Sheriff Lott back in the day

This previous post got me to thinking that some of you might be interested in traveling down memory lane a bit with regard to Sheriff Leon Lott, since he's recently become nationally famous.

As y'all know, I feel a certain kinship for the sheriff (whom we endorsed in the last election). We call each other "twin" because we were both born on the same day in the same year in South Carolina. Also, he has been named "Toughest Cop"
twice, and if there were such a thing as a "Toughest Editorial Geek" contest, y'all know I would have won it at least twice by now. (He's also won the Miss Vista Queen drag pageant, but there I can draw no parallels to myself. It seems we are not identical twins.)

As for the controversy in which he is currently engaged, I'm not as stirred up as a lot of folks one way or the other. I sort of go back and forth on it. I think the law should be enforced equitably — but I also wonder how many people who were not white and famous have been prosecuted when they weren't at the very least caught holding. I most emphatically do NOT agree with the folks who see this as evidence that the War on Drugs is stupid or useless or whatever. I think it's a good thing this stuff is illegal. But I also doubt that this particular case is really worth the resources devoted to it thus far.

Anyway, wherever you stand on all of this, I thought I'd provide this reminder that Leon has never been shy about going after people who break our drug laws. He's devoted a career to it, done it with a great deal of dash, panache and personal courage, and has often been controversial.

Here is a profile Clif LeBlanc wrote for The State when Leon was on the way to unseating his ex-boss as sheriff. I pulled and scanned some photos from our pre-electronic files by way of illustration.

Published on: 10/30/1996
Section: FRONT
Edition: FINAL
Page: A1
By CLIF LeBLANC, Staff Writer
Illustration: PHOTO: color & bw

Editor's note: This is the second of two articles examining the candidates for Richland County sheriff.

Leon Lott lives to catch the bad guys. He revels in the nitty-gritty and the glitz of being a cop. He may like it a little too much.

The 43-year-old Democratic challenger in Tuesday's election for Richland County sheriff believes in working hard and getting his hands dirty.

The way he went about busting pushers and users earned him a reputation and awards. But his boss, the incumbent sheriff, said it cost Lott the job he loves.

The long hours he put in as a narcotics detective for nine years also claimed his marriage and hurt his relationships with his daughters.

Nearly four years after reaching the depths of his personal and professional life, Lott feels he is a better officer who has grown enough to become the forward-looking "sheriff for the 21st century."

Dirty Harry and Sonny Crockett were personas Lott once wore with relish during high-flying days when he drove seized Porsches, sported an 18-carat Rolex, worked choice undercover cases with federal agents in Florida and postured for cameras.

Now he blames the Hollywood image on the media, though his best friend admits Lott enjoyed playing the role to his advantage. Lott still wears the $2,650 watch.

Citizens or celluloid? Lott has been chief of the tiny St. Matthews Police Department for three years. That has helped him appreciate real-life role models.

"I see myself as a combination of Frank Powell, Chief Austin as far as PR, and Sheriff Wells as far
as being involved in investigations."

Powell is the former five-term sheriff of Richland County who hired Lott in 1973 and has come to epitomize, for Lott, the lawman unswayed by political influence.

Chief Charles P. Austin is known for his ability to sell the community policing philosophy that has brought him and the city of Columbia success.

Union County Sheriff Howard Wells won national recognition for his handling of the Susan Smith case.

But Lott's critics don't buy that he is anything but the hot-dog narc who fashioned himself after make-believe cops and tried to live by rules that work only on the screen.

"He actually thinks he's Don Johnson. He actually thinks this is 'Miami Vice,' " said GOP opponent Allen Sloan, refering to the freewheeling fictional narcotics officer from the TV police drama that ended in 1989.

"That still exists today," Sloan said of Lott. "All the rules apply, except to Leon."

Two law enforcement officials who worked years with Lott in Richland County share a similar concern.

