Tough on Crime in House District 71

Did you know?

Retiring SLED Chief Robert Stewart, Interim SLED Chief Mark Keel, and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott all live in our community?

I sleep safe at night knowing these men, and many others in the law enforcement community, are just minutes away from us.

A public thank you to Chief Stewart for his service to our state and a congratulations for Major Mark Keel to be recognized for his hard work and abilities.

From THE STATE:

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart — South Carolina’s top law enforcement official for the past 20 years — will retire at the end of the month.

Stewart, 62, whose 45-year law enforcement career began as a parking meter cadet in Cheraw, plans to start a consulting business, Stewart, Konduros & Associates, according to a statement released Friday.

“There are many ways to serve God and country,” Stewart said in the statement. “I consider it to be a calling to become a law enforcement officer and a sacred mission to be a SLED agent. I have attempted to do my best to lead SLED to be an impartial and professional agency in which all South Carolinians can be proud.”

Attempts to reach Stewart, who also has been the state’s homeland security director, for further comment were unsuccessful late Friday night.

Gov. Mark Sanford likely will appoint an interim chief until the S.C. Senate returns to session in January. Then the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate itself will vote on a nominee for a permanent successor.

Sanford could look to the federal level for a new SLED chief — if history is any indicator — some law enforcement observers say. In 2004, Sanford tapped James Schweitzer, then South Carolina’s top FBI official, to head the state Department of Public Safety.

Sanford and Stewart were recently at odds over $5.3 million in State House security improvements Stewart had proposed. Sanford said the money could be better spent combating the state’s high violent crime rate.

Stewart’s concern about his mother’s poor health played a large part in his decision, said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Stewart’s friend for more than 30 years.

“She’s in very bad health,” Lott said. “She’s a very independent woman, and it’s difficult for him to take care of her while he’s at SLED.”

Lott described Stewart as “probably the most respected law enforcement official in this whole state.

“He’s always kept SLED independent of political influence. He’s always done the right thing. His heart is a cop’s heart.”

Some law enforcement officials were caught off guard by the retirement, including U.S. Marshal Johnny Mack Brown, the former Greenville County sheriff who was a contender for the SLED chief’s post when Stewart was first appointed in 1987.

When he was sheriff, Brown said, Stewart was always available to respond to his department’s needs — whether for laboratory work or anything else.

“He is the epitome of a law enforcement professional,” Brown said. “He’s always conducted himself in a professional way. He will be missed.”

Stewart was in the running to become South Carolina’s U.S. Marshal, but changed his mind after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts, who also was a contender for the SLED chief’s post in 1987, credited Stewart with modernizing SLED’s crime laboratory and being the “driving force” behind the opening of the S.C. Computer Crime Center.

Metts and Brown said Stewart is referred to in the law enforcement community as the 47th sheriff.

Longtime Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian said when he was the 5th Circuit solicitor, he was getting outside pressure to drop the income tax evasion case against former USC president James Holderman.

But Stewart, whose agency investigated the case, told him, “You gotta feed everybody from the same spoon,” Harpootlian recalled. Several weeks after Holderman was convicted in 1991, Harpootlian said, Stewart sent him a spoon in the mail.

“He’s one of the most diligent, honest human beings I’ve ever known,” Harpootlian said.

A native of Washington, D.C., who grew up in Cheraw, he began his SLED career in 1975 as a white-collar crime investigator, and he made a name for himself in a Florence County case in which a family court clerk was convicted of embezzling county funds.

After joining SLED, Stewart moved to Columbia, completed work on a bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s in public administration from the University of South Carolina. Stewart also is a 1974 graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.

Eleventh Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers said Stewart was a stabilizing force when his predecessor, legendary SLED Chief J.P. “Pete” Strom died in 1987.

“He’s the epitome of the chief law enforcement officer of any state in the United States,” Myers said. “Someone will fill his position, but he can’t be replaced.”

Reach Higgins at (803) 771-8570 or Brundrett at (803) 771-8484. Staff Writer Gina Smith contributed.

Below are a few high-profile cases during Cheif Stewart’s 19 years as Chief.

1991 — Former USC president James Holderman pleaded guilty to receiving $25,000 in extra compensation and no contest to state income tax evasion. His time in office ended in 1990 after public criticism of his extravagant spending practices and allegations of sexual intimidation and harassment by male student interns.

1991 — Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, one of the state’s most notorious killers who admitted to at least 13 murders in the 1970s and 1980s, was put to death for killing another prison inmate with a homemade bomb.

1993 — On Stewart’s order, SLED sharpshooters killed N.C. prison escapee and convicted killer Garland Tedder, who had wounded a SLED agent during a standoff in Horry County. Stewart and the agents were cleared by an FBI and judicial review.

1994 — Susan Smith reported to police that she’d been carjacked by a man who drove off with her sons. Her story provoked national sympathy, until nine days later when she confessed she’d let her car roll into a Union County lake, drowning her boys.

1996 — Larry Gene Bell was executed for abducting and killing 17-year-old Shari Smith of Lexington County and 9-year-old Debra May Helmick from Richland County, both of whom were taken from in front of their homes within two weeks in 1985.

1996 — SLED agents conducted a security sweep of the headquarters of the Public Safety Department while its director, Boykin Rose, was locked in a political fight with then-Gov. David Beasley. Stewart authorized the sweep after Rose’s top aide suspected his phone might be tapped.

2003 — SLED agents fired hundreds of rounds in a gun battle with a family angry with the state for taking about 20 feet of their land for a road-widening project. After the family surrendered, Stewart publicly mourned an Abbeville County deputy and a local constable killed during the gunfire.