A speed-trap town finds itself caught up in inquiry
Indictments of judge, police chief renew criticism of tactics
Knight Ridder

MCBEE, S.C. - Travelers to Myrtle Beach have long known about McBee, a sleepy Pee Dee crossroads with a reputation as a speed trap.

But recent law enforcement tactics in McBee have sparked a criminal investigation and renewed criticism from local residents.

The state grand jury last week indicted McBee's police chief and town judge on public corruption charges. According to the S.C. Attorney General's Office, the town would drop criminal cases if accused wrongdoers would pay cash or deed over their cars.

Chief Joseph McLemore has since quit the force, and the Town Council has suspended Judge Fred Stephens without pay.

Attempts to reach McLemore were unsuccessful.

Stephens said he has done nothing improper.

Some McBee residents say police have become overzealous during traffic stops along U.S. 1 and S.C. 151, a shortcut from the Charlotte area to Myrtle Beach.

Since McLemore and Stephens were hired about two years ago, McBee police routinely have searched cars, apparently looking for drugs, several former and current town officials say.

The attorney general's office would say little about the investigation in McBee, except that the probe isn't over.

No one interviewed by The State newspaper of Columbia would provide the amount of money or value of cars involved in the alleged deals to drop criminal charges. Town Councilman Dusty Rhoad said the amount was less than $100,000; Rhoad and Mayor Eddie Kirkley said McBee has accounted for all the money or valuables involved.

Kirkley said the uproar in McBee is an extension of long-running disagreements.

Some years ago, McBee officials got into a dispute with a resident over a sign he posted near the city limit to warn motorists about the town's aggressive efforts to stop speeding.

"We have a lot of people in McBee who don't like the police and police officers, no matter who is" in charge, Kirkley said. "This is an unfortunate thing that has happened to two good people."

The recent scandal has stirred plenty of talk in McBee, a Chesterfield County town with an easygoing pace and a link to the coast.

During hot summer days, beach-bound traffic from the Carolina Piedmont streams steadily through town. McBee, (pronounced MAC-Bee), is about 95 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach in the sandy hills of eastern South Carolina.

"This is big conversation," Herbert Outen said as he finished breakfast Monday at the Huddle House. "This was wrong, taking advantage of people out here on Highway No. 1. Honestly, the town needs to pray."