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Underwood suspended from the bench
  • Updated

For the second time, Magistrate Angel Underwood has been suspended from the bench.

On Wednesday, an order of suspension was issued by the South Carolina Supreme Court. It says Underwood “admits misconduct and consents to the issuance of any sanction … up to a six-month suspension.”

The issue dates back to 2017 and 2018 when Underwood served as the county’s chief magistrate and her husband Alex served as Chester County Sheriff (he was removed from office by Gov. Henry McMaster in 2019 after being indicted on numerous federal charges and is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty on multiple counts last year). The order details that Angel Underwood accessed messages on the Facebook page of the sheriff’s department on her husband’s behalf “for the purpose of transmitting the information to sheriff’s department employees and requesting that certain action be taken in response to various complaints.” Those ranged from suspected drug activity and trash and noise complaints.

“In doing so, (she) copied the messages from Facebook, then used her Chester County-issued judicial email account to forward the complaints to sheriff’s department employees. Respondent’s emails included a signature block in which she identified herself as a Chester County Magistrate and listed the address and telephone number for the magistrate’s court,” the order states.

Further, in 2018, respondent assisted her husband with drafting a disciplinary action concerning a sheriff’s department employee. She used her judicial email account to forward the draft of the disciplinary action to her husband for his review. That same year, she prepared a letter for the sheriff’s department in which the community services division recommended a student for a scholarship. Using her judicial account, she emailed sheriff’s department staff and directed them to place the ltter on sheriff’s department letterhead and place it in a sheriff’s department envelope.

“The agreement establishes respondent accessed the sheriff’s department Facebook messages, received citizen complaints, forwarded those complaints using her judicial email account, involved herself in sheriff’s department personnel matters and prepared correspondence on behalf of the sheriff’s department These actions blurred the boundaries between her role as an independent and impartial magistrate and someone acting on behalf of the sheriff’s department,” the order says.

It is noted that it doesn’t matter whether she intended her emails and actions to remain private, her conduct served to erode public confidence in the judiciary. Those actions are considered sufficient to create a perception that her ability to carry out her judicial responsibilities is impaired.

“In light of the respondent’s disciplinary history, we find a suspension from judicial duties in appropriate,” the order reads.

That history includes being suspended from the bench for over a year beginning in 2015 when she repeatedly failed to disqualify herself from cases (over 100) coming out of her husband’s then-department. She was not paid during that time (Chester County was under no obligation to do so during her suspension), though she later asked for back pay from now-suspended Chester County Supervisor Shane Stuart, who granted the request. He approved the $39,000 payment without the approval of Chester County Council and over the objection of Chester County Treasurer Tommy Darby.

The current suspension came out of a complaint filed by former Chester County Magistrate Barbara Cameron in 2019.

State Sen. Mike Fanning, who appointed Judge Underwood, said that while she was on the six month suspension, she would not be paid.

As to the question of how former Chester County Magistrate Jeffrey Garis’ recent resignation in April and now Judge Underwood’s suspension would impact the county court system, Sen. Fanning said there are enough county magistrates to handle the current caseload, but if the caseload should pick up and more help is needed, he has already made contingency plans for that and he can draw on the talents of both municipal magistrates or magistrates from nearby counties.

Reporter Brian Garner contributed to this article.

Lest we forget, but they didn’t: Veterans organizations place American flags on graves in Chester
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If you want to get something do, assign the “mission” to a veteran. Or 20 or so of them.

Members of the Chester chapter of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (and DAV Auxiliary) and members of the former Chester Detachment of the Marine Corps League and volunteers descended on Chester Memorial Gardens a bit before the planned time of “0900 hours” to plant American flags on the graves of veterans who fell in battle or who died in peacetime in honor of Memorial Day.

The mission was accomplished by 0920 hours. (That’s 9:20 for us civilians). American flags and some service flags decorated the graves of Chester County veterans who rest at Chester Memorial Gardens.

