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17 November 2005

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The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina USA)
Saturday 22 October 2005

Mackey's lies cost his job,
chief says

Hethington says he threw away clean, 18-year career

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Ousted narcotics commander James Mackey's actions landed him in the sights of internal affairs investigators, but his lies about his misconduct are what cost him his job, Charleston Interim Police Chief Ned Hethington said Friday.

Mackey might well still be working if he had explained to investigators why he had gone to bat for an accused drug dealer and directed an officer to mislead a judge about an arrest warrant, Hethington said.

He said that instead of admitting to his mistakes, accepting punishment and moving on, Mackey chose a path of deceit. In the process, Mackey threw away a relatively blemish-free, 18-year career in which he had done "wonderful things," he said.

"Not telling the truth during the investigation was the worst part," he said. "He took it to the next level, and he didn't need to do that. ... It disappointed me greatly."

Hethington fired Mackey on Wednesday, the same day the state Criminal Justice Academy revoked the officer's police powers in South Carolina, banning him from the profession for "numerous misconduct issues." The State Law Enforcement Division is still investigating whether criminal violations are involved.

Hethington said he saw no signs laws were broken, only instances of bad judgment. "I don't believe he is a crook or a person who would do something corrupt," he said. Mackey's lawyer, Donald Gist of Columbia, maintains that the fault lies with a shoddy internal affairs investigation that overlooked witnesses and evidence. Mackey "vehemently denies" lying to investigators, Gist said.

"We continue to stand by our position that Mr. Mackey has done nothing that warrants his demotion and nothing that warrants his termination," Gist said.

Mackey is accused of accepting gifts from an accused drug trafficker and improperly interceding on the suspect's behalf in an attempt to get state and federal charges dismissed in the case. The suspect, 32-year-old Brenton Jenkins, was arrested in January 2004 at a Gunn Avenue home where police found more than 10 grams of cocaine cooking in a microwave, authorities said.

Jenkins, who listed Mackey as a character reference after his arrest by federal agents, told the U.S. Attorney's Office he gave the narcotics commander jerseys to thank him for a letter written in Jenkins' behalf, police said.

Mackey reportedly received two designer jerseys worth about $100 each, Hethington said. Mackey denied any connection to Jenkins, even after police determined that Mackey knew the suspect, he said. Mackey also denied receiving the jerseys, even though other officers had seen them in his possession, the chief said.

Hethington also shed more light on allegations that Mackey ordered his men to obtain a warrant for a man they knew was dead to avoid questions about their decision to seize his car in a drug case. According to the chief and other police officials, the incident unfolded like this:

On May 5, police stopped a 42-year-old woman on Addison Street and found .16 grams of heroin in the vehicle she was driving, a 2001 Nissan Xterra. The vehicle belonged to Steven Van Winkle, a 57-year-old Summerville man with whom she said she planned to share the drugs. Officers had her call Van Winkle and arrange a meeting at which she gave him some of the heroin.

Narcotics officers detained Van Winkle that night but allowed him to leave without being charged. They seized his vehicle, forcing him to take a taxi home from the police station.

On May 10, Van Winkle was found dead in his home after shooting himself in the head days earlier. In his suicide note, he mentioned the car seizure and his problems with drinking and drugs.

Summerville police sent a message notifying the Charleston narcotics unit that Van Winkle had committed suicide, but Mackey delayed calling them back until he had obtained an arrest warrant for the dead man.

He did so over objections from some members of his unit who thought it unwise to ask a Charleston County magistrate for a warrant for a man they thought to be dead, according to the internal affairs report.

Hethington said it is "very unusual" to seize a vehicle without an arrest, but there is nothing illegal about filing the paperwork later. He sensed that Mackey simply panicked when he learned of Van Winkle's suicide and tried to create a paper trail to avoid any questions about the seizure, he said.

After fellow police officers and a federal official raised concerns about Mackey's conduct, Charleston police launched an internal affairs investigation that took place in July and August. Investigators found he had violated numerous policies and procedures.

Wanting to be absolutely sure of that, then-Police Chief Reuben Greenberg convened a six-member board of the department's top commanders to review the case, Hethington said.

That board, which included Hethington, found "more than enough evidence" to support the earlier findings, and a majority of the panel recommended that Mackey be fired, Hethington said.

Greenberg, who has since retired, chose to demote Mackey, setting the stage for a grievance process that would further ensure the officer was afforded due process, he said.

Hethington said the department found no signs of severe problems within the seven-member narcotics unit -- now run by Lt. Gerald Blake -- and no major changes are planned.

Two officers who served under Mackey's command have transferred to other assignments, but the rest remain, he said.

Hethington said, however, that he would like the unit to shift some focus from large-scale drug operations and property seizures to cleaning up street-level narcotics that affect the quality of life for citizens.

While the episode is unfortunate, Hethington said, it demonstrates that the department's internal affairs system works the way it was intended.

"We do police our police," he said, "and I want the citizens to know that."


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