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Ronald Hewett lived, died a local legend

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BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WWAY) -- Ronald Hewett was not just a sheriff in Brunswick County. He was an icon.

Born and raised in Brunswick County, the West Brunswick High School graduate did not take long to rise to prominence. After working as a Brunswick County deputy starting in 1983, he became the state's youngest sheriff at age 31 in 1994.

Hewett was a charismatic leader as sheriff, for better or worse; never shying away from the spotlight, a camera, an interview. It was a management style that at once earned him devoted fans and vocal critics.

In 2004 Hewett was even the subject of a documentary called "Sheriff." The movie's tagline was "A complex man trying to do good in a bad world."

Hewett's world became more complex in late 2006, when a federal investigation had Hewett and several of his deputies testifying before a grand jury in Raleigh.

In March 2008, then District Attorney Rex Gore sent shockwaves through Brunswick County when, during a hastily called evening news conference, he announced a judge had signed off on a petition to remove Hewett temporarily from office on the grounds of neglect or refusal to perform the duties of his office, willful misconduct or maladministration in office, extortion and intoxication.

Gore handed reporters a binder full of documentation and evidence against Hewett, including affidavits by many of his top lieutenants, as well as audio recordings of phone conversations with Hewett, including some in which the sheriff talks about suicide. The report outlined questions about Hewett's fitness to lead, including accusations and evidence of him under the influence of drugs and alcohol while on the job, including at crime scenes, and other accusations of corruption.

Within days, a Brunswick County grand jury had indicted Hewett on charges of embezzlement and obstruction of justice.

Two weeks later, Hewett resigned, ending a 17-year run in office. But Hewett's problems were only just beginning.

In May 2008, that federal grand jury that had been hearing testimony for about a year, indicted Hewett for obstruction of justice. Less than a month later, Hewett pleaded guilty to the charges. That October a judge sentenced Hewett to 16 months in federal prison and called it a tragic day for Brunswick County.

A few days later, Hewett also closed the book on the state case against him. He pleaded guilty to three counts of embezzlement and no contest to a charge of obstruction of justice. His four-month sentence would be served concurrently with his federal stint, which began a month later.

Hewett would wind up serving less than a year behind bars. He was released in October 2009 after racking up credit for good behavior. He then spent about three months in a halfway house before being released for good in January 2010.

His law enforcement career over, Hewett worked for developer Mark Saunders before and after his prison term and then as a salesman for Jones Ford in Shallotte.

Since his release from prison, Hewett declined interview requests. In September 2010, though, he gave his only public comments in an e-mail, in which he referred to himself as the "Retired Sheriff of Brunswick County" and made clear his resentment for Gore, who had been a political ally.

Since then, Hewett largely stayed out of the spotlight he had so loved as sheriff. That all changed Wednesday, when ATF agents served a warrant at Hewett's home, where they say they found weapons. They charged Hewett with a federal count of possession of a firearm by a felon. Hewett found himself spending the night in the jail he once ran.

At a federal court appearance Thursday morning, prosecutors said they wanted to keep Hewett in custody, and the judge scheduled a detention hearing for next week. Hewett's attorney said keeping the defendant in such a case locked up was rare. At the very least, though, Hewett would stay in jail until the hearing set for this coming Friday.

Of course, that hearing will never happen. Hewett, 51, was found dead in his cell at the New Hanover County Jail Saturday afternoon.

In death, as in life, his supporters remain devoted, and his critics vocal.

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