When Marvin Lawson was appointed to his role as Darlington County probate judge in July of 1994, he replaced the late probate judge Dennis Lloyd – who died while facing two lawsuits and a state investigation surrounding $841,000 in money missing from probate accounts he was overseeing. Well aware of the challenges he was facing, Lawson told The Associated Press at the time, “somehow, I have to try and restore trust in this office.”
The Darlington County probate court scandal came on the heels of a similar scandal that rocked Dorchester County. There, probate judge Shelton Parker was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1993 on a charge of wire fraud and by a state grand jury of multiple misconduct in office charges related to funds he admitted siphoning from estates during his tenure in office.
Both scandals — which unfolded almost simultaneously — brought about calls for reform. Both were accompanied by promises to rebuild trust within the probate system. But thirty years later – as our audience is well aware – South Carolina is once again facing the same questions and challenges as controversial and/ or corrupt probate rulings and actions are coming to light.
TRUSTED JUDGES, TORN COMMUNITIES
Shelton Parker served in the role of Dorchester County probate judge for fifteen years when news that a criminal investigation surrounding land transactions and business deals he made while in that role began circulating. The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper published its first story on the investigation on February 14, 1993 – reporting that Parker had acquired 32 land parcels in Dorchester County valued at over $1,000,000 while in office. His annual salary during his tenure was $39,200.
The allegations in The State story were damning. Of those 32 properties owned by Parker, at least nine of them were from the estates of deceased individuals he was in charge of settling in his court. Additional research into the allegations against Parker showed he purchased some of the land for much less than the value listed in the county tax rolls. In some instances, the land was subsequently sold for substantially more than what he paid for it only a few months earlier.
Parker also had probate clerks working beneath him notarize and witness the signing of two wills which gave him broad trustee power over two estates. Even more concerning, based on information obtained in his official capacity he offered to invest money on behalf of individuals who had come into money through a large inheritance or life insurance settlement.
Calls for a comprehensive overhaul of the probate court system in South Carolina in the wake of this investigation were resounding, but Louis Rosen — the director of the office of court administration at the time — said the problems did not appear to be widespread. The State reported in the same story that the supreme court was hesitant when it came to reprimanding probate judges. Why? Because probate court judges are elected independently – and are not required to have law degrees.
While ignorance of the law is not a defense for the rest of us, it appeared to be one for probate judges. In fact, when the supreme court had to reprimand a probate judge in 1990, chief justice George T. Gregory Jr. admitted his “reluctance” to impose a harsh sentence.
“The court was reluctant to hold people without formal legal education to the same standard as those who’ve studied law,” Gregory said at the time.
What could possibly go wrong, right?
THREE DECADES LATER: ELUSIVE CHANGE
Despite scandals and calls for reform, little has changed within the Palmetto State probate court system – even as the stakes have continued to rise. According to the Center for Estate Administration Reform, $1.5 trillion dollars per year is passed generationally in the United States – and that number is projected to grow to $2.5 trillion by 2035. The assets of the most vulnerable of our population in South Carolina are governed by probate judges elected within each county — some of whom do not even have a bachelor degree.
As noted in our previous coverage, probate judges are the only judges in South Carolina elected by the people. Probate judges are not required to have a law degree. The only education requirement of a probate judge is they must have a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited post-secondary institution — or if they have received no degree, they must have four years’ experience as an employee in a probate judge’s office in South Carolina.
When the issue of requiring probate judges to have a law degree came up during the 1993 investigation of Shelton Parker, Louis Rosen claimed legal training wouldn’t make a difference.
“If you get the wrong person, a dishonest person, training just makes them more capable of finding more ways to be dishonest,” he asserted.
Wait … what?
In 1993, like all judges in South Carolina, probate judges were required to take fifteen hours of continuing legal education each year. Per Rule 504 of the South Carolina rules of court, this requirement remains unchanged.
In other words, fifteen hours of training a year and a bachelor’s degree is all that is required to oversee tens of millions of dollars a year in assets and make determinations on the involuntary commitment of persons suffering from mental illness, intellectual disability, alcoholism, drug addiction, and active pulmonary tuberculosis.
MURDAUGH SAGA REVIVES PROBATE SCRUTINY
More recently, the high-profile criminal case of disbarred attorney and convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh has highlighted systemic issues within South Carolina’s probate courts. Murdaugh admitted during his trial for the murder of his wife and son that he utilized the probate court system to steal money from a number of his clients.
Among them? Hannah Plyler — a former Murdaugh client who – along with her sister, Alania Plyler-Spohn. was represented by Murdaugh after her mother and brother perished in an automobile accident on Interstate 95 seventeen years ago.
The federal criminal trial of Russell Laffitte – the former chief executive officer of Palmetto State Bank (PSB) and convicted co-conspirator of Murdaugh – shed new light on the financial crimes allegedly committed by Murdaugh in the years leading up to the brutal murders of his wife and son on June 7, 2021. Laffitte was found guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, bank fraud as well as three counts of misapplying bank funds in U.S. district court in Charleston, South Carolina on November 22, 2022. He faces up to thirty years in prison and millions of dollars in fines in connection with those convictions.
During Laffitte’s trial, prosecutors Emily Limehouse, Winston Holliday and Kathleen Stoughton made a compelling case against Laffitte on behalf of the government. In meticulous detail, they documented for jurors how he extended eight loans to himself in the amount of $355,000 from the conservatorship of Hannah Plyler.