DAV Commander Al Boyd told the crowd as they assembled for a word that this was the best turn out of volunteers he had seen in quite a few years. The volunteers included ladies from the DAV Auxiliary.

The importance of the observance was not lost on Sally Gouge, who served as an Administrative Specialist in the Army from 1985-1993.

“Having been in the military, I could have been one of these people out here. I like to show gratitude for what they gave, because they gave all,” she said.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Charlton Blanks said Memorial Day “is a very important day for U.S. citizens. We honor those who fell in battle, and those who didn’t fall in battle — they, too, were veterans, and had they been called to go and confront the enemy, they would have gone.

“I’m really happy to see this size crowd out here today. I’ve been doing this for at least 20 years and this is the biggest crowd that I have ever seen, and I think that’s says a lot for Chester citizens. A lot of these people are not related to the graves of the veterans we are putting flags on, but they appreciate what the veterans did,” said Blanks.

He said the holiday will see a lot of people having barbecues and going on picnic, but they are taking time out for most important thing on Memorial Day, to pay homage to the veterans.

“Those veterans, I call them heroes,” said Blanks.

DAV Commander Al Boyd said the mission has taken on even more of a meaning to him, since some veterans that he knew during his time in the DAV are now resting there in the Gardens under some of those flags.

“I think this effort is great, and what’s really fantastic is we have the DAV Auxiliary out here with us today. The mission is definitely better supported by the community,” he said.

Boyd said he didn’t know how many flags were planted on graves, but “naturally, the number increases every year, and as life progresses, I’m beginning to recognize the names on the graves of some of the veterans out here,” he said.

When Russell Ivey gave the invocation, he summed up the meaning of Memorial Day in a few short sentences:

“Memorial Day is not for the veterans, but for the families of the ones that Gave All. They gave everything they had in defense of this country and other countries.”

Veteran Windy Winchester said the DAV is contacted every year by people requesting flags on the graves of their loved ones, and those grave markers may not designate that a veteran lies there. He said people could contact Chester County Veterans Service Officer Joy Yarborough and get the process started for a military marker for their fallen veteran. The family will need to have a copy of their veteran’s DD214 discharge papers. They can also contact the Chester chapter James D. Wessinger Chapter 19 of the Disabled American Veterans and tell them about their fallen veteran to make sure an American flag is planted on their grave the next time.

"Little armored ones" have arrived in Chester
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It was easily spotted because it was unfortunately laying dead in the road, but an armadillo was seen near Giti Tire on S.C. Highway 9 Monday morning. Some people on social media believed it was fake or a prank of some kind but it was real and the species is now present in all 46 South Carolina counties.

Native to the American southwest and south Florida, the critters (which are sometimes jokingly called “possums on the half shell”) have been slowly migrating toward us for decades. According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, armadillos belong to a small group of mammals distantly related to anteaters and sloths. The word “armadillo” translates to “little armored one” in Spanish.

The nine-banded armadillo (the variety present in South Carolina) has protective armor of horny material on its head, body and tail. The armor has nine movable rings between the shoulder and hip shield. The head of the animal is small with a long, narrow, pig-like snout. They feature seven to nine peg-like teeth and can weigh up to 17 pounds.

It is not recommended that people touch the animals with their bare hands because they can potentially carry harmful parasites and bacteria, but are considered harmless otherwise. They are also not considered a threat to livestock or crops either. Ninety% of their diet is insects, though they will also eat lizards, snakes, eggs of upland birds, worms, some fruits and vegetables. They dig large burrows and will sometimes do so under foundations, slabs, driveways and pools. They prefer dense, shady cover and tend to like areas near water.

There is no closed season on armadillos on private property for those with a valid hunting license. They can be trapped and dispatched on site but it is illegal to transport and release to a new location.

Armadillos are mainly active from twilight through early mornings in the summer but like many animals, as county motorists learned Monday, they end up being inactive when they wander onto roadways at inopportune times.

COVID outbreak temporarily alters N&R office hours
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The News & Reporter’s final week in its present location will feature truncated hours for an unfortunate reason.

