Monday, February 20, 2012
NORWAY, S.C. (AP) -- In the two decades since Jim Preacher arrived in rural Norway, he's been this tiny town's police chief, self-proclaimed constable and now the mayor. He's pulled over a state trooper who wrote him a speeding ticket, and sneaked into town hall before he was sworn in so he could change the locks and take over the town's checkbook.
Preacher, 66, half-heartedly apologizes for bringing bad publicity to the town of only 337 people. But he also left no doubt he has big plans to try to save Norway, which hasn't written a budget in years, has lost so much revenue it had to disband its police department, and currently uses Preacher to read meters and run its water system.
"Somebody has got to take accountability. I was elected, and that's what I am going to do," Preacher said at a recent Town Council meeting. "I may not do it gracefully like a ballerina. I might be more like an elephant in a china shop."
Preacher has never steered clear of controversy. He's survived a couple of investigations by the State Law Enforcement Division. Back when he was a lieutenant with the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, the South Carolina Supreme Court called his work in a murder investigation "reprehensible."
Preacher, who was elected to a two-year term in November, refused to talk for this story, instead inviting a reporter to come to Norway's February Town Council meeting. People who offered to talk about Preacher and the town's problems after the meeting didn't answer phone calls or return messages.
Preacher and the four-member Town Council have quite a task in front of them. Norway has lost 42 percent of its population in the past 40 years, and almost half of the residents who remain are over age 50.
At the intersection with the blinking traffic light - the only signal in town - there is a shuttered bank on one corner, and a closed restaurant on another. The building that once housed the funeral home is for sale. Residents have to go seven miles up U.S. 321 to find a grocery store and 10 miles down the two-lane highway to find a fast food restaurant.
But something about this town about 50 miles south of Columbia keeps Preacher there. He first arrived in 1990 to be police chief. He lives on the outskirts of town on land with a pond. Two huge German shepherds have the run of the yard, and Norway's old police car is parked out back.
Preacher has always been closely involved with the town's business. He ran a water and sewer business earlier in his life, so along with his police job, he took over Norway's waterworks. That led to his lawsuit against the town for more than $30,000 he said he was owed for his work. It was filed not long after he was fired as police chief in 2007.
Preacher was a familiar sight at Town Council meetings after that, stressing the same message of financial accountability he has carried into the beginning of his two-year term as mayor. He thinks the town needs more fiscal discipline and should aggressively pursue grants to stay alive.
"There's no accountability for what we do," he said at a recent Town Council meeting. "We are just bleeding to death as far as finances go."
It was that worry about finances that led Preacher to Town Hall on Jan. 1.
Preacher couldn't wait until his formal swearing-in at the monthly council meeting, so he decided to change the locks and take over the bank account. The former mayor wanted Preacher arrested, but SLED determined there wasn't a break-in because the building was not secured.
Less than three weeks later, a state trooper said he stopped Preacher because he was speeding just outside of town limits in Norway's old police car. On the trooper's video of the stop, Preacher can be heard saying he is the town's constable and was investigating a man with a gun at a convenience store. The trooper notes Norway disbanded its police department and issues the ticket for going 70 mph in a 55 mph zone anyway.
But when the highway patrolman pulled away, Preacher flipped on his blue lights and pulled over the trooper, threatening to charge him with interfering with a police officer. The trooper called his supervisor, who is heard on the tape saying, "I know it's aggravating. I know exactly who you are dealing with."
The supervisor then spoke to Preacher, who spent a minute dressing down the trooper before dropping the matter. But Preacher did get the last word.
"Son, you've got a lot to learn," Preacher said before blasting his siren for three seconds. "You have a nice night."
State agents said Preacher is no longer certified to be a state constable. Preacher first said that he is a town constable and that there is a difference. But after the outcry from people in the town, he agreed to stop doing police work. SLED is investigating the traffic stop.
Town Council members were upset over the incident because it brought more bad publicity. In the past, a councilman accused the mayor of using a racial slur, and a police officer suspended and later fired for talking to the media about traffic ticket quotas.
"It's not what you do, it is how you do it. I felt betrayed, disrespected as a council person. I'm sure I can speak for the entire council. This has got to stop, really," Councilman Michael Singleton said.
Contention followed Preacher even before he showed up in Norway. In May 1990, he was a Berkeley County sheriff's lieutenant investigating a fatal shooting at a pawn shop. After two hours of questioning, Herman "Bud" Von Dohlen was still proclaiming his innocence. Then a second agent entered the room with a police sketch of Von Dohlen. The investigators tried to convince the suspect they had a witness who saw him at the shop. But the sketch was actually made by a police artist watching the questioning through a one-way window. The suspect was also shown some shell casings, and investigators lied and said that they were found at the scene, according to court documents.
The South Carolina Supreme Court called the police tactics reprehensible, but upheld Von Dohlen's death sentence. A later appeal would be granted, and Von Dohlen is now serving life.
Because Norway is such a small place, it causes interesting dynamics. Sitting directly to Preacher's left at the February Town Council meeting was Gregory Covington, who is suing Preacher for slander after Preacher said in a 2010 meeting that Covington filled his farm equipment with water from a city fire hydrant.
At one point during the 90-minute meeting, Preacher asked former mayor Cindy Williams - whom he had defeated by five votes in November's nonpartisan election - for her help getting together the town files. Then he threatened to not allow her to speak again in the meeting and brought up her relationship with another man in town.
"He's so power hungry," Williams said, after the council went behind closed doors. "He just wants to be a dictator."