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Local attorney Rick Chandler knows the law. It’s especially clear when it comes to wearing seat belts.
But there are some things you just don’t forget. He said experiencing death first hand as an 8 year old will do that.
That day in 1963, Rick was hanging with his dad, the late Richard Chandler, at the family-run body shop when the police radio went off for a wreck call.
The elder Chandler was out the door in record time to the scene, with his young son riding shotgun.
At the time, wrecker drivers from every body shop (including Rick’s dad), and ambulances from the local funeral homes would converge on car crashes. There was no such thing as Lancaster County EMS or a rotation system for wreckers.
Given that, Rick said the first body shop there got the car and the first ambulance service carried whoever was injured to the hospital.
But what his eyes saw that day 46 years ago still remains fresh. And he never forgot what his dad did to protect him.
“The car was in flames and there was a man in it,” Rick said. “I can still see him beating on the glass yelling for help and they couldn’t get him out before the car became engulfed because of the seat belt had him tied.”
Rick said he watched as the trapped man burned up inside the car.
“Dad kept taking his hand and covering my eyes,” Rick said. “I kept pushing it away. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I wanted to see and Dad was trying to protect me.”
Richard Chandler’s wife, Judy, said it was situations like that that prompted her husband to run for county coroner. He ran for office in 1964 and won.
At age 26, Chandler was the youngest man to ever hold a county wide elected position. He served as coroner until 1980.
Former Lancaster County Sheriff Williford Faile, who worked with Chandler on more than one occasion, said Chandler had a nose for law enforcement. And since wrecker drivers were on a first-name basis with most police officers, Chandler was a natural fit.
“It (police work) just wasn’t enough money for him to provide for his family,” Faile said. “Back then, the county just didn’t have much funds. It probably cost Richard to be coroner.”
But between being a father, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, a business owner and county coroner, the strain was too much.
Calls were constantly coming into the Chandler home, And as a one-man staff, Rick said his dad was often called out in the middle of the night. Christmas celebrations and birthday parties, as well as other family events were always interupted.
The elder Chandler wore one too many hat and opted to to give up the military one.
During his years in office, Chandler was involved in many high-profile cases.
They include the October 1972 suicide of former NFL star Jim “Butch” Duncan, the February 1973 beating death of Dr. J.D. Pittman, the December 1979 fire that killed 11 inmates at the Lancaster County Jail and the April 1980 murder of Rebecca Eudy. There were wrecks and accidents to deal with, too.
“The most sensitive one was the Duncan case,” said retired ABC agent and Kershaw Police Chief Emerson Coates.
Coates said Duncan, 26, walked into the lobby of the old Lancaster Police Department on Main Street and started some type of disturbance. When Lt. Russell Hinson came out to see what was going on, Duncan yanked Hinson’s gun from its holster and shot himself in the head.
Following a coroners inquest , a 5-man jury, (including Chandler and one black), ruled that Duncan had shot himself.
Coates said that decision set off a local firestorm.
Some thought there was a cover-up and threats were made against several public officials.
“SLED and the sheriff’s department watched our house,” Rick said.
Rick still recalls a visit from a great aunt and uncle to the Chandler home that brought deputies and SLED agents out of the woods.
“Dad was scared,” Rick said. “I don’t know if he was scared for himself or his family. It wasn’t just his life in danger. There were two or three people they were worried about.”
Coates said there were some light-hearted moments, too. Richard Chandler and former Lancaster County Sheriff C.H. “Fuzz” Lowder got to be close friends. According to state law, if a sheriff leaves office unexpectedly, the coroner takes over that department until the governor can appoint a replacement.
“We told him the only reason he wanted to be coroner was to lock up Fuzz,” said Coates, laughing.
“They were good friends and the only one who could arrest the sheriff was the coroner,” Judy Chandler said. “He always threatened him with that in jest, of course. “
That friendship was tested one day when the Chandler family went Christmas shopping in Charlotte and their yellow Cadillac was stolen. Richard told Charlotte police officers that he had called the Lancaster County sheriff to come pick them up.
“They were still arguing about it when Lowder walked in to get us,” Rick said. “I can still remember the look they had on their faces. It was funny.”
There are some things you just don’t forget.