BOLIVIA — Removed from office last week, Brunswick County Sheriff Ron Hewett was indicted on four criminal charges today.
Hewett’s problems have grown dramatically since a federal investigation was launched in June. As that process was dragging on in Raleigh, many of Hewett’s own deputies were helping to amass a case against him here at home.
Ron Hewett entered the courtroom flanked by his lawyers — a courtroom with many of his supporters present.
But this time Hewett sat on the defendant’s side of the room, the prosecutor not his ally but his accuser.
Angie Robinson said she wasn’t there for the sheriff, she was there for her lifelong friend “Ronnie” and to hear if his suspension would be made permanent. That would become the lesser of his problems.
There was a stunning shift of directions in that courtroom. What started as a hearing on his suspension turned into a presentation of criminal charges against Ron Hewett: three counts of embezzlement and one count of obstruction of justice — all of which carry lengthy prison terms if convicted.
The three embezzlement counts by a public official involve using more than $1,300 in county money to paint campaign signs, guard his home and do work on his property.
The obstruction count accuses Hewett of ordering a detective not to arrest a relative of the sheriff in a child molestation case because it could be politically damaging.
Some were surprised by the timing.
District Attorney Rex Gore said, “The criminal process and the petition to remove were moving on parallel tracks. We got the petition to remove ready last week and filed that knowing we had scheduled the grand jury hearing for the true bills that were returned today.”
As deputies looked on, the man who had been their boss was ordered not to have contact with any of them who had sworn affidavits against him. All guns were ordered removed from his possession, and Judge Ola Lewis set a $25,000 secured bond.
Ron Hewett had nothing to say as he and his wife left the court-house, but those who watched the proceedings had some strong opinions.
Courtroom spectator Erica Ramsey said, “I’m glad that they got him on this, and I wish someone would look — it goes farther than this, I’m pretty sure.”
Courtroom spectator Joyce Elliott said, “I’m sick at heart. I’ve known Ronnie for a long time. I was a fifth grade teacher when he was a DARE officer. He did a lot of good things for Brunswick County. If he was guilty I’d have to hear him admit it to believe it.”
Unless there’s some kind of plea bargain deal looming, that will become the task of a jury.
Hewett could face more than 12 years in prison if convicted on all counts. No charges have yet been filed in the federal investigation.
The hearing on his suspension has been rescheduled for May 5. County Coroner Greg White will continue as acting sheriff in the interim.
Hewett suspended Thursday
Hewett was suspended Thursday night after Rex Gore filed a petition for his removal. The grounds: neglect or refusal to perform the duties of his office, willful misconduct or maladministration in office, extortion and intoxication.
Gore presented a binder full of evidence to back up the charges. It includes more than 20 affidavits, most of them from deputies and most of them containing some damning statements. There were also supporting photos and audio recordings of Hewett’s activities. Gore said some of Hewett’s own deputies were instrumental in building this case.
“They had begun the process before we joined forces with our investigation,” Gore said.
Several deputies arriving for work at the Sheriff’s Office in Bolivia Friday morning had no comment for NewsChannel 3 about their boss’s suspension.
Gore’s evidence includes several phone calls between Hewett and other members of the Sheriff’s Office. In a call with Capt. Kevin Holden on August 16, 2007, Hewett appears to speak of suicidal plans as he tells Holden that many of Hewett’s friends won’t take or return his calls in the midst of an investigation of the sheriff by a federal grand jury.
“I know you are down,” Holden tells the Sheriff. “I’m trying to bring you back up.”
Hewett responds: “There ain’t no bringing me back up. I’m looking for a bank robbery in (expletive deleted) progress. That’s what I want.”
Hewett won’t explain what he means by looking for a bank robbery. But several minutes later, he brings it up again, telling Holden that dying would be better than what he was going through.
“I’m telling you, something’s (expletive deleted) up. And they think I know it,” Hewett said. “I don’t know it. And go ahead and kill me. Take the .357 and kill my ass. Like I said, I’m looking for me a damn bank, man. Mitch Prince got a hell-of-a lot better end then I did.”
Mitch Prince was a Boiling Spring Lakes police officer killed in the line of duty in January 2005.
Hewett has been the target of a closely guarded federal investigation for several months. A host of people have been called to testify before a federal grand jury in Raleigh. Gore says this removal is unrelated to that investigation. Although some of the allegations may overlap, this was a separate action. Gore says per state law, county coroner Greg White is serving as acting sheriff.
The affidavits in the book of evidence tell repeated stories of misconduct. Capt. Gene Caison grew up with Hewett. He details numerous instances of deputies on county time being used to do manual labor on Hewett’s property or forced to work on Hewett’s campaign signs and fundraisers. Caison also details highly erratic conduct by the sheriff.
Other deputies and a SBI agent detail numerous incidents where Hewett showed up to crime scenes intoxicated and interfered with investigations. In once case, Hewett allegedly arrived at a home where a man had barricaded himself inside. With the SWAT team on the scene, witnesses say an apparently intoxicated Hewett kicked down the front door and went into the home with his teenage son Justin.
There are also several pages devoted to county money and resources spent on Hewett’s son Justin from the time Justin was a teenager, including Hewett assigning a vehicle belonging to the Sheriff’s Office to his son, even after Justin Hewett had been hired as a police officer in Holden Beach. Witnesses also say Hewett requested his son be certified to use firearms and that Justin was seen at times carrying a badge and other BCSO equipment, even though he was too young to be a deputy.
Other allegations include:
- Hewett sexually harassed several female employees.
- Hewett used racial epithets.
- Hewett ordered deputies to buy and deliver alcohol to him.
- Hewett denied a request by a deputy to search a neighborhood for Billy Wade Russ, a missing man, who was later found in a neighbor’s yard, just feet from Russ’s own property.
- Hewett arrived drunk at the scene of a submerged car in October 2005 and that his son Justin removed the body of Kendrick Sparrow from the car against established investigative protocol. Investigators found that Sparrow had been shot before his car ran off the road.
A hearing on the removal petition is set for Monday at noon. At that point Hewett can argue to have it overturned. If his removal is upheld, it would fall upon the Brunswick County Democratic party to pick a new sheriff.