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SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCIV)

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Lystra Zerba and Elizabeth Cain bonded out of jail Friday night after being arrested and charged with crimes stemming from child abuse allegations at a daycare.

Court documents say a teacher’s assistant at Summerville Montessori School of the Arts observed Zerba lock upset 4-year-old students in a dark bathroom and force them to sit on the floor.  The complaint also said she saw Zerba force feed a child while holding the child’s head back until the child swallowed their food.  In separate instances, court documents say children complained of Zerba duct taping their mouths and yelling at them.  Cain, the school’s executive director, was charged with failure to report.  However, in a bond court hearing Friday a community of family, friends and fellow parents with children at the school, showed up in support of both.

“Miss Zerba is a 10-year Navy veteran decorated with the Navy achievement medal while she was in the Navy,” said Thomas Rode, Zerba’s attorney.  “She has no prior criminal record. She’s been teaching at the Montessori school, like she said, for 7 years.”

Similar comments were made about Cain.  “Ms. Cain is 50 years of age. She’s lived in Summerville for 17 years,” said Dale Savage, Cain’s attorney.  “She’s owned the school or ran the school. That is the subject of these allegations for the past 11 years.”  The father of an alleged victim even spoke on Zerba’s behalf. His name could not be identified.  “With all the allegations and everything that’s going on, it’s really hard to take in the fact that this is actually happening. But from my opinion, I don’t see Ms. Zerba as a threat or any kind of, or being malicious to that extent of these allegations or these charges,” he said.  Lawyers say both women turned themselves in to police.  Zerba is on administrative leave.  Cain is free to go back to work at her school.

Trial begins for suspect in break-ins; Woman accused of helping 2 ex-Citadel football players

Posted in the Post & Courier, March 2, 2011

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Citadel Home Invasions

From top left, Miguel Starks, Stephen Francois;

Bottom left, ReggieRice and Sasha Gaskins

A woman accused of helping three men, including two former Citadel football players, burglarize two apartments last year is on trial this week.  Sasha Gaskins, 19, of Clinton, faces two counts of burglary and armed robbery.  The burglaries took place three days apart in February 2010.  She is accused of faking car trouble to get in the door of two apartments so Reggie Rice, Miguel Starks and Stephen Francois could get in, tie up the owners with duct tape and loot them.  Starks, 20, of Ashley Crossing Drive, was a Citadel quarterback who was on suspension for bad grades.Rice, 23, also of Ashley Crossing Drive, also had played for the team.

The victim in the second burglary was former Citadel assistant football coach Joshua Harpe, who is scheduled to testify today.  The target of the first burglary was former Citadel cadet Herbert Butler.  A woman in the apartment was sexually assaulted.  (ABC News 4) 

Francois, 21, of Fairburn, Ga., was a student at the College of Charleston.  He and Gaskins lived together, according to testimony.  The three men pleaded guilty in January to kidnapping, first-degree burglary, armed robbery and possession of a firearm during a violent crime.  Starks also pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct.  The three men have not yet been sentenced.

The most dramatic part of today’s proceedings centered around the testimony of another student who was involved in the crimes but has not yet gone to trial.  Breanna Bruster, 19, of Greenville, was Gaskins’ friend at the College of Charleston and accompanied the group to the two apartments that were robbed, according to her testimony today.  She is cooperating with the solicitor’s office, hoping for the minimum sentence for armed robbery.  The prosecutors are Assistant Solicitors Culver Kidd and Dale Savage.  Bruster described Gaskins as key to both robberies. Gaskins knocked on the door of Butler’s apartment to get in the door, and she called Harpe from a pay phone to get him to come out and let them in, Bruster said.  Gaskins also coached Starks when he was trying to get money out of ATMs with stolen cards after the burglaries, Bruster said.  Defense attorney Kenneth Southerlin of Greer argued that Gaskins thought the men were only joking.

He also asserted that Bruster was a “jailbird snitch,” trying to make Gaskins look bad just to get a lighter sentence.  Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson repeatedly admonished Southerlin to ask questions in the proper format.  Bruster said she never went into either apartment but waited outside when Gaskins went in. Southerlin attacked Bruster’s credibility by pointing out alleged discrepancies between what she told police a year ago and what she could recall on the stand.

In separate testimony, the woman at Butler’s apartment described the horror she experienced the night of Feb. 24, 2010, the first robbery.  She said Gaskins knocked at her door asking to use her phone because of car trouble, then stepped inside to clear the way for two men who burst in with masks and guns, bound her and Butler with duct tape, including her eyes, and looted the place.