"He has an ends-justify-the-means mentality," one said, requesting anonymity because he would have to collaborate with Lott if he wins the election. "That's frightening in any law enforcement officer and especially in the top person."

Lott says he is a college-educated professional who can breathe new life into a tradition-bound agency.

"I never considered myself a hot dog," Lott said, wearing a tie and chatting from an easy chair in his modest living room. "The Sonny Crockett thing … I think I fed off what the news media created. I turned it around and tried to use it to our advantage."

Lott's best friend, Jon Fins, said the brash label comes from people who don't know him.

"To me, Leon is a guy in sweats who works out real hard to stay in shape, grabs a sandwich at McDonald's and goes right back to work," said Fins, co-owner of an Assembly Street pawn shop where Lott bought his Rolex.

Fierce or fair? Lott's detractors say his zeal often overrides good judgment.

Just before Christmas 1987, for example, his aggresiveness got the best of him, said Jim Anders, then-5th Circuit solicitor and now a strong supporter of Sloan.

Anders produced a blistering order from a federal judge over the seizure of a new, black BMW convertible during a drug bust.

Judge Clyde Hamilton ordered the car returned to its owner and blasted the U.S. Attorney's office, the FBI and then-Capt. Lott of the sheriff's office. The judge cited "many irregularities" and "questionable motivations" for taking the BMW.

"Captain Lott's testimony raised the possibility that he had sought forfeiture … for an improper purpose, specifically to serve as his private vehicle," the judge's ruling said. It appeared, Hamilton said, that Lott wanted to drive the care to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

Lott was scheduled to leave for coveted training at the prestigious academy in about the time the BMW was seized.

The car had only the remains of a marijuana joint, Anders said, adding he refused to seize the car because state law required a minimum of 10 pounds of pot before government could move to confiscate a vehicle used in the drug business.

"That's the kind of reckless behavior that I'm concerned about," Anders said. "It's less character than ability. A smart police officer doesn't get himself involved in cases like that."

Lott's explanation? "That's not pointing any finger at me. It's pointing fingers at the Richland County Sheriff's Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's office. They made the decisions to move forward. I didn't force them to do that."

But Lott initiated the seizure and pressured the young woman who owned the car to voluntarily turn it over for forfeiture.

Caught in middle? Lott's most publicized criticism as a narcotics agent occurred in 1991. A circuit court judge threatened him with contempt for changing agreements with drug suspects, for ignoring a court order to arrest a father- and-son drug-dealing team from Miami and especially for not adequately supervising drug peddlers who were out on bond so they could help police make cases.

Enrique and Fabian Valencia were busted at Owens Field in February 1990 with 11 pounds of cocaine. In exchange for reduced sentences laid out in written agreements, they pledged to help Lott lure bigger dealers into South Carolina.

Judge Carol Connor stung Lott for his actions, but didn't punish the pushers because they met their terms.

Anders said he doesn't remember the agreement and Sloan publicly backed Lott when the deal made news in March 1991.

Lott produced his records of the case, which show that Anders' chief narcotics prosecutor signed the agreement. A Feb. 19, 1991, memo from Lott to then-5th Circuit Solicitor Dick Harpootlian, who disavowed the deal after suceeding Anders, indicates that Sloan "had been advised of the situation."

Lott maintains he was caught in the middle between officials who made an agreement in writing and a new prosecutor and judge who took a different view after the fact.

"If I did violate it," Lott said of Connor's order. "It was with the approval of the sheriff."

Harpootlian was so concerned about Lott's judgment at the time that he announced he would review all his drug deals and recommended to Sloan that Lott be taken out of narcotics enforcement.

Sloan moved him to what Lott calls a do-nothing administrative position, where he stayed until he was fired in December 1992.

The demotion and dismissal was the bleakest time in Lott's life. His marriage fell apart during that time and he had to try to explain to his three daughters why he was out of the profession he loved.

It took Lott six months to land the chief's job with the seven-member St. Matthews department.

