Originally created 01/20/99

Testimony begins in suit against county

When Mike Willimon saw blue lights flashing across a dark Lincoln County Road nearly five years ago, he pulled over, thinking a bad accident had occurred up ahead.

Then he saw blue lights flashing behind him, he testified Tuesday in U.S. District Court, where he and two friends are suing Lincoln County, the sheriff and two deputies.

"I got off the road so they could pass me, but they didn't pass me," Mr. Willimon testified about the events of Nov. 18, 1993. Instead, deputies ordered him, Kenneth Sprouse and Robert R. Wells out of Mr. Willimon's truck.

They were handcuffed and taken in separate cruisers back to the spot near a store where Mr. Willimon had pulled off the road a few minutes earlier to talk on a cellular phone.

"I was trying to find out why they had brought us down there ... I didn't understand it at all," Mr. Willimon testified.

Later, after he and his friends were locked in cells for the night and then released without being charged, the three Greenville, S.C., men would learn that the owner of the closed store where they stopped had asked the sheriff to hold the men in jail.

The three filed suit in 1995 against the county, Sheriff Edwin Bentley and officers Sammy R. Jones and Dean Smith.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory damages for civil rights violations and punitive damages for unreasonable arrest and mental anguish.

In his opening statement for the jury, defense attorney Terry Williams contended the officers' conduct that night was reasonable and that it was the South Carolina men who caused the incident.

It was around 11 p.m. when a large truck stopped in front of the store owned by Clarence Norman, which was closed.

After Mr. Norman's son saw men get out and act suspiciously, he called the sheriff's department, believing he was witnessing another burglary of the shop, Mr. Williams said.

Because it was dark outside and the store lacked electricity, Mr. Norman asked the officers to lock up the men until morning when he could check the building to see if anything was missing, Mr. Williams said.

When Mr. Norman determined nothing was missing, he called the sheriff, and the three South Carolina men were released, Mr. Williams said.

Testimony is expected to continue today in Augusta's federal courthouse.

Sandy Hodson covers courts for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.


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