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Brown Crenshaw Jr. pleads guilty

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Judge requests report before rendering sentence

By Chris Sardelli

Ezra Brown Crenshaw Jr. kept his answers short and simple as he stood before Circuit Court Judge DeAndrea G. Benjamin and pleaded guilty on Monday morning, July 14. 

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Clad in a dark suit with a red and white striped tie, Crenshaw, 42, listened inside a courtroom at the Lancaster County Courthouse as 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield read the charges against him, including 10 counts of forgery and six counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent. Barfield explained that he had dismissed six other counts of forgery. 

The charges are the result of a massive investigation into almost a half-million dollars of missing funds from a trio of local agencies, the J. Marion Sims Foundation, the Lancaster Rotary Club and the Lancaster County Clemson Club.

Flanked by his defense attorney, Paul Lee Reeves, Crenshaw listened as the judge read the maximum sentences he could receive for each charge, including five years for each forgery count, 10 years for each of five breach of trust charges and five years for the last charge. 

“I could run all these consecutive and you could be looking at 105 years,” Benjamin told him. “Do you understand that?”

Crenshaw nodded his head and replied, “Yes ma’am.”

But instead of handing down a sentence, which most of the people in the courtroom were expecting, Benjamin held off on sentencing Crenshaw until later this year.

“I appreciate everyone’s comments, but unlike you all, I have not heard about this. This is the first time I have heard any of this and any of the facts in the case,” she said. “For that reason I will order a review. Then I will have the opportunity to digest all that is before me.”

Benjamin then ordered a presentencing investigation, or PSI, of the case to be conducted by an agent with the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. As part of the investigation, the agent may re-interview all the parties involved in the case. 

Once a report is completed, it will be forwarded to the judge, who expects to then offer sentencing either the first week of August or September. 

“You’ll be allowed to stay out on bond and I will allow the conditions to remain in place,” she told Crenshaw.

The investigation

The decision to hold off on sentencing came after two hours of presentations from attorneys on both sides, as well as emotional statements from victims and family members. 

Barfield began with an overview of the case and the large dollar amounts it involves. 

According to a stack of arrest warrants served on Crenshaw by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division on June 21, 2013, he was originally charged with 15 counts of forgery less than $10,000; one count of forgery less than $5,000; three counts of breach of trust $10,000 or more; two counts of breach of trust $5,000 or more; and one count of breach of trust $1,000-$5,000. The total dollar amount missing at the time was $509,836.46. 

Barfield told the judge that Crenshaw had served as vice president of finance and administration for J. Marion Sims Foundation, had been president and treasurer for the local Rotary Club, and treasurer for the Lancaster County Clemson Club. 

As a result of the SLED investigation and agency audits, authorities discovered hundreds of unauthorized checks or electronic money transfers, as well as forged signatures, in the accounts of all three organizations, Barfield said. This included 70 unauthorized checks written from Clemson Club accounts, 99 from Rotary Club accounts, and 111 electronic payments for “non-legitimate payments” from the Sims Foundation. 

Several of the payments were made between the three accounts, Barfield said.

“He was stealing from Peter to pay Paul to try and cover up his tracks,” Barfield said. 

After a good bit of forensic accounting, and factoring in money Crenshaw was able to give back to a few of the agencies, investigators determined the actual amount of restitution owed, including $26,423.50 for the Clemson Club and $17,729.64 for the Rotary Club. 

As for the Sims Foundation, Barfield said the amount of stolen funds is $422,148, though there are also $98,000 in investigation expenses, for a total amount of almost $520,000. 

“What everybody wants to know is what happened to the money? Where’s the money?” Barfield said. “He says he took money from the Clemson Club to invest and make the club some money. Our belief is most of the money went through E-trade and he lost most of the money. At some point it snowballed, he couldn’t pay it back and he got deeper and deeper.”

Barfield said investigators haven’t found any evidence Crenshaw used the money to buy  expensive items for himself or his family, and that he lost most of it in the stock market. 

‘Didn’t know him at all’

Tears and emotionally charged words followed as members of each of the victim agencies, as well as several of Crenshaw’s friends and family, addressed the court. 

Jerry Williams, former president of the Rotary Club, said the missing funds were drastic.

“We had zero cash. We could have shut the doors,” Williams said. 

The incident left the Rotary Club with no way to fund several of its initiatives, he said, though they survived with the help of other Rotary Clubs. 

Williams said rotarians operate by a code of being fair to all and building goodwill.

“Mr. Crenshaw failed on all of these,” he said. 

Jim Morton, president of the J. Marion Sims Foundation, said the charge of breach of trust “could not be better named.”

“It all boils down to one essential question, can I trust you?” Morton said. “Trust broken hurts us all. Our foundation trusted Brown Crenshaw for 10 years.”

Morton said he never thought Crenshaw  would betray the foundation.

“We thought we knew him, but we were wrong. We didn’t know him at all,” he said. “He used the goodwill he’d built up to steal. He stole, lied, cheated, falsified and defrauded.”

Morton disagreed with anyone who said Crenshaw had made a mistake.

“More than 200 separate times he chose to betray our trust. He stole more than money. He robbed us of time. Time to improve our community. Instead we spent that time to deal with his coverups,” Morton said. “It hurts me to stand here. It sickens me, disgusts me and I take no pleasure in it.”

Crenshaw’s wife of 17 years, Kelly, told the court she was shocked to hear the news. 

“As God as my witness I had no idea,” she said. “It’s been a rough year for our marriage. I am slowly, step by step, second by second, minute by minute building trust back in him.”

She said her husband deserved some form of punishment.

“I don’t know what your plan is here today, but I believe it’s God’s will whatever it is,” she said. 

Crenshaw later apologized to his victims and thanked his wife and children for sticking by him. 

“Whatever happens today, whether I go away or don’t, the hardest thing I had to do was to say goodbye to my children this morning, not knowing when I’d see ‘em again,” he said. 

Crenshaw then broke down crying, pulling a tissue from his pocket to dab his eyes. 

“I’m truly sorry for what I did to the foundation, the Clemson Club, the Rotary Club,” he said. “A lot of what the foundation does is show compassion to people and I just pray a little compassion can be shown to me, and not just me, but my wife and children.”

 

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416