COLUMBIA, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — When Trent Pendarvis hopped out of bed on Sept. 19, 2019, he had no idea he was a wanted man, and just hours later, the State Law Enforcement Division would raid his family’s 130-year-old farm and haul him off to jail.
Pendarvis Farms is headquartered just off Main Street in Harleyville, a town of 677 people. Mostly families with multi-generational roots dating back to the early 1900s.
Pendarvis was standing in an aisle inside the ACE Hardware store that morning when his cell phone rang. An S.C. Department of Agriculture inspector was on the other end.
“SLED said they needed to meet me down at the field; they wanted to talk to me,” Pendarvis recalled the SCDA inspector telling him in the call. He assumed the state wanted another sample of his hemp crop to test for THC levels, which he said is standard practice.
“When I got there, I pulled up, got out the truck, looked around, and here come people from everywhere. They were coming from every direction,” Pendarvis told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr during an interview in September as he stood in his field recalling the raid on his family’s farm.
“It looked like they were coming to take down an army of criminals or something. I didn’t know that it took that many people or that much equipment and much manpower to come to one farmer, and I’m standing in a hemp field,” Pendarvis said.
The men depicted on a State Law Enforcement Division body camera recording weren’t rank-and-file SLED agents with a warrant to serve. The agent wearing the body camera is identified in court filings as Captain Glenn Wood, a high-ranking SLED agent who heads the SLED Pee Dee Region Office in Florence. Wood was also the agent-in-charge overseeing the investigators conducting the criminal investigation in our ‘Final Disrespects’ investigation out of Marlboro County.
Court records identify the other agent in the body camera videos as Major Frank O’Neal, who heads SLED’s drug unit.
According to the SLED website, O’Neal heads SLED’s Alcohol, Narcotics, and Vice Services. The recordings show O’Neal participating in the Pendarvis Farm raid, Pendarvis’ arrest, and the destruction of Pendarvis’ hemp crop. Captain Wood made the 92-mile trip to Harleyville from Florence to participate in the raid.
Body camera and cell phone recordings later provided to Pendarvis’ legal team show agents confronting the farmer in his hemp field off Maple Hill Road.
The recordings show Major O’Neal and Pendarvis standing in front of Pendarvis’ farm truck when Wood walked up wearing the body camera and started recording the encounter. The initial conversation between O’Neal and Pendarvis is not on any of the recordings provided to QCN. At one point, O’Neal walks away from Pendarvis to meet Wood. O’Neal – with his back turned to Pendarvis – mumbles something to Wood.
What O’Neal said was not captured clearly enough in the recording to offer an accurate transcription.
“How you doing,” SLED agent John Neale asked Pendarvis, extending his hand for Pendarvis to shake it. “So, did you get a copy of the order from the department of Ag saying they weren’t going to approve your field here,” Neale asked the farmer. Pendarvis acknowledges he’d seen the SCDA letter.
“Because of that, this field is not lawfully able to grow because it’s outside your permit,” Neale said in the recording. “We’ve got to do something with this. So, are you good with us cutting it down, or,” Neale asked, “I’d rather you talk to my lawyer first,” Pendarvis replied. Major O’Neal asked Pendarvis for his attorney’s name, “I’ll get a hold of Mr. Charles Williams,” Pendarvis replied.
Williams is an attorney with the Williams and Williams law firm in Orangeburg, a city located about 20 miles to the northwest.
When Pendarvis filed his initial hemp application with the SCDA, he’d originally planned to plant part of his 40-acre hemp allotment in another field nearby.
The South Carolina legislature passed the state’s Hemp Farming Act just months before. On March 28, 2019, Governor Henry McMaster signed the Act into law, allowing SC farmers to grow, handle, and store commercially grown hemp so long as the farmer passes criminal background checks and is licensed through the SCDA.
The SCDA awarded Pendarvis a hemp growers license on May 1, 2019, allowing Pendarvis to participate in the new hemp farming program. An SCDA inspector visited Pendarvis’ farm on July 30, 2019, for a routine inspection, according to Pendarvis.
“When I had the farm visit, I told the lady, ‘Hey, the coordinates isn’t right.’ They didn’t know they weren’t right. If I wouldn’t have told them, they probably still wouldn’t know they wasn’t right. But I was trying to have everything right, so I told them they wasn’t right,” Pendarvis told Barr.
Pendarvis said he told the inspector the field he’d originally planned to use had been flooded in the days before planting, and he had to use a field that was ready to plant. He was battling time, he said because the seedlings were days from forming a “J” root, which Pendarvis said would kill his entire hemp crop before he ever got it into the ground.
“We changed the coordinates, filled out whatever we had to do, she carries it back to Columbia, then the next day I get an email that says I’m in violation of the law. So then I try to email them back and forth, to see what I got to do right, what I need to do to get everything straight, and then a lot of times I’ll email, and then it might be a day or two before you get a response,” Pendarvis said.
What he didn’t know at the time, SCDA Assistant Commissioner Derek Underwood was about to set in motion a plan that would land Pendarvis in the county jail and lead to the destruction of his hemp field.
