Surrounded by cameras and reporters, Julian Betton’s lawyers presented a case that will never go to trial.
They talked about the 29 times drug agents fired at Betton in his apartment in 2015, about the nine bullets that struck him and the damage inflicted. They also spoke about how the officers’ statements conflicted with the evidence. And they highlighted the $11.25 million in settlement money that local law enforcement had agreed to, including an $8.5 million deal finalized with the City of Myrtle Beach on Thursday.
“This is the kind of poison that brings down a justice system,” said Jonny McCoy, the Myrtle Beach attorney who has represented Betton since the shooting.
Although many facts of the nearly 5-year-old case have long been known, Betton’s legal team showed clips of drug agents’ depositions and case documents as they stressed the need for police reforms.
“These are your officers,” McCoy said. “This is your community. These are your elected officials. … We are not going to just move on as business as usual.”
Law enforcement leaders also followed the news conference. And afterwards some acknowledged that the Betton’s legal team had a point.
“Most of that stuff was true,” said 15thCircuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, who sits on the board that manages the Drug Enforcement Unit (DEU), which consists of agents from various local departments. Richardson did call some of the statements “slanted,” but he said the unit reworked its policy manual after Betton was shot.
“There have been significant changes,” he said. “The biggest thing is … they basically don’t do entry search warrants anymore unless it reaches a very high threat assessment. … It’s really high for a home.”
If drug agents decide a home needs to be entered, Richardson said they request the assistance a local agency’s SWAT team.
“They don’t do that themselves,” he said.
The DEU plan for the Betton raid was called “Operation Jules,” a reference to Betton’s nickname. The cover sheet for that plan bears what was then the agency’s logo: a marijuana leaf behind a skull and crossbones with a sword piercing the skull.
“Serving our community one dealer at a time,” it states.
Betton was a small-time pot dealer and he initially wasn’t on the drug unit’s radar. Agents learned about him after Myrtle Beach police stopped one of his friends on Nov. 3, 2014, for a busted taillight.
Police searched the woman’s car and found trace amounts of marijuana.
“They gave her an ultimatum, which was ‘Either cooperate with us and help us charge more people with drug violations or there will be criminal convictions and consequences,” said Brad Bannon, an attorney with the North Carolina firm Patterson Harkavy, which worked with McCoy on the case. “That’s not much of a choice, and so she did what they asked her to do.”
As a police informant, the woman went to Betton, who was known for buying and selling small amounts of marijuana out of his Withers Swash apartment.
The woman bought two bags of marijuana (7 grams, 8 grams) from Betton and agents used those purchases — which amounted to about $100 — to obtain a search warrant.
The DEU didn’t have a formal policy for executing search warrants at that time. Although police can obtain no-knock warrants, agents had a standard warrant when they went to Betton’s apartment on April 16, 2015. That means they would have been required to knock on the door, announce their presence and wait a reasonable amount of time before entering.
“Those are very key requirements under the Fourth Amendment for very understandable reasons,” Bannon said. “It’s to protect the safety of civilians who may be in and around the home. It’s to protect the safety of the officers who are executing the search warrant and it’s to protect property as well.”
But the plan for Betton’s raid did not list any specific tasks that agents were assigned to do, including knocking on the door and announcing themselves.
“Everything was to be determined,” Bannon said. “Nothing was decided about who would do anything during the execution of the search warrant.”
In statements after the raid, police initially said they had knocked on Betton's door and announced themselves. When they went inside, they said he started shooting at them, prompting them to return fire.
However, the evidence revealed the officers' accounts weren’t accurate. Although there’s no body camera or dash cam video of the shooting, Betton had a surveillance system at his apartment and that video depicts what happened outside the home.
The video shows the officers directing one of Betton's neighbors to get on the ground. One officer then opens a screen door before another rams Betton’s front door. The video does not show an officer knocking. The video has no audio, so it’s unclear what, if anything, was said.
A neighbor who was outside the home told state investigators that the drug agents never knocked or identified themselves as police.
“He also said, very tellingly, ‘I really believe if they would have just announced themselves, he would have just walked out. It did not have to happen like that,’” Bannon recalled.
Betton has said he had a gun in his apartment, but he denied shooting at the police.
The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) typically investigates police-involved shootings for local agencies in South Carolina, and their investigation revealed Betton never fired his weapon.
Yet an independent prosecutor who reviewed the case concluded that the agents who shot Betton — David Belue of the Myrtle Beach Police Department, Frank Waddell of the Coastal Carolina University Police Department and Chris Dennis of the Horry County Sheriff’s Office — acted in self defense.
They did not face criminal charges.