Harpootlian and Lott have made peace and the prosecutor-turned-defense-lawyer is backing Lott's campaign.

"I think Leon had a life-changing experience," Harpootlian said. "He lost his wife. He lost his job. He's somebody who realizes he's screwed up. He's matured. The guy's real talented. He gets up every morning wanting to be a cop."

Lott doesn't agree with all of that. "I don't think I made immature or bad decisions," he said.

But asked if he would OK the BMW and Valencia decisions if he were sheriff, Lott responded, "I would approve."

Lott conceded that he has changed and plans to continue his professional growth. "I guess age matures you. I feel like I'm a more rounded law enforcement officer now."

But controversy has followed Lott to St. Matthews.

Before the June primary, Lott ran afoul of the federal Hatch Act, which limits political activity by employees whose agencies get money from Washington. Federal officials said Lott should not run for office because as chief of the Calhoun County town he administered nearly $59,000 in federal grants.

The dispute was settled this month after Lott agreed to drop the title of chief and sever any ties to supervision of the grants. But Lott remains chief in every other way after the town named him police "administrator."

Lott has built his campaign on the theme of higher standards. He said he will be fairer, he has the energy to be an administrator as well as a street cop, and he has fresher ideas.

He promises a network of 24-hour, full-service substations, a lower crime rate and all without a tax increase

The making of a cop. Lott fell into a career in law enforcement. More accurately, he threw himself into the job.

It was a boring summer evening just before his senior year at Aiken High School. Lott and some friends decided to egg cars from an overpass on I-20, which was under construction.

"I think the first car we egged stopped. We had egged the chief investigator for the sheriff's department," Lott recalled. "Me, being a (baseball) player … I had been the only one to hit the car."

The teen-agers tried to get away, but the detective pulled them over. He didn't rough them up or charge them, but he did behave professionally as he called their parents.

"It made such an impression on me … it just grabbed a hold of me," Lott said. The job appealed to his sense of rooting for the underdog (crime victims), to his interest in untangling things that are puzzling and to his restlessness with monotony.

The work also served as an outlet for his competitiveness.

Lott is media savvy and at ease before cameras, having appeared dozens of times in local newspapers and TV as well as nationally on "America's Most Wanted." But that self-assured image clashes with the quiet, reserved teen-ager Lott said he was.

He finds it odd that he's called a hot dog now when that was the kind of athlete he disliked in high school. "I thought actions spoke louder than words," Lott said.

The words have been loud and harsh in the Sloan-Lott race.

"There's been a lot of talk that this is about revenge," Lott said. "It's not. When he fired me … he gave me a chance to go out and show – prove to myself – that I could be more than just a narcotics officer. I got my revenge by being successful, by showing I could be a chief.

"I want to come back to Richland County, personally, so I can see my kids everyday and, professionally, because I can do a better job."

In case you're wondering, here's a key to the five photos on this post:

  1. Top: The original cutline from August 1986 said, "Columbia's version of 'Miami Vice'…Narcotic investigator Lt. Leon Lott shows off his sports car, a Porsche 944"
  2. Mug shot: The notation on the back of the print, dated May 24, 1984, says "Richland Sheriff's investigator Lt. Leon Lott (chief narcotics deputy)"
  3. On a bust: The July 2, 1986, cutline said, "Leon Lott before entering trailer of suspected grower."
  4. In coat and tie: Dated Nov. 11, 1988, the cutline says "Capt. Leon Lott displays some seized equipment."
  5. Below: Photo taken by me during the sheriff's endorsement interview in May 2008.

17 thoughts on “Sheriff Lott back in the day

  1. Brad Warthen

    You’ll note if you read that that there was a certain amount of bad blood between Leon Lott and his former boss, the incumbent sheriff, Allen Sloan. Those with long enough memories will recall that Mr. Sloan, who died in 2001, was no stranger to controversy himself. A factor in the 1996 election was a racial slur that Sheriff Sloan had uttered to one of our reporters in 1989. The sheriff later denied that he’d said it. Here’s the original story
    about that.