THE STATE V. PENDARVIS
SLED Agent John H. Neale, II walked into the Dorchester County Magistrate’s Office in Summerville, SC, on Sept. 19, 2019, hoping a judge would sign an arrest warrant on Trent Pendarvis. A warrant that would lead to the first prosecution of an S.C. hemp farmer since the state government legalized growing the plant six months earlier.
The charge: Unlawful Cultivation of Hemp – 1st Offense, court records show. In his probable cause affidavit, Neale wrote that the SCDA inspector “…observed mature hemp plants growing on an unlicensed site located on Maple Hill Road.”
“Pendarvis’ actions “…willfully violated the Hemp Farming Act,” Neale alleged in the affidavit used to convince the judge SLED had the probable cause needed to arrest Pendarvis.
The affidavit shows SLED didn’t tell the judge of its plans to destroy Pendarvis’ entire crop. Nowhere in the one-page affidavit did Neale mention the agency’s plans to have the SC Forestry Commission drive a tractor and bush hog over Pendarvis’ crop, destroying what the farmer estimated was a harvest worth between $2 and $3 million.
Judge Ryan Templeton signed the warrant that morning, and SLED took it to the field where Pendarvis met agents just before noon on Sept. 19, 2019.
“I am responding to let you know that I received your inquiry; however, I do not intend to comment because, as a judge, it would be inappropriate for me to do so,” Templeton wrote in a Sept. 20, 2022 email to Barr. Barr asked Templeton whether SLED informed him of its intent to destroy the hemp crop when he agreed to sign the arrest warrant that morning.
The SLED body camera video shows Neale speaking with Pendarvis in the field when Major Frank O’Neal gives the order to arrest Pendarvis. “Go ahead,” O’Neal said, which caused Neale to reach for Pendarvis’ arm. “All right, right now we’re going to place you under arrest for growing hemp without a license,” SLED agent Neale said in the recording.
Pendarvis appeared surprised at the development and asked, “For what?”
“We’ll serve the warrant here in just a minute, tell you about what it’s all involved. Growing unlicensed, cultivating unlicensed hemp. You can’t grow it and then try to amend it,” O’Neal told Pendarvis as Neale pulled the farmer’s arm behind his back and slapped a handcuff over one of Pendarvis’ wrists.
O’Neal and Neale started searching Pendarvis.
“We’re going to get you to the detention center and get you booked in where you can get on and see a judge, catch the afternoon bond hearing,” Captain Wood told Pendarvis in the recording. “Can I call my lawyer before y’all–,” Pendarvis said before Wood interrupted, “Yes sir, absolutely. Let them finish getting your knives and stuff, and then they gone take them cuffs loose for a second, and we’ll let you make that telephone call.”
Pendarvis asked several more times in the video to call his attorney. He also told agents he had workers waiting for him in another field and asked to call his father to let them know what was happening.
“I was like, let me call somebody. Let me call my dad, my brother who farm with me. Let me call them and tell them what’s going on. Oh, ‘We’re gonna give you that opportunity in a minute,’ Pendarvis quoted from his conversations with the SLED agents. “Then they take my phone, put me in handcuffs, and arrest me, and I keep asking them the whole time, ‘Hey, call somebody. I got people working for me today. Call somebody and tell them what’s going on where somebody can go get them. They don’t have a truck, they don’t have any way back,’ and he’s like, ‘That ain’t my problem. You can call them when you get to the jail,” Pendarvis recalled his conversation with SLED Major Frank O’Neal in the hemp field during the 2019 raid.
Pendarvis said SLED agents handed him over to a Dorchester County Sheriff’s deputy, where he was put into the back of a police cruiser. He sat in the car for more than a half-hour before the deputy drove him 20 miles away to the county jail.
Once inside, Pendarvis said jailers fingerprinted him, dressed him in an orange jail uniform, took his mugshot, and after about three hours, allowed him to make the calls the SLED agents promised him while standing in his field earlier.
“I’m thinking, why are you in jail for growing a simple crop?” Pendarvis thought while sitting in his jail cell. “It’s not like I’m growing marijuana. I was basically treated like I was a drug dealer, and I’m just growing a normal crop. You don’t have to come there and like, surround me in the middle of a field like I’m growing acres of marijuana, I’m bringing in kilos of cocaine. That’s the way I was treated. I was growing a crop. That’s the part that bothers me. They knew who I were. I know who Hugh Weathers (SCDA’s elected commissioner) is; I knew who the sheriff (Dorchester County Sheriff L.C. Knight) is. They know me good. Whenever they want some money for their little campaign, they come, and they can find me then, so why couldn’t they find me that day ahead of time and without surrounding me with a SWAT team,” Pendarvis asked rhetorically during an interview with QCN last month.
Pendarvis said he spent between six and seven hours in the jail before a judge released him on bond later that evening.