"No one in the city, the county or the state's law enforcement structure has held anybody accountable for this," Bannon said. "Not in criminal law, not within their agencies. Literally nothing was done."
Belue still works for the Myrtle Beach Police Department. Dennis retired from the sheriff’s office in 2016 and Waddell now works for the Hanahan Police Department in Berkeley County (he left the CCU force in 2017 and began working in Hahahan in 2018), according to records from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
Betton’s lawyers have criticized the law enforcement response to the shooting. They pointed out immediately after the shooting the three agents were allowed to meet with lawyers, go home and submit prepared statements the following day instead of submitting to SLED interviews.
“When SLED continued its investigation after receiving those statements, they determined that those statements were untrue on the two fundamental questions of the investigation, which is what happened when the police arrived and what happened when they got inside the house,” Bannon said. “They lied about both of those things. When SLED found out about that, nobody went back to talk to them about that. … I have never known a criminal investigation to have three alleged suspects tell the same lie and never get a return visit from the law enforcement agency that is ostensibly supposed to be investigating what really happened in the case.”
But when those agents were deposed for the civil case, they offered conflicting accounts about what happened.
When asked about the SLED lab’s conclusion that Betton didn't shoot at the police, Dennis insisted that Betton had fired at him.
“I’ve got all the respect in the world for SLED,” he said in the deposition. “They’ve got a stellar reputation. I’m not saying I agree with them. I’m not saying I disagree with them. I respect their answer. However, your client fired his weapon at me. He definitely pointed his weapon at me. He definitely fired.”
Belue told the attorneys he was certain Betton pointed his gun at him, but he also acknowledged that at one point he had been just as sure Betton had fired at him, too.
“From what we know, he did not fire his weapon,” he said.
And Chad Guess, the case agent tasked with planning the raid, defended their approach in his deposition.
“We already went over that no knock and announce happened,” he said. “But we turned on the blue lights. … It’s not the law to knock and announce, you know. It’s just not. It’s the officer’s discretion. … That’s the answer.”
The attorneys also questioned Bill Knowles, who supervised the DEU at that time.
When they asked Knowles why he didn’t discipline the agents for their actions, he told them “they didn’t do anything wrong.”
But former Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall told the lawyers it would have been safer to arrest Betton outside his home.
Gall also raised concerns about the DEU’s lack of a residential search policy in an email to Knowles three months after the shooting.
“It appears that the search & seizure policy follows our policy verbatim, until it reaches the search warrant section...then DEU’s policy has nothing,” Gall wrote. “I thought maybe I missed something or it was not copied to my file. If it’s absent, it’s certainly a concern.”
“He didn’t miss it,” Bannon said. “It wasn’t accidentally absent from this file. It didn’t exist. And that was business as usual for DEU.”
‘Deficiencies’ in tactics
In the aftermath of the Betton raid, the City of Myrtle Beach stopped participating from the DEU, according to statement from the city released Thursday afternoon.
“As noted by Mr. Betton’s attorneys, retired Police Chief Warren Gall conducted an investigation of the operation and identified a number of deficiencies,” the city said. “As a result, the Myrtle Beach Police Department no longer participates in the Drug Enforcement Unit. The Myrtle Beach Police Department has policies and training in place governing search warrants and their execution to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of our citizens. Myrtle Beach also was one of the first departments in the state to equip its officers with body-worn cameras. Our officers are required to wear and activate those cameras for the protection of the public and the city.”
Myrtle Beach officials also said the insurance company representing the city decided to settle the Betton case.
“We believe that reaching this agreement was not only right for the city, but also for Mr. Betton,” the city said.
The settlement between the city and Betton is the second one reached in this case.
Betton initially sued the city, the solicitor and the DEU. In 2018, Betton reached an agreement with two of the agents who shot him and several leaders of the DEU for $2.75 million. His final dispute was with the city and officer Belue. That trial had been scheduled to begin last month.
Richardson, the solicitor, said the Betton case forced the DEU board to reexamine its search warrant policies.
“You would hope that it wouldn’t have to come to something like that,” he said. “I don’t even know that we had looked at it [before the shooting]. You don’t know how lucky you’ve got it until something goes haywire and then you need it.”
The DEU also has a new leader in Jeff Long. He could not be reached for comment.
Betton did not attend Thursday’s news conference. However, his attorneys showed a video where he talked about his life since the shooting.
He is paralyzed from the waist down. His right leg doesn’t bend because of nerve and tissue damage. He uses a colostomy bag.
Although he takes medication to help him sleep, Betton said he frequently wakes up multiple times each night.
“You get so tired of waking up during the night,” he said. “It’s like, ‘OK, When is the light going to shine?’ … The only time I actually feel no pain is when I'm asleep.”