    Interesting times, interesting characters.

  2. Michael Baggett

    Marijuana should not be illegal. It is obvious to me that the author of this story has never researched the rhyme and reason for marijuana prohibition. These laws were enacted for all the wrong reasons – Racism – the Mexicans in El Paso, when high on marijuana would actually stand up for them selfs and the local law enforcement didn’t like that thus the first anti-marijuana law in the USA -Sexism – Marijuana’s primary use before prohibition was to treat women with pre-menstrual cramps, naa we don’t need those women feeling comfortable. – Corporatism – Henry Ford wanted marijuana grown to fuel his hemp engines, now called diesel engines. But Will Hearst and the DuPont company made sure no one knew hemp could be used to produce fuel, plastic etc…etc… I ask the author of this story to do a little research, I doubt you will be sitting in the middle of the fence afterward, and you will never say you think the stuff should be illegal.

  3. Bill C.

    Brad, why your sudden interest in Leon Lott? Have you run out of negative items to write about Governor Sanford that you have to dig up things you wrote about in the 1980’s?
    If so, why not dig up some of the things Governor Sanford’s biggest (or 2nd biggest) nemesis, big bad Jakie Knotts, did in the 1980’s? You wouldn’t be reminiscing about of a Don Johnson wannabe, but that of any rules don’t matter, redneck, Southern sheriff portrayed by Hollywood.
    Which reminds me, why haven’t you used your reporting skills to write about the secret society of ownership of The Southern Gentleman strip club in Lexington County? Here’s a hint, all three are elected SC or Lexington County officials.

  4. Gene Schumann

    I am writing from Alaska, I know for a fact that some of the villages up on the North slope are always looking for a “chief” of police. Perhaps you could send your buffoon Lott up this way, He would probably love it. as it is a felony to sell hard liquor to the natives….The natives however are a lot more expedient than the voters of South Carolina, they simply lack the tolerance to suffer a fool. Perhaps that is why they are always looking around for new Chief meat.

  5. mac kirk

    I understand that Sheriff Lott believes there is a place in Law Enforcement for a belt fed full auto M2 .50 cal. machine gun. If that is true, thats all any sane person need know about him. That kind of breathtaking irresponsibility calls for institutionalization.

  6. bud

    Brad, have you commented on the Phelps situation? In particular as this relates to the issue of the legality of pot. If so I missed it. To me that’s the biggest local story right now. Given your propensity to cover local events this would seem worthy of an extensive discussion. Please don’t say something like “I don’t care whether pot is illegal or not that’s a communinatarian issue”. That would be a cop-out.

  7. Bill C.

    Ralph that “DeLorean” you speak of is a Porsche 944. A Porsche that real Porsche owners don’t recognize because it’s more like a Ford Pinto than a Porsche. And you know the difference between a Porsche and a Porcupine.

  8. Sharon Clark

    Does Lott not realize that that he has given people incentive to steal guns in order to obtain those gift cards.
    If gun theft increases, we should hold Leon Lott accountable.

  9. Brad Warthen

    Bud, I point you to what I said above, which I THINK answers your question:

    As for the controversy in which he is currently engaged, I’m not as stirred up as a lot of folks one way or the other. I sort of go back and forth on it. I think the law should be enforced equitably — but I also wonder how many people who were not white and famous have been prosecuted when they weren’t at the very least caught holding. I most emphatically do NOT agree with the folks who see this as evidence that the War on Drugs is stupid or useless or whatever. I think it’s a good thing this stuff is illegal. But I also doubt that this particular case is really worth the resources devoted to it thus far.

  10. Reader

    Here’s another hint, Bill C:
    You are probably where the ‘Strom problem’ rumor came from…as that place only advertises chocolate-flavored entertainment from what I could see.
    You’re ALL just afflicted with it. Every last one of you.


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