‘CONSPIRACY’ TO CHARGE PENDARVIS & DESTROY HIS CROP
Within hours of the SCDA’s July 2019 inspection of Pendarvis’ hemp farm, records obtained by Pendarvis’ attorneys through discovery in two separate state-level civil lawsuits show the SCDA went to work to figure out how to enforce what it alleged was a violation of the state’s six-month-old Hemp Farming Act.
The Act, located in Title 46, Chapter 55 of the SC Code of Laws, states a hemp farmer cannot be charged with a crime or fined for violations, “The corrective action plan…is the sole remedy for negligent violations of this chapter, regulations promulgated pursuant to this chapter,” the law states. “A licensee who negligently violates a provision of this chapter, regulations promulgated pursuant to this chapter, or the state plan shall not be subject to any criminal or civil enforcement action.”
Not only was Pendarvis arrested and charged, but SLED coordinated with the SC Forestry Commission the day before the raid to have the SC Forestry Commission bring heavy equipment to Pendarvis’ farm to destroy every hemp plant on the farm.
An email from SLED Lt. Jason Wells to SLED General Counsel Adam Whitsett, Major O’Neal, Captain Wood, and Neale shows Wells planned to ask someone he knows at the SCFC to bring the equipment to Dorchester County the morning of the raid and to meet SLED agents to destroy the hemp crop.
Video recordings obtained by Pendarvis’ attorneys show SCFC equipment waiting in the field for SLED’s command to begin cutting the hemp down. Discovery records also included photographs of SCDA Program Manager John Stokes taking selfies in Pendarvis’ hemp field during the raid.
The day following the SCDA inspection in July 2019, Pendarvis emailed the Ag department the coordinates of his hemp plot and an explanation as to why he planted the crop in a different location than he initially filed with his application months earlier.
“Due to the extensive drought in May and overabundance of rain in June, I was prohibited to plant the fields that were previously reported with GPS coordinates. I didn’t realize the field was not reported since multiple fields were listed in case weather events delayed planting and thought everything would be finalized during inspection. It was an oversight for not reporting the change to you. The additional field is located in a 2-mile radius of existing fields and did not increase the acreage approved,”July 31, 2019 email from Pendarvis to Derek Underwood, an SCDA Assistant Commissioner.
Pendarvis’ email also included the coordinates of the field he said he asked the SCDA to add to an amendment to his application. SCDA emails show the agency did not update Pendarvis’ records, instead sent him a letter informing him the agency found he “willfully violated” the Act.
On August 5, 2019, emails obtained by Pendarvis’ counsel show SCDA Assistant Commissioner Derek Underwood emailed SLED Captain Jason Wells asking for a criminal investigation and enforcement action against the farmer.
The following day, SLED’s General Counsel Adam Whitsett emailed the SC Attorney General’s Office asking for a legal opinion, indicating the state’s Hemp Farming Act didn’t clearly lay out how SLED was to enforce violations, “There is no specific direction as to the process or procedure to have the illegally grown hemp, which is contraband per se, seized or destroyed. Accordingly, SLED would greatly appreciate any specific guidance you can provide on the proper procedure in this matter,” Whitsett wrote in an Aug. 6, 2019, email to David S. Jones, an Assistant Attorney General in the SC Attorney General’s Solicitor General Division.
Underwood emailed SLED again two days after filing the violation allegation against Pendarvis, asking for an update. This time SLED Major Frank O’Neal responded.
“Not yet – we are having difficulty in what to address with so many gray areas concerning enforcement. Unlike Kentucky, we don’t really have comprehensive regulation that addresses all of the possible concerns. We are having to get AG opinions along the way and the last thing we want to do is an action that will be perceived in a negative light by the media or general assembly.”SLED Major Frank O’Neal wrote to Derek Underwood in an August 8, 2019 email.
The email trail between SLED, SCDA, and the SCAG’s offices show the back-and-forth between the agencies, each trying to figure out how to handle the “ultra murky” law SLED was about to enforce. “Ultra murky” is the language Bob Cook, the AG’s Solicitor General, used to describe the SC Hemp Farming Act of 2019.
“It gives no direction whatever [sic] to law enforcement,” Cook wrote in an August 7, 2019, email to Assistant Attorney General David Jones.
The next day, on August 8, 2019, AG records show Cook and Jones published the opinion SLED asked for, describing it as ‘An opinion on the appropriate procedure to pursue enforcement of the Hemp Farming Act with respect to hemp grown in violation of the Act.” The opinion is still live on the AG’s website today.
“It is the opinion of this office that in the absence of legislative direction, SLED should seek judicial authorization for the seizure of legally-grown hemp in order to ensure that the grower receives due process consistent with the Constitutions of the United States and the State of South Carolina,” Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote.
“Given the absence of any legislative direction in the Hemp Farming Act, we advise that the prudent course of action would be to provide that opportunity in a hearing. We hope that this also will lead to judicial clarification of some of the many questions created as a result of the Hemp Farming Act,” Cook continued in the legal opinion.
