How police failed to investigate sex crimes against children
Tuesday Potter was 12 when she was awakened one night by a family friend touching her breasts.
The man put his hands in her underwear, and the assault lasted about six minutes, according to a police report.
That was 2011.
Police closed the molestation case two weeks later, with no arrest. According to their report and multiple interviews, Potter’s mother was a police informant investigating the man who allegedly molested her daughter.
Cases dropped prematurely — like Potter's — are far from rare in Horry County, according to an investigation by The Sun News.
The extent of the failure of the Horry County Police Department to investigate sex crimes against children may never be known. Requests by The Sun News for basic information, such as how many cases the department handled, have been met by an onslaught of obstacles, including widely conflicting answers, refusals to comment and a Freedom of Information Act response in which it claimed it would take five months and more than $23,000 of work — which it would charge the newspaper — to fulfill.
The lack of transparency and clarity is important not only because of concerns about whether children are unnecessarily being hurt or justice is being served, but it also calls into question the police department’s credibility and the community’s ability to trust the men and women charged with protecting it.
Almost seven years after Potter says she was molested, her case was reopened in January, three weeks after The Sun News requested the case file from the Horry County Police Department.
Because Potter’s case went nowhere for so many years, she felt like “no one really cares.” The case, she said, “just completely fell off the face of the earth.”
Tuesday Potter wasn’t feeling well that night, so she fell asleep on the couch in her Socastee-area home.
She woke up at 4 a.m. with the man’s hands underneath her clothes.
“It was kind of like, when you’re sleeping, and you can’t really move because you don’t know what’s going on and you don’t want to say anything because you don’t know if they’re going to hurt you or not,” said Potter, who recently sat down with The Sun News. “And you just kind of wait until they’re done.”
When she woke her mother, her mother sent her back to bed, saying she would kick him out in the morning, Potter recalled.
On the initial incident report, obtained by The Sun News through a Freedom of Information request, the responding officer noted Potter “did not appear to be upset and at times made several jokes.”
Reading the police report for the first time in a recent interview, Potter responded, “What else am I supposed to do? If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.”
It was not the child who did not want to cooperate, it was her mother, according to a heavily redacted report written by Det. Brian Scales, who was tasked this year with reinvestigating the case. Instead of having the man arrested, the detective’s 2018 report notes, “She did decide to [redacted] on the suspect rather than press charges for the sexual assault against her daughter.”
Potter was aware of the rumors that her mother was, in her words, a “narc,” a confidential police informant. Her mother confirmed for The Sun News she did work for the Drug Enforcement Unit and they had her wearing a wire at times. She was “moving a few pills,” she said.
“I get that my mom was doing something,” Potter said. “It’s not supposed to work that way. There are rules and that’s clearly not following them and it’s wrong. And because of that, they messed up on their part and I wasn’t able to receive justice for what happened to me.
“I guess when someone sexually assaults a minor, it’s OK now because they just don’t have to look at it."
She never told police she wouldn’t talk or did not want to pursue the case, she said. She asked her mother every day what happened with the man who molested her, but her mother never said. “I don’t think she knew either,” Potter said.
In the months and years after the assault, Potter was hospitalized for depression and removed from her mother’s custody.
“I haven’t been able to make relationships,” she said. “I had a boyfriend, but I can’t be intimate with anyone.” She’s in college now, trying to enjoy the life of a 19-year-old student, Potter said.
“I should be able to kiss someone if I want to, but I can’t because it just feels so horrible,” she said. “I don’t like people touching me.”
In January, an Horry County detective called Potter out of the blue. “I was kind of confused about what was going on, because no one called me seven, eight years ago about this, why are they calling now?”
“It was pretty painful to have to relive that,” she said. The detective called again, this time to say they could not find the suspect.
Police records show the new detective on the case tried to find the man, checking his old address and possible employers. The detective was able to get a warrant for Juan Martinez Lopez on Jan. 23 but was not able to locate him, according to the investigator’s notes. The Horry County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the warrant was issued. He appears to have left the country in March 2014, according to police records.
The mother, who is a self-described opioid addict and convicted felon, believes Lopez was never charged with any drug-related offenses, according to the detective’s most recent report. A thorough search through Horry County court records show Lopez, also known as Juan Carlos Martinez, was never charged with a drug crime in connection to the mother’s work as a criminal informant.
Who is accountable?
The HCPD has given conflicting responses and refused to confirm the total number of reported sex crimes against children. These cases include child molestation and rape.
In December, when The Sun News first requested the information, the department said they had 3,100 cases over a five-year period. In February, a spokeswoman said the number was actually 497. A month later, 1,168 became the new figure.
