Arrested S.C. firefighters hire lawyer, incident heading to court

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By Andrew Dys and Jonathan McFadden

The Herald

CHESTER, S.C. — The arrest of two Chester County volunteer firefighters after a scuffle between them and members of the Chester County Sheriff’s Office appears headed for a legal battle.

The firefighters — West Chester Fire Chief Andy Martin and his brother, Tommy Martin — were arrested Feb. 15, a day after the altercation at a wreck scene and have hired local defense attorney Dan D’Agostino. Chester County’s volunteer chiefs, who unanimously backed the Martins earlier this week, also plan to hire an attorney.

D’Agostino says the brothers — firefighters for decades — should never have been arrested and charged with assault.

“We are gathering the evidence to demonstrate that neither Andy Martin nor Tommy Martin should have been charged with a crime,” D’Agostino said Friday. “These two gentlemen with numerous years of service to the community were at a scene of an accident to protect the public. This was not the time or the place for the sheriff’s department to seek to discuss policy or procedure.”

The scuffle occurred at S.C. 9 near Turnbuckle Road, where a tractor-trailer skidded off the side of S.C. 9.

Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood alleges the Martins were belligerent and physically assaulted Underwood and two other sheriff’s office staffers at the scene. The incident started after Martin became upset that two deputies left the scene after he, as incident commander, wanted the road closed. A state highway trooper who also was at the scene said the road would not be closed until a wrecker arrived.

Andy Martin then mentioned the 2016 election on the emergency radio. Underwood, elected in 2012 and facing re-election in 2016, showed up at the scene along with other top sheriff’s officials.

Underwood declined to talk specifically about the incident Friday except to reiterate his previous written statements that assault on a police officer will not be tolerated and that he and his deputies did their jobs. Further, Underwood said, “We have nothing against the fire department.”

Underwood’s actions at the scene and the Martins’ arrests raised the ire of Chester’s fire chiefs. The fire chiefs association is also in the process of hiring a lawyer to pursue potential claims against Underwood and to ask the state attorney general’s office to investigate what happened that Friday and Saturday, said John Agee, the Richburg volunteer chief and chairman of the fire chiefs’ association. The attorney general has yet to receive any official request to conduct a separate probe from the sheriff’s office investigation, a spokesman said Friday.

D’Agostino, a veteran criminal defense lawyer from York who for years was law partner with the late Melvin Roberts, said Friday he welcomes “an outside investigation” by state prosecutors and is grateful that the fire chiefs are seeking one.

Underwood has not sought any outside probe from the State Law Enforcement Division or the attorney general.

Underwood alleges Tommy Martin pushed him and tried to tackle Capt. Robert Sprouse at the wreck scene on S.C. 9 west of Chester. He says Andy Martin also pushed an officer after allegedly acting belligerently and using profanity “without any self control.” After words were exchanged and, according to police, Andy Martin refused to leave the scene, he was handcuffed before being released about 10 minutes later to finish clearing the wreck scene.

The next night, deputies went to the homes of both Martins and arrested each. Andy Martin has said he was treated like a “hardened criminal.”

It is clear that Andy Martin was the incident commander at the crash site, but there is disparity of opinion over whether he should have kept sole command or established joint command with other agencies, including law enforcement who would block the road during cleanup. Joe Palmer, executive director of the 17,000-plus member S.C. Firefighters Association and a former fire chief and incident commander, said generally the fire chief on scene is incident commander who gives direction to others assisting. Palmer stressed that he hasn’t been given a report about what happened in Chester.

“My concern from a firefighter’s perspective is command and control,” Palmer said.

More, Palmer said, Andy Martin’s 40 years experience as firefighter and incident commander “speaks for itself.” But the public has an “expectation of professionalism” from all emergency responders, he said.

Residents of the West Chester community contacted by The Herald were split in their views about who was at fault.

Danny Patel, owner of a convenience store between West Chester and Chester, said he knows Tommy Martin as a regular customer and Andy Martin by reputation. Both are known in the community as dedicated people who volunteer to help others, Patel said. Both are “as nice as can be.” A customer told Patel recently about Andy Martin’s care for her son after a recent crash, Patel said.

“She heard about this arrest and she can’t believe the police would arrest him,” Patel said. “And, Tommy, he is a very good person.”

Yet others see the Martins as clearly losing control. Bertha Odom of Chester, whose son was a firefighter, said she has known Sprouse and Underwood for years. She can’t believe the police acted in any way but professionally.

“I have known Robert Sprouse since he was a child,” Odom said. “And Sheriff Underwood, he is a fine person.”

The police report from the incident says the argument included a mention of the ongoing court battle between Underwood and Chester County over control of the 911 emergency dispatch system.

Melba Carter, from the Baton Rouge community near West Chester and an Underwood supporter, called the dispute between public safety officials “shameful… it makes me shameful.” Carter, who is black, said everyone in the community typically gets along regardless of skin color. Now, after the dispute, “you can start to see the division” as whites seem to be supporting the Martins and blacks supporting Underwood.

The Martins are white and Underwood is black.

Carter said she’s known the Martin brothers all her life. She’s never known them to be involved in fights or disputes. Still, she believes the firemen “were totally in the wrong.”

“As of right now, I have no faith in the West Chester Fire Department,” she said. “If anything were to happen at my mother’s house or sister’s house… I prefer West Chester Fire Department not even show; I prefer not to have anything to do with them.”

Andy Martin is a member and past chairman of the Chester County Rural Fire Commission, a board that governs the volunteer departments and is made up of appointees from Chester County Council. The commission is expected to discuss the incident at its meeting Monday night, yet may not do so in front of the public. Beth Hunter, Chester Fire Services coordinator, said the incident is on the agenda as a “personnel matter” and is already set for private discussion in an executive session, but she had no further comment.

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(c)2014 The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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