Emails obtained by Pendarvis’ legal team show SLED attempted to seek approval from a circuit court judge to destroy Pendarvis’ crop following the AG’s opinion. On Sept. 11, 2019, SLED General Counsel Adam Whitsett emailed Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein, asking her meet with SLED agents to “discuss” a “proposed Hemp/Marijuana Seizure Order and Order of Destruction in the hope that the Judge will sign it,” Whitsett wrote.
The email also showed SLED Major Frank O’Neal had already spoken with Gil Gatch, Judge Goodstein’s law clerk at the time. Gatch is now a current member of the SC House of Representatives and did not return messages seeking comment for this report.
O’Neal contacted the judge’s office to find out the judge’s availability to meet with SLED agents, according to the emails obtained through discovery. The judge’s office responded to Whitsett six hours later.
“The judge has reviewed your proposed order and has decided not to sign it,” Gatch wrote in a Sept. 11, 2019, reply to Whitsett. “She told me to let you know that if you would like a hearing on the matter, she would be glad to give you one,” Gatch wrote in closing the email.
But Whitsett declined the judge’s offer to give Pendarvis a hearing. “Please let the judge know that we appreciate her consideration and do not anticipate needs a hearing on this matter at this time,” Whitsett wrote to Gatch and Goodstein more than an hour later.
Emails Pendarvis’ legal team obtained thorough discovery show that eight days later, SLED Agent John Neale went to a lower court to ask a magistrate judge for an arrest warrant for Trent Pendarvis.
SLED would later serve that warrant on Pendarvis, then destroy his hemp crop.
“Judge said, I’m available, courtroom’s open, you certainly are entitled to a hearing, notify the farmer and come on up here. They (SLED) didn’t like that. They wanted to go around that,” Pendarvis attorney Brad Hutto told QCN last month.
“In reality, SLED was going around the Attorney General and around the judge, all for what? To go after Trent Pendarvis. Why?” Hutto asked.
‘THEY’RE COMING AFTER MY CROP IN MARION’
As soon as Trent Pendarvis walked out of the Dorchester County Detention Center, one of the first calls he made was to the Williams and Williams law firm in Orangeburg.
Pendarvis was in a panic.
He needed help from someone with a law degree to help him stop SLED agents from doing in Marion County what they just did to him in Dorchester County. Pendarvis got in touch with Brad Hutto; a member of the Williams and Williams law firm and also an S.C. state senator.
“A member of law enforcement told him, said, ‘Mr. Pendarvis, I kind of don’t like what’s going on here, and they’re going to come after your crop in Marion, and you might want to take some steps to see if that can be avoided,” Hutto told Barr during an interview last month in Orangeburg.
Hutto was handling Pendarvis’ criminal charges at the time and did not know what happened between Pendarvis, SLED, the AG’s office, and the SCDA leading up to his arrest.
“When Trent told me that, he said, ‘Look, I think they’re coming after my crop in Marion.’ I said, ‘How do you know that?’ And he said, ‘Well, one of the officers kind of pulled me aside and said, I think that we’re coming after your crop, and I don’t like what’s going on.”
Hutto called Patrick McLaughlin, a civil rights attorney in Florence to file an injunction in Marion County trying to stop SLED from seizing and destroying Pendarvis’ hemp crop there. McLaughlin filed the court action within a week of the Dorchester County raid.
On Sept. 26, 2019, the same day McLaughlin filed the injunction, Marion County Circuit Court Judge William Seals signed a temporary restraining order banning SLED and the SCDA from “entering onto the property under cultivation… for the purpose of destroying the hemp crop planted thereon,” Seals wrote in the Sept. 26 order. “I find that the Plaintiffs are likely to suffer immediate and irreparable loss or damage if Defendants proceed with destruction of Plaintiff’s hemp crop located in Marion County without the benefit of due process and judicial review guaranteed to Plaintiffs by the South Carolina Constitution.”
“It is further ordered that all parties will be given an opportunity to be heard at a hearing on the merits to be scheduled by this court at a later date,” Seals’ order stated.
Seals was the second circuit court judge to tell SLED it needed to give Pendarvis a hearing before destroying his crop.
Pendarvis was able to harvest the Marion County hemp allotment and sell it. The profits are held in a trust account where they’ll stay until the lawsuit against SLED and the SCDA in Marion County is resolved.
SLED filed an appeal of Judge Seals’ Marion County order in December 2019. That appeal is still making its way through the state appeals court, with a hearing set for later this year.
McLaughlin said the reason SLED Major Frank O’Neal wouldn’t let Trent Pendarvis call his attorney during the raid was obvious, “They all knew that the chief administrative judge for Dorchester County had refused to sign an order for it (the destruction of the hemp crop) and so, you’ve got the guy sitting there wanting to call his lawyer. And what Major O’Neal at some point says, well, ‘There ain’t nothing your lawyer can do. We’re gonna cut the crop anyway.’ Well, that’s not true. There was something the lawyer to do, and we know the lawyer can do something because the lawyer did it did it in Marion,” McLaughlin told Barr.
