COLUMBIA — The president of South Carolina’s Hospitality Association killed himself in the parking garage of his office building, a coroner said Tuesday. Officials said the man’s co-workers found a note referring to a federal investigation into the association’s finances,
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said it appears that Tom Sponseller killed himself with a gunshot to his head. Sponseller’s body was found Tuesday behind two locked doors in a parking garage below his office hours after co-workers found the note, authorities said. A 9 mm handgun belonging to Sponseller was also found at the scene, police said.
Sponseller had been missing for 10 days, and the garage was searched three times before the body was found. Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said his officers didn’t have access to the electrical room where the body was discovered until about 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Sponseller’s co-workers called investigators once they found the note, which was not in plain view in Sponseller’s office. Scott said that call led to Tuesday’s search.
Scott said his heart went out to Sponseller’s wife, Meg, and his family, and he planned to review police department procedures to figure out how Sponseller’s body could have remained so near to his office - his Mercedes-Benz sedan was parked in the garage – while friends and family spent more than a week looking for him.
“I just hate it for Meg and his family that we didn’t find him sooner. It was just unfortunate with the way the room was designed, the lack of a key, the cadaver dogs not hitting on it,” Scott said.
Neither relatives nor co-workers who saw him Feb. 18, the day he was reported missing, said Sponseller had been despondent or gave any indication that he might harm himself, Scott said.
Because the search for Sponseller was a missing persons investigation and authorities had no indication a crime had occurred, it limited how thoroughly officers could inspect his office, Scott said.
“We’re not perfect, but I’m a little disappointed,” he said.
A woman who answered the phone at the Sponsellers’ home said Tuesday the family did not want to comment.
On Monday, federal officials confirmed that they were investigating several hundred thousand dollars missing from the group that lobbies for South Carolina’s $14 billion tourism industry. U.S. Secret Service special agent in charge Michael Williams said agents began looking into the group’s books several months ago but Sponseller had not been investigated specifically.
Instead, Williams said agents were focusing on Rachel Duncan, who has served as an accounting director for the association. There was no answer Tuesday at a number listed for Duncan. Her attorney has declined to comment on the investigation but said Duncan had been cooperating with the probe into Sponseller’s disappearance.
Court records show Duncan is fighting foreclosure on a Lexington County property and in October was ordered by a judge to pay a bank nearly $4,000.
Asked whether agents had spoken with Sponseller during their investigation, Williams referred questions to U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, who did not immediately respond to a message.
Rick Erwin, the association’s interim director, has hired an accounting firm to audit its finances to assure the association’s 2,000 members that their contributions are secure, according to Bob McAlister, a consultant for the group.
Erwin said Sponseller loved his family and was the face of South Carolina’s tourism business.
“The number of jobs he helped create in South Carolina through his work with the Legislature and many governors cannot be estimated,” Erwin said in a statement. “Suffice it to say, South Carolina’s economy is stronger and tourism’s future brighter, because of his dedication.”
Sponseller, head of the association for more than 20 years, was a well-known fixture at the Statehouse, representing the tourism industry. On Tuesday, House lawmakers held a moment of silence after learning of his death.
According to the Hospitality Association, Sponseller grew up in Greenville and was a graduate of The Citadel,