Laffitte served as conservator for the Plylers and allegedly repaid money taken from Hannah Plyler’s account with conservator and personal representative fees fraudulently obtained from other clients. In addition to these financial crimes, Laffitte also extended to Murdaugh nearly $1 million in “unsecured loans” from Hannah Plyler’s account.
In an interview posted to YouTube prior to the start of the trial, Laffitte claimed these loans were “just an investment vehicle … you know … they were earning a lot more than they were earning sitting in an account.”
The conservatorship for the Plyler sisters was filed in Hampton County probate court and overseen by probate judge Sheila Odom. Last August, Lexington, S.C. attorneys Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter filed a lawsuit against Laffitte and PSB on behalf of Hannah Plyler and Alania Plyler-Spohn.
As part of this lawsuit, Odom was deposed on December 8, 2022. During her deposition – a copy of which was provided to this news outlet – she finally provided insight into the role of the Hampton County probate court in the financial fleecings allegedly orchestrated by Murdaugh and Laffitte.
Odom began her career with Hampton County in 1991 as a clerk under former probate judge Bessie P. Cope. She was elected to the post following Cope’s retirement in 1995 and has served seven consecutive terms since then. She retired on January 5, 2023 and was succeeded by Shannon Parker.
Hampton County’s probate court is responsible for a variety of cases including estates, conservatorships and guardianships. In her deposition, Odom stated the court typically has an average of 400 cases open at any one time – all of which are handled by her and her clerk. Approximately 70 percent of these cases are pro se — i.e. individuals filing without an attorney – while the remainder have an attorney of record. Due to the enormous workload and their small staff, Odom said the court relies on the offices and staff of attorneys to supplement resources on those cases.
When asked if the court also relied on the integrity of attorneys handling these cases – and the accuracy of the information they provide – she replied simply, “correct.”
In the Plyler case, the girls’ father – Rickie Plyler – was unable to serve as conservator for reasons unknown to Odom, so Murdaugh put Laffitte forward to serve in this role on behalf of the sisters. Odom’s responses to Richter’s questions indicated a number of flaws in the filing of the Plyler estate documents, including:
- The listing of Russell Laffitte as the applicant: Typically, petitions are filed by individuals with statutory standing – asking the court to appoint someone as conservator – not by the applicant themselves.
- An address located outside the court’s jurisdiction: The Columbia, S.C. address listed on the petition for Hannah Plyler is located in Richland County. A conservatorship’s jurisdiction is supposed to be in the county where the ward resides – yet Laffitte’s petition falsely claimed Hannah Plyler lived in Hampton County. A box was checked attesting to this as fact – and was signed by Laffitte on the petition as a sworn verification.
Odom — who does not have a law degree — admitted she heavily relied on what the attorneys told her to do when approving filings and motions.
NOT AN ISOLATED CASE
While Murdaugh’s complex web of crimes brought probate court back into the spotlight, it certainly is not the only recent case involving alleged misdeeds within the system. In October 2021, an investigation was opened into Marlboro County deputy probate judge Tammy Bullock after accusations were made that she impersonated a judge – and then rummaged through a dead man’s home and participated in the removal of his property in January 2021.
Hollis Slade of Bennettsville, S.C. passed away on January 23, 2021 at the age of 68 – but his security system lived on. Cameras outside his home captured Bullock and others searching through his home looking for his last will and testament. These cameras also captured discussions between Bullock and the group about keeping financial information discovered inside the man’s home a secret from his family.
In Horry County, 61-year-old Luke Barefoot -a former campaign manager and employee of Horry County council chairman Johnny Gardner‘s law firm – was arrested and charged with two counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent (with a value of at least $10,000) in July of 2022. The accusations surround money stolen from the estate of Benjamin Creel, who died in a car wreck in 2016.
Barefoot managed the estate on behalf of Gardner’s law firm.
The arrest warrant in Barefoot’s case indicated that between late 2016 and January 2020, Barefoot set up an account for an estate at Anderson Brothers Bank and removed more than $400,000 from the estate’s checking account and deposited it into his own account at Anderson Brothers.
Barefoot also removed nearly $65,000 from the estate’s account for his own use, according to a second warrant and transferred $35,211 to his business Laurel Street Enterprises and he moved the rest – nearly $29,000 – into another one of his companies, Call The Man LLC. But the beneficiaries of Creel’s estate believe the amount stolen was much higher.
On January 18, 2018, Williamston, South Carolina estate attorney Philip Williams pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges in federal court in Greenville. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Williams used money in his client trust account to pay for living and personal expenses rather than pay devisees and others for estates that he was handling.
“To try to hide his wrongdoing, (Williams) would wait for another estate’s funds to be deposited and then try to pay off the devisees from the first estate,” a news release from the U.S. attorney noted. “This happened with at least four or five estates and snowballed into something of a pyramid scheme where he depended on estates from new clients to pay off the devisees of previous clients.”
These are just a small sampling of news stories and press releases from across the state clearly indicating the issues in probate courts are widespread – yet there has been very little substantive conversation about what reforms are needed to prevent additional people to be victimized. In the coming weeks, this news outlet will be exploring reforms experts say are needed to protect those most vulnerable to victimization, providing updates to current cases in Darlington and Florence counties, and providing insight into the probate court processes to help our audience understand how to best protect themselves and their loved ones.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at [email protected].
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