“That body camera tells the tale of the tape. It’s awfully revealing. He was asking for his lawyer, and they shut it down. First, they’re saying, yeah, we’ll let you call him, and then that stops. Why did they stop it? They stopped it because they knew that what they were doing was wrong. And they knew that if it got in front of a judge that day, a judge would have put a stop to it. That’s exactly why they didn’t tell the magistrate what they intended to do that day, either. They didn’t want the magistrate to put a stop to it,” McLaughlin said.
‘SLED’S OBSTRUCTIONIST CONDUCT’
After SLED filed its appeal of the Marion County decision, Pendarvis’ attorneys spent the next several months fighting with SLED, the Attorney General, the Ag Department, and other state agencies trying to gather discovery records and evidence to show what happened behind the scenes in the weeks and days before SLED raided Pendarvis’ farm.
Pendarvis’ attorneys described SLED’s handling of Pendarvis’ criminal and civil cases as “obstruction of justice” in what the attorneys labeled as “discovery misconduct” in the agency’s intentional withholding of some of the evidence it had related to the Pendarvis raid.
“This conduct includes willfully attempting to mislead a state court judge to authorize their seizure and destruction action, conspiring to seize and destroy the Pendarvis’ property after that state court judge had refused to authorize such, then denying that the state court judge had refused to authorize the seizure and destruction of the Pendarvis’ property, and the willful and intentional obstruction of justice through discovery misconduct in both the criminal and state court cases arising from these matters,” the attorneys wrote in the September 2022 federal lawsuit.
That lawsuit names 36 defendants who Pendarvis’ attorneys said had a hand in the communications and the on-site actions related to the September 2019 raid of Pendarvis’ farm.
The lawsuit points to a Sept. 30, 2019, attorney general opinion that amended the Aug. 8, 2019, opinion SLED received before raiding Pendarvis’ farm. The August opinion included language cautioning SLED against seizing and destroying Pendarvis’ hemp crop without affording him a hearing in court.
The amended opinion was published on Sept. 30, 2019 – 11 days after SLED raided Pendarvis’ farm and destroyed his hemp crop. The amended opinion included new information SLED provided the AG after SLED received a copy of the ‘Participation Agreement’ between the SCDA and Pendarvis. The agreement contains what the AG called “the consent to forfeiture and destruction,” supposedly allowing the state to destroy Pendarvis’ crop if found “growing in an area that is not licensed by SCDA,” the AG opinion stated.
SLED and the SCDA argued that Pendarvis waived his due process rights by signing the ‘Participation Agreement’ as part of his license to grow hemp.
“The Defendants (SLED and the SCDA) want to take the participation agreement and elevate it to law,” Marion County Circuit Court Judge William Seals wrote in a Nov. 8, 2019 order leaving in place a restraining order barring SLED from destroying Pendarvis’ final two-acres of hemp crop in Marion County at the time.
“However, as the Plaintiffs argue, through that same participation agreement, Defendant SCDA acknowledges the reality of mother nature intruding on a farmer’s best-laid plans by providing for a hemp licensee to submit a “Permit Amendment Application,” Seals noted in his order. Pendarvis’ legal team said the judge was recognizing then that an agreement between a farmer and the SCDA would not trump a farmer’s right to face his accusers and be denied a chance to defend himself and his crop.
“Unlike purely contractual rights, constitutional rights cannot be extinguished or waived absent express agreement,” Seals wrote.
The Sept. 30, 2019, AG opinion also stated, “In addition, following the August opinion, SLED attempted to secure an order of destruction from a circuit court as discussed in the August opinion; however, the court would not entertain such. While no specific reasoning was provided by the court, there is simply no statutory or regulatory authorization for a court to entertain such a request,” AG Solicitor General Bob Cook and Assistant AG David Jones wrote in the September 2019 amended opinion.
But the emails Pendarvis’ attorney obtained in discovery show Judge Goodstein’s office did entertain SLED’s request for the judge to sign an order allowing SLED to seize and destroy Pendarvis’ crop when the judge’s law clerk offered SLED an opportunity of a hearing. SLED General Counsel Adam Whitsett declined the judge’s offer that same day, according to a Sept. 11, 2019, email between Whitsett and Goodstein’s law clerk, Gil Gatch.
Pendarvis’ attorney said SLED never mentioned the Sept. 30, 2019, amended opinion related to the Pendarvis raid in any of the responses SLED filed in the Marion County court case, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit Pendarvis filed against SLED, the AG, SCDA, SCFC, and the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 16, 2022.
The lawsuit also states that SLED did not initially produce any of its Sept. 11, 2019, communications with Judge Goodstein in its discovery responses and that SLED did not truthfully answer interrogatories in the civil litigation Pendarvis filed related to these specific questions.
Ever since Trent Pendarvis walked out of jail on Sept. 19, 2019, he remained free on bond awaiting trial. While Patrick McLaughlin worked to figure out the backstory to Pendarvis’ raid, Brad Hutto was working on getting evidence from SLED, so he could help Pendarvis fight off a conviction.
