood’s department referred to them as “The Breakfast Club.”

John Hunter, then a narcotics deputy for Underwood, watched the group from an unmarked car that Underwood’s department had seized. The deputy used a department long-lens camera to photograph each of the group’s vehicle tags. Another deputy, undercover, sat at a booth inside the diner and eavesdropped.

“Were you aware of any law enforcement purpose?” Rebecca Schuman, a federal prosecutor, asked Hunter at trial.

“No, ma’am,” he responded.

Hunter turned in his photos and some notes to Sprouse, Underwood’s chief deputy. But unlike other investigations, Hunter wrote no report. “I was told it was off the record,” he said.

‘An oversight’

It wasn’t the last time Sprouse sought to obscure Underwood’s behavior on the sheriff’s behalf.

In 2017, Underwood and Sprouse attended a law enforcement conference in Reno, Nevada. The pair brought their wives, and Underwood booked first-class tickets to get there — spending more than $5,600 from a government account.

At the time, Sprouse approached Hope Bradley, an administrative assistant. She testified that Sprouse asked her to disguise the fact that he and Underwood’s wives attended the trip. The county was unlikely to approve that spending, since it broke policy.

Bradley whited out their names on travel documents, and in the purchase order sent to the county treasurer, Underwood’s department falsely wrote that two deputies attended the trip with Underwood and Sprouse.

Two years later, The Post and Courier obtained records showing that Underwood and Sprouse’s wives had actually accompanied them.

The day after the newspaper reached out to Underwood, Sprouse walked into the treasurer’s office with checks reimbursing the county for the trip. Sprouse suggested the matter had simply slipped the sheriff’s mind, describing it as “an oversight.”

Bradley saw it another way. “He knew he didn’t pay it,” she testified. “I know he knew they didn’t pay it.”

When asked at the time why he flew first class, Underwood told the newspaper he is “a very large man with prior knee surgeries and ongoing medical issues.” He charged taxpayers to upgrade to a king-sized bed so his feet wouldn’t hang off the mattress, he said.

Underwood is 6 feet, 4 inches.

The Post and Courier also first reported in 2019 that he had ordered deputies to renovate his barn. He strongly disputed this at the time, telling the newspaper, “Why would I call off an ongoing investigation when I am the sheriff and responsible for public safety?” he said.

“Ridiculous question,” he added.

A manhunt

Underwood’s behavior during a November 2018 incident would be called into question for a different reason — for what prosecutors alleged was Underwood retaliating against a resident for simply having the “audacity” to question him.

A wreck at a DUI checkpoint prompted a large response from Underwood’s department, including a helicopter that airlifted a badly injured victim and a manhunt for a driver who had fled the scene.

About 100 yards away, 26-year-old Kevin Simpson live-streamed the incident on Facebook. After Underwood asked the man to step back onto his porch, Simpson shouted out, “Now manhunt!”

Underwood, carrying a flashlight, reversed course. “You got something to say?” He grabbed Simpson, who tossed his phone under the house. Neal joined his boss, taking Simpson into custody and placing him under arrest.

Simpson cursed while Neal led him to a department vehicle. That’s when the deputy shoved the handcuffed man.

Allen Culp, a former local fire chief who observed the incident, testified Simpson hit the ground “like a sack of taters,” and lost his shoe.

The Post and Courier published the video in January 2019. When FBI agent Julie Yelk called Underwood’s department to ask about the incident, Yelk learned no report had been written, even though Simpson and his mother spent several days in jail.

Sprouse eventually agreed to speak with Yelk, and produced a report.

Yelk reviewed the timestamp: It was written two months after the incident, and an hour after she called the department.

‘They covered up’

For prosecutors, the Simpson arrest was emblematic of how Underwood and his top deputies ran their office, doing what they wanted to whoever they wanted.

“They bullied,” Schuman said. “They lied. They covered up. And they lied some more.”

Over the nine-day trial, jurors — six of them White, six Black — had to weigh competing portrayals of Underwood.

The prosecution portrayed the sheriff as a bully who felt entitled to taxpayer funds and allowed his ego to override his duty to protect and serve.

The jury never heard from Underwood or his top deputies, who chose not to testify. In fact, the defense only called two witnesses, insisting that prosecutors had failed to make their case.

Underwood’s attorneys, tearfully at times, insisted the sheriff was a decent man and dedicated servant who only wanted the best for his hometown. They chalked the case up to another abuse of power — overzealous prosecutors who wanted to nail a law enforcement officer over minor infractions.

On the 10th day, after deliberating for more than nine hours, the jury returned to the courtroom. Underwood looked toward them. They mostly averted their eyes.

Underwood’s wife, Angel, sat two rows behind him, wringing her hands.

The courtroom settled into silence. A clerk for U.S. Judge Michelle Childs began reading the verdicts, starting with the former sheriff. “Guilty.”