Asked how many of those cases had been closed, cleared or dropped, the department provided a number it could stand behind: $23,250, the cost it wanted to charge The Sun News for what it said would be more than five months of research to provide a simple statistic.
The Sun News reviewed dozens of cases of sex crimes against children, some of which were fully investigated at the time and others that fell through the cracks only to be taken up later by investigators.
The FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division require police departments to track certain kinds of crime, such as murder and violent robberies, but not sex crimes against children.
Todd Cox, the detective assigned to Potter’s case, has since resigned from the Horry County Police Department. He currently is awaiting trial on 16 charges, including misconduct in office for allegedly dropping and not re-assigning cases, many of them sex crimes with children.
Cox was indicted along with former Horry County police officers Daryl Williams, Allen Large and Luke Green. Green was indicted for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with a confidential informant and sexual contact with a suspect during a prostitution arrest.
Williams was charged with dropping more than 90 cases, including a number of sexual assaults. Large, who died earlier this year, sexually assaulted victims in cases he was tasked with investigating, according to the indictment.
According to the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, the Horry County Police Department reviewed the cases from the era of the indicted officers and investigators reopened the cases in which they thought they could make arrests. But that did not happen in Potter’s case.
Lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office are prosecuting the cases against Cox, Williams and Green, and had been on the Large case before he died.
They have no oversight when it comes to the review of the cases that prosecutors say the detectives dropped over the years, according to Robert Kittle, spokesman for the state Attorney General.
The responsibility falls to the Horry County Council, Kittle said. If the county says they did a thorough investigation, he said, “We have to take their word for it.”
There is no state agency overseeing the police, the Attorney General’s spokesman noted, adding they “have to assume they’re doing their job.”
When asked about county police dropping cases involving sex crimes against minors and the department not answering questions about the number and status of cases, County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said, “That’s news to me.”
He explained the role of the county council is to set policy and the budget, but day-to-day oversight over county departments falls to the county administrator, Chris Eldridge. The county administrator did not respond to requests for comment.
After multiple requests for interviews, Horry County Police Chief Joseph Hill directed all questions on this story to county attorney Arrigo Carotti and spokeswoman Kelly Moore. Carotti never responded to requests for comment, and Moore did not address any questions about these cases or the police department review.
Sen. Greg Hembree, who represents Horry and Dillon counties in the South Carolina Senate, said he did not know about the alleged misdeeds of the Horry County officers when he served as solicitor for the 15th Circuit from 1999 to 2012.
The indictments against former HCPD officers Large, Cox, Williams and Green include allegations of misconduct dating back to at least 2006. Williams was indicted for not investigating cases as early as 2008, and Cox stands accused of not pursuing cases starting in 2010.
Hembree said he has been watching the cases unfold against the officers and how things are changing in the police department.
In his role as state senator, Hembree would not endorse the legislature forcing police departments around South Carolina into a standardized system for case tracking, he said. The needs of a small department, think Aynor, are different from Horry County or Charleston police, he said.
The state also could have to pay for a standardized case management system, Hembree said.
Dropping cases of sex crimes against minors
If there were 3,100 cases involving sex crimes against minors over the past five years, Horry County police sent about 7.5 percent of them to the solicitor for prosecution.
The Sun News reviewed the status of 369 criminal sexual conduct with a minor cases sent to the solicitor of Horry and Georgetown counties over the past five years. Our review shows 234 cases from Horry County police. Of those cases, 89 defendants pleaded guilty, most of whom pleaded to lesser charges. Three were found guilty at trial. Charges were dropped or dismissed against another 63. The status of six of the cases is not clear in the court records. And the remaining cases are still pending.
The Sun News spoke with victims and families in several other cases of sex crimes against children. The Sun News has a policy of not using the names of sexual assault victims or other identifiable information to protect their privacy. Tuesday Potter gave The Sun News permission to use her name as she told her story.
One of the cases that did make it to the solicitor’s office involved a girl who was 9 years old in 2009, when she says she was molested by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. She reported the crime in 2010 and went to the Children’s Recovery Center, a facility in Myrtle Beach that interviews child victims for the police, does the physical exams for any evidence, and provides therapy to help children recover from these traumatic events.
According to court and police records, the case languished for years without a full investigation. Records show it was not completed until 2015, when detectives were able to get an arrest warrant and an indictment.
Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, reading from the case file during a recent interview, said, “‘Two investigators prior to myself closed this case in a manner that was not in the best interest of the victim.’ So there it goes. It had been looked at in 2010 and had been closed by two prior investigators.”