McLaughlin said SLED’s “misconduct” in the civil trials caused Pendarvis’ prosecution to linger.
“Their refusal to just be honest caused those criminal charges to hang over Trent’s head longer than they should have. And there’s only one reason to hide the ball on that and that’s because you didn’t want those criminal charges to go away. You wanted them to be prosecuted,” McLaughlin told QCN.
“By not answering things honestly in this case from day one, that had a real detrimental effect on Trent because ultimately what happened was the solicitor’s office in Dorchester County said there’s no case here, there’s no evidence that he acted willfully. We’re not going to prosecute it,” McLaughlin said.
On Aug. 5, 2022, the First Circuit Solicitor’s Office filed a dismissal notice in Pendarvis’ criminal case, telling the court the charges against the farmer would be dismissed. “While probable cause existed to make [sic] arrest, [sic] insufficient evidence to prove defendant’s actions were willful,” Assistant Solicitor David Osborne wrote in the filing.
After 1,051 days awaiting trial, Trent Pendarvis’ criminal charge was wiped away.
“That decision ultimately got made by the solicitor’s office after we had – it was like pulling teeth to get the evidence to show that the judge had refused to authorize this, and they had essentially ignored the advice that they had originally gotten from the Attorney General’s Office,” McLaughlin said.
Hutto said the true cause of the delay happened because SLED wouldn’t provide the prosecutor with the evidence related to the AG’s opinions and the fact that Whitsett attempted to get Judge Goodstein to sign a seizure and destruction order and she wouldn’t without first giving Pendarvis a hearing.
The evidence the solicitor needed to make a decision on Pendarvis’ prosecution came from his legal team, according to Hutto.
“Which is a little bit unusual when the defense lawyer is giving the prosecution lawyer evidence from the law enforcement agency that’s making the charges. I had more information because of discovery in the civil case than the prosecutor had been given by SLED to prosecute the case,” Hutto told QCN.
“Once he viewed all that, and there were all these statements in here about, it’s less than clear, this is a gray area, this is murky; when you, as a prosecutor, are faced with the obligation to only move forward on a case you know you can prove beyond every reasonable doubt and the agency who’s given you the case is in the background talking about it being murky and gray areas and all that, you know, ultimately when you read that you don’t have a case. And so, the prosecutor acted very appropriately,” Hutto said.
Hutto said in this case, Pendarvis was guilty of one thing: committing common farming decisions.
“He was doing farming practice the way that you do when conditions on the ground – whether it’s drought or too much water – suggests that you can’t use a field and you use another field. That’s what farmers have been doing for hundreds of years. That’s what Trent did here; he just happened to do it with a hemp crop.”
POLITICAL VICTIM IN SLED’S FIGHT AGAINST CANNABIS?
Part of what Trent Pendarvis’ attorneys got back through their discovery work was a series of cell phone and body camera videos from the day of the Pendarvis Farms raid. The cell phone video was recorded by state agents on the ground as Pendarvis’ hemp crop was mowed over.
The body camera recordings were made by SLED. Under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, body camera recordings are not public records and unless a law enforcement agency, solicitor, or the SC Attorney General’s Office releases those recordings at each agency’s discretion, body camera recordings can be kept from the public forever.
In this case, the recordings were released as evidence in Pendarvis’ lawsuit against the 36 people named in his federal civil rights lawsuit. Otherwise, those recordings might have never been made public.
Pendarvis’ attorneys think the reason SLED decided to go after Pendarvis had nothing to do with an alleged violation of the state’s Hemp Farming Act. “I think they wanted the photo up of the mowing it down, and they wanted the press release of we destroyed a crop,” Hutto told QCN last month. “They wanted to put that in the public realm, either to scare farmers or to further their war against the notion that there’s something evil about hemp and it’s all linked to marijuana.”
“SLED still, in their minds, got it that hemp is illegal. That hemp has got THC in it; therefore, it is marijuana,” Hutto said.
The lawsuit claims that SLED Chief Mark Keel and SC Attorney General Alan Wilson have “vehemently and publicly opposed” any attempt to legalize cannabis in South Carolina.
In January 2019, a Charleston newspaper quoted Wilson as calling cannabis “the most dangerous drug” at a State House press conference with Chief Keel looking on. The newspaper included a picture of the press conference and a caption noting Keel and Wilson “came out in opposition to legislation to legalize medical marijuana.”
Both Keel and Wilson were surrounded by members of the South Carolina Medical Association, according to the newspaper’s caption.
Even after Pendarvis’ arrest, Keel continued his public opposition to legalizing anything to do with cannabis. In a June 14, 2021, letter to members of the South Carolina Behavioral Health Services Association and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, Keel expressed his “disappointment” in the agencies’ lack of opposition to legislation aimed at legalizing marijuana in SC, according to the Pendarvis lawsuit.