Because multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19, the newspaper will be short-staffed through Friday. As such, our office was closed on Tuesday, Wie be open from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. today, 8:30 a.m. until noon Thursday and closed on Friday.

“We apologize for any inconvenience this causes, but obviously the health and well-being of our readers and staff takes precedent over everything,” said News & Reporter Editor Travis Jenkins. “Our entire news department, myself included, is in quarantine until Friday, so our ability to come cover anything in person is going to be curtailed. We’ll hopefully be back to full, or nearly full strength, by Friday.”

The News & Reporter is scheduled to move to its new location, at 120 York Street, next Tuesday.

SCDOT answers questions about 901 project at community meeting
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Residents on and around S.C. 901 (Edgeland Road) got a chance to get some of their questions answered about the Department of Transportation (SCDOT) plan to widen the highway in the future.

The SCDOT engineers were on hand at the Gateway Conference center armed with maps, displays, construction plans and answers to resident’s questions.

SCDOT Program Manager Berry Mattox said the drop-in was a public information meeting to make the public aware of the project that was coming and give them the opportunity to voice any concerns they had and to provide written or verbal comments. Comments on the project will be accepted through June 10.

The project overview describes the 901 project as ‘widening SC 901 from SC 9 to Victorian Hills Drive in Chester County. SC 901 will be widened symmetrically from the existing centerline. The existing two-lane roadway will be widened to include a median which will serve as a landscaped area or a two-way left turn lane. The project also consists of the construction of a 10’ wide multiuse path on the western side of SC 901 from Victorian Hills Drive to SC 9.’

In addition, ‘As part of this project, the grade of a portion of SC 901 will be lowered by approximately 3’ to provide better sight distance. In order to lower the grade of SC 901, the road will need to be closed for a period of approximately 21 days.’

The project website states the ‘purpose and need of the project is to provide improvements such as a two way left turn lane and a 10’ wide multiuse path to address the additional pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the area due to 2 new subdivisions under construction or soon to be under construction.’

“These projects are for the public, so we want to give out as much information (and get as much information from them) as we can,” said Mattox, “about what the project is, how long the project will take, the methods and means of construction. There is also going to be detour needed, and we are cutting down a knoll in the road by about three feet, which will improve sight distance coming out of Victorian Hills and into the future development there.

“That wasn’t the purpose of the project, but while we are here, we are eliminating a deficiency in the roadway to provide for an overall safer condition for motorists,” he said.

On the west side of the project, closer to the interstate, there will be a wide sidewalk that goes all the way to the intersection of 901 and S.C. 9 installed.

Mattox said the SCDOT is in the process of obtaining rights-of-way (ROW) because there is going to be some property needed to widen the highway, and the SCDOT is making appraisals of the needed land and making offers to property owners. He is expecting that process to take about a year — the SCDOT anticipates a Spring 2023 construction. Mattox anticipates construction will take about a year.

“With the detour we talked about, we anticipate up to three weeks of detouring traffic from Highway 901 over to Gaston Farm Road and tying back into S.C. 9 on the other side of the interstate. That closure is limited to 21 days. It could potentially be done without a detour, but it would take a lot longer. This is kind of the least impactful way, sort of rip the bandage off and knock the project out quick,” he said.

Mattox thinks the detour will go into effect about this same time next year.

In answer to many resident requests over the years, Mattox said the intersection of S.C. 901 and S.C. 9 does not yet warrant a traffic signal, but “the project will be set up for a traffic signal. The subdivision being developed will have turn lanes on S.C. 9. When those turn lanes are installed, the roadway will be set up so that it could take a traffic signal. But right now, our district traffic office says the traffic volumes right now do not dictate a traffic signal. But if development occurs as is anticipated, and these homes are built out and there are other developments that have been talked about, it would almost certainly warrant a traffic signal (in the future). The traffic volume will then warrant a traffic signal, and when traffic volumes are there, a traffic signal will be installed by the SCDOT,” said Mattox.

For additional details, check the project website at