The new investigator, Jeffrey Cauble, went through the case and was able to get a warrant for the alleged child molester’s arrest. “We had a bench warrant out for his arrest, but when we did locate him, he was in the custody of Homeland Security,” Richardson said.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Leonardo Jimenez-Romero, 35, was deported to Mexico on April 20, 2017.
Richardson said the deportation was out of his hands, and showed The Sun News correspondence with federal authorities and the man’s attorney representing him in the immigration case.
Part of the correspondence from the attorney asked if the man would be tried on the child molestation charges in his absence. Richardson confirmed his office did not go forward with the charges in Horry County, instead leaving the warrant active in case he ever returned to the United States.
Richardson laid out what happened with the case, based on what he could see in the prosecutor’s file that let an alleged child molester be deported without facing charges.
The first case notes are from a Horry County police officer named Christopher Hunt in 2010, “I think he’s just a road officer,” Richardson said. But then the case goes nowhere. “It doesn’t give a date of when it was administratively closed or who administratively closed it,” the solicitor said.
The notes pick up the story again in 2014, when Allen Large assigned the case to Daryl Williams.
“Daryl, he definitely had this case for a minute, and he had to be one of the guys who closed it,” Richardson said.
The victim’s mother in this case told The Sun News, “We wanted him to go to jail, we wanted him to pay for his crime.” She said she told the original officers on the case where they could find the man, but they never did. “It’s a shame that this went unnoticed for so long,” she said.
When the case was eventually reopened in 2015, the mother once again gave an investigator Jimenez-Romero’s work and home address, she said. “He was picked up a few days later,” she added.
Court records show the man posted a $50,000 bond and got out of jail, but was then arrested by immigration authorities. The details of how he came into ICE custody are unclear. Richardson said his office did not realize the suspect was in an immigration detention center until the man missed a court date and a judge issued a warrant for the man’s arrest.
“If a federal agency or another county gets to him first, it is what it is,” Richardson said.
That was not the only time a suspect in a child sex crime case was deported. Another man, this one accused of raping a 14-year-old girl in 2015, also was deported without facing charges. A hand-written note on the form dismissing the charges states, “Charges nolle prossed with leave to restore because defendant was deported. If defendant returns to United States, then charges can be restored.”
“Nolle prosse” is a legal term, meaning the prosecution is not pursuing the case.
The Sun News requested interviews with a number of current and former Horry County police officers through the department or the attorneys for those indicted, including Green, Cox, Williams, and those who have been investigating the reopened cases in recent years.
All of those requests were either denied or never answered.
Based on the accounts of attorneys and service providers who deal with the Horry County Police Department on a daily basis, things are getting better since the era of Williams, Cox, Large and Green.
Dr. Carol Rahter, founder of the Children’s Recovery Center, explained in an interview, “I know there was some significant problems at the police department.”
Rahter, who still does the physical exams on abused children at the center, remembered the frustration of dealing with Williams. “Literally, for about two and a half years, I don’t think he arrested anybody from any of our cases.”
“My victim’s advocate was daily sending emails to him regarding these cases. The parents, obviously, were calling the victim’s advocate wanting to know why nothing was being done, nobody was being arrested. Some of these cases were pretty strong cases.”
But, she said, “thank goodness those don’t exist anymore.” She said the center, which works closely with police to investigate crimes against children, has a much better relationship with the Horry County Police Department and they are more responsive if the doctors or therapists have concerns about a case.
Myrtle Beach attorney Amy Lawrence, who is representing several women in civil cases against Large, said in a recent interview that she has seen some small improvements in the department.
“It would be my hope that they would take this and use it as a catalyst to do a complete 180. I’m not seeing that, necessarily. I’m seeing little steps. I don’t know, when you have a force that big, whether you can do a 180,” she said.
“I see them making small steps, they’re working towards that goal. But at the rate they’re going it’s going to take decades to make that goal. I don’t think they have decades. I don’t think the community has decades to wait,” Lawrence added.
On the crimes against children that were dropped, she said, “This is an awful thing that has happened. But if we don’t acknowledge it, if the police department doesn’t acknowledge that it was bad and change, become better because of it, then it will just continue on. It won’t ever end.”
As the Horry County Police Department tries to distance itself from the past and make improvements in its ranks, the scars still linger for people like Tuesday Potter.
Even though the case was reopened and the new detective got an arrest warrant, damage already is done. “Maybe it would be better if it was handled the way it should have been, but I was isolated. And it just wasn’t right,” Potter said.
Charles Duncan: 843-626-0300; @duncanreporting
Reporters Hannah Strong and Elizabeth Townsend contributed to this report.