“I have spent 43 years in law enforcement standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” Keel is quoted as writing to the groups, “That is why I have consistently voiced my concerns about legalizing marijuana in any form,” the section of Keel’s letter included in the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit also claims SLED Major Frank O’Neal “is a frequent speaker on behalf of Keel” lobbying the public against marijuana legalization “and the collateral damage it causes our country,” according to the lawsuit.
In January 2022, Keel went to York County to join York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson on a show titled ‘Crime to Court’ produced by members of the sheriff’s office. The episode included a cowboy hat-wearing Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who Sheriff Tolson said he “had to fly” Lamb into town for the 32-minute video.
All three appeared on the sheriff’s video to tell the public why state lawmakers legalizing medical marijuana was a bad idea.
“I’m proud to be here, as well; this is a topic that I think most people know that I have been very much opposed to here in South Carolina; I’ve pretty well made that very well-known and continue to oppose this bill that we’re going to discuss today,” Keel said looking into the camera.
Both Sheriff Tolson and Keel said they “voiced concerns” about the state passing the Hemp Farming Act, but lawmakers passed it anyway, and Governor Henry McMaster signed the Act into law.
Keel claimed in the video that 70% of the hemp products SLED’s laboratory’s tested out of the state’s hemp shops “are beyond the legal limit” of allowable THC content. “Which makes it makes it marijuana,” Keel said in the York County Sheriff’s video.
“And that was our concern that we let folks know about when we were debating that bill,” Keel said.
Keel went on to make a pitch against the legislature approving the 2022 medical marijuana bill making its way through the State House at the time, “I happen to be president of a national organization, Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies,” Keel said in the York County Sheriff’s Office video.
“Every director from those agencies tell me, ‘Chief, if you don’t have it, do everything you can to defeat this bill. It’s not good for your state, and there’s no need to put your children through the challenges of facing recreational, medical marijuana in South Carolina.’”
“SLED does not like the notion that the state is moving in a direction – first of legalizing hemp and possibly moving on to legalize marijuana. Look, I give them credit for this: they’ve said that, right? I mean, it’s not like it’s a hidden agenda; it’s an out-front agenda. They don’t like it,” Hutto said.
“The legislature heard that testimony and set the policy of this state by saying this is going to be legal. And it’s my opinion SLED just never accepted that. I mean, they never accepted that we’re the policymakers and they’re not,” Hutto said last month. “I think they were trying to send a message to farmers; you better stay away from this hemp farming because we’re going to come after you. We’re going to treat you like drug dealers, not like farmers.”
WE DON’T DISCUSS ‘PENDING LITIGATION’
On Sept. 21, we emailed all 36 defendants named in the Trent Pendarvis federal civil rights lawsuit. Our email contained a copy of the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court’s Charleston Division and a request to schedule an interview so every named defendant had an opportunity to have their comments included in this report.
Each response we received included similar responses: we don’t discuss pending litigation.
The specific allegations concerning SLED’s conduct led us to work to schedule a sit-down interview with SLED Chief Mark Keel. Keel’s press office declined every request to interview Keel. Keel was copied on each and every communication we sent to his agency, but Keel never responded to any of our messages.
Including the Sept. 23 email to the chief and his press office reminding Keel of the seriousness of the allegations against him and his agency and that although our main objective is to schedule an interview with him, we would also conduct the interview wherever we find him.
Neither Keel nor his office ever responded to that email.
On Sept. 28, five days later, we found Keel at the SC Criminal Justice Academy heading into a Law Enforcement Training Council meeting. It’s a public body that Keel chairs and a body that sets statewide law enforcement training standards and opportunities and makes decisions about whether law enforcement officers keep their certifications following misconduct allegations.
Keel pulled into a reserved parking spot just before 9 a.m. and stepped out of his black Chevrolet Tahoe wearing a tan SLED uniform and combat boots.
Here’s the transcript of the exchange:
BARR: “I want to talk to you about this situation with Trent Pendarvis.”
KEEL: “Yeah, well, we not gone talk about that. I’ll tell you when we received your messages; it would be inappropriate for me to talk about pending litigation. And that would be the same message that I would tell anybody with the media. And I think you know that’s the statement I would give you.”
BARR: “What we want to ask about, these are serious –”
KEEL: “I’m not going to answer any questions about anything to do with pending litigation.”
BARR: “Did you and your agency conspire to arrest this man and destroy his property?”
KEEL: “Jody, I already told you I’m not going to answer any questions about anything that has to do with this pending litigation. And again, I appreciate you, but again, that’s my statement.”
BARR: “I understand, but I have to ask you these questions because the viewers are going to –”
KEEL: “You’ve asked them, but I’ve told you I’m not answering the questions.”
BARR: “How about this question—”
KEEL: “I’m not answering any questions about pending litigation, just as I wouldn’t about any investigation that was ongoing. You know that’s our normal statement that it would be inappropriate to answer any questions regarding that, and that’s my statement here.”
KEEL: “Jody, I’ve already told you I’m not answering any more questions.”
BARR: “Well, you guys talked about Trent Pendarvis’ pending litigation when you arrested him, so how is this different?”
The day following Trent Pendarvis’ arrest, SLED’s press office published a public notice of the arrest. Then, Keel was quoted several times in an opinion piece published by a Charleston newspaper under the headline, ‘SC hemp farming could be chilled by arrest, destruction of crop.’
Here are the quotes and statements the newspaper attributed to Chief Keel:
“State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said his agency, which consulted the attorney general’s oce and the local solicitor’s oce before taking action, was just doing its job. When making an arrest, “we treat everybody the same,” he said, adding that SLED was acting at the request of the Agriculture Department.”
“As part of the permitting process, Mr. Pendarvis had signed an agreement that allowed his crop to be destroyed without compensation if he were found in violation of the law, Mr. Keel said.”
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that it’s not fair to farmers who are … trying to do it the right way.”
“Further complicating the matter is that hemp can be smoked to get the supposed benefits of cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive component. Mr. Pendarvis reportedly was growing a strain of hemp to be smoked and, about a week after his arrest, Mr. Keel said some of the seized crop tested higher than the allowed limit of 0.3% percent THC.”
The Sept. 28 unscheduled interview with Chief Keel continued as he walked into the public meeting at the state’s criminal justice academy headquarters. Here’s the remainder of the transcript:
BARR: “Well, I have an obligation to ask, and you can answer or not. Why did SLED not follow the advice of the attorney general’s office in its Aug. 8th, 2019, opinion to give this man a hearing?”
KEEL: “I’ve already told you what my answer to that question is, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
BARR: “Why did SLED agents go around Judge Goodstein when Judge Goodstein said before you destroy this man’s property, you need to give him a hearing?”
BARR: “Yes, sir?”
KEEL: “You know—”
BARR: “I’m not trying to badger you, chief; these are serious allegations.”
KEEL: “This is your way of always trying to deal with things, and you know, I’m going to be a professional; I’d like for you to extend that same courtesy as being professional and being a professional journalist. And like I say, we give you an answer to that question that we’re not going to discuss pending litigation, and you should understand that I know you do understand it.”
BARR: “That’s not an answer, chief—”
KEEL: “You and I’ve had conversations before, many times, about different things, and that is the answer to my question, and that’s the end of our conversation today?”
BARR: “All right, if you change your mind and want to address these specifics, please let me know.”
Keel has not communicated any follow-up comments or asked to have a statement included on his behalf in our reporting concerning the allegations against him and his agency.
We also emailed the SC Attorney General’s Office and the nine named defendants identified in the lawsuit as being employed by the AG’s office. The first response we received came from Bob Cook, the Solicitor General, who authored the Aug. 8, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2019, opinions concerning the Pendarvis enforcement action by SLED.
“My response is the lawsuit against the Attorney General, and his employees lacks merit. The Attorney General was doing his job – as he does every day. No more, no less,” Cook wrote in a Sept. 23 email to Barr.
A second response came 21 minutes later from the AG’s spokesman, Robert Kittle, “Because this is pending litigation, we cannot do any interviews about it,” Kittle wrote in an email to QCN. Kittle, a former journalist, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Kittle’s email also included the same response Cook sent us 21 minutes earlier, “The lawsuit against the Attorney General and his employees lacks merit. The Attorney General was doing his job, as he does every day, as were his employees. No more, no less,” however Kittle’s email did not attribute that part of the response to Cook.
The SC Forestry Commission also would not schedule an email to explain its involvement in the Pendarvis raid and what authority the commission had to destroy the hemp crop. “Thank you for reaching out, but the South Carolina Forestry Commission, including all of the employees to whom this request was sent, will not be able to participate in your investigation of this matter. It would not be appropriate or advisable for us to comment on the pending litigation referenced in your email, the SCFC’s Communications Director Dan Wood wrote in a Sept. 21 email to QCN.
“Hello, Jody. We do not plan to comment on this pending litigation,” was the response the SC Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, Eva Moore, wrote in a response to our request to interview the SCDA defendants about the allegations contained in the lawsuit. Moore, who is also a defendant, did not answer a follow-up email informing her and the agency that we would work to interview SCDA Commissioner Hugh Weathers in an unscheduled manner if the agency would not schedule the interview.
When we asked Moore for Weathers’ public schedule for the next two weeks, Moore responded, “We will arrange a time for you to speak with Commissioner Weathers. However, let me reiterate that he’s simply going to say we can’t make any comments on pending litigation.”
Moore did not follow through and never answered a request to provide a time for the Weathers interview.
We also worked to provide the defendants employed with the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office an opportunity to have their statements included in our reporting and to answer the allegations against them. Those defendants include Sheriff L.C. Knight.
“The Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office will not comment on pending litigation,” sheriff’s Lt. Rick Carson wrote in a Sept. 21 email to Queen City News.
Despite giving each of the people accused in Pendarvis’ lawsuit the opportunity to participate in our reporting, none have responded as of the time this report was published.
None of the people accused in the lawsuit have yet filed an answer to the complaint with the court. Each defendant has until mid-November to file an answer to the complaint, according to the court’s online docketing system.