The victim also said one of the men forced her to perform oral sex while she was bound. She said she later heard the voice of a third man in the apartment.  Near the end of the ordeal, she said she heard a female voice asking the men if they wanted her to carry something out to the car.  Southerlin argued that there’s no indication that Gaskins stayed inside the apartment after she let the men in and did not witness the sexual assault.

The trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. today.  It is not expected to go to the jury before Friday.

Sasha Gaskins Testifies in Burglary trial that she feared for her life

Published in the Post & Courier, March 4, 2011

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Sasha Gaskins

Sasha Gaskins

Sasha Gaskins testifies in burglary trial that she feared for her life.  Sasha Gaskins, a woman who helped three men, including two former Citadel football players, burglarize two apartments last year testified Thursday that she did it because she feared for her life.

Sasha Gaskins, 19, a former College of Charleston student from Clinton, faces two counts of first-degree burglary and armed robbery. The burglaries took place three days apart in February 2010.

Gaskins admitted faking car trouble to get in the door of two apartments, including one occupied by former Citadel assistant football coach Joshua Harpe, so Miguel Starks and Reggie Rice could get in, tie up the owners with duct tape and loot the apartments.

Starks, 20, of Ashley Crossing Drive, was a Citadel quarterback who had recently been suspended for bad grades.  Rice, 23, also of Ashley Crossing Drive, was a former linebacker.

Gaskins said she participated because she was afraid Starks would kill her otherwise. She testified in Charleston County Circuit Court that Starks showed her a gun and told her, “Don’t mess this up or I’ll kill you.”

“I was just scared,” she said.  “I was definitely afraid for my life.”

The prosecution challenged Gaskins’ version of events, saying she had plenty of opportunities to get away, if Starks even threatened her at all.

“The truth of the matter is Miguel never threatened you, did he?”  Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd asked. “You entered into these crimes willingly, didn’t you?”

Defense attorney Kenneth Southerlin, of Greer, called on L. Randolph Waid, a forensic psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, to explain how fear can cause a person with good character to commit a crime.

Ward said that when a person perceives a deadly threat, committing a crime can be “choosing the lesser evil.”

Southerlin also brought forward several people who have known Gaskins for years as character witnesses.  They uniformly described her as intelligent, honest, a good student and a church choir member.

Sa’Datrius Alston, 19, a Charleston Southern University student who grew up with Gaskins, said she can’t imagine her being involved in a crime.

“Sasha’s one of the best people I’ve known,” she said.

Assistant Solicitor Dale Savage asked how well the witnesses had kept up with Gaskins since she went off to college and got mixed up with the men accused in the crimes.

Harpe was also called to the witness stand Thursday.  He said he thought he was going to be killed when Starks and Rice forced him to his knees, bound him with duct tape and put guns to his head.

He said one of them told him, “Now would be the time to start praying.”

“I understood it to mean they were about to shoot me in the back of the head,” he said.

Stephen Francois, 21, of Fairburn, Ga., who was Gaskins’ boyfriend at the college, also helped loot the apartments.

Francois, Starks and Rice pleaded guilty in January to kidnapping, first-degree burglary, armed robbery and possession of a firearm during a violent crime.  Starks also pleaded guilty to first degree criminal sexual conduct for assaulting a woman in one of the apartments.  The three men have not yet been sentenced.

Breanna Bruster, 19, of Greenville, also a former College of Charleston student, also was with the group when the apartments were robbed.  She pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery and also has not yet been sentenced.  The attorneys are scheduled to present closing arguments in the Gaskins trial at 9 a.m. today.

Jury convicts Sasha Gaskins, 19, in Robberies

Published in the Post & Courier, March 5, 2011

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A jury took two hours Friday to find Sasha Gaskins guilty for her role in two home- invasion-style robberies, rejecting her claims that she went along because she feared for her life.

Gaskins, 19, of Clinton was visibly shaken after Friday’s verdict ended her weeklong trial.  Her body trembled as she stood behind the defense table. She did not speak.

Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson postponed sentencing to a later date when all the participants in the crime spree could be sentenced collectively.  Three men, including two former Citadel football players, pleaded guilty earlier to their roles in the crimes.

Gaskins, a former College of Charleston student described as “the sweetest, nicest girl in town” during the trial, faces a potentially lengthy prison term. She was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and two counts of first-degree burglary. The burglary charge carries the stiffest term, 15 years to life.

One of the victims targeted in the attacks, assistant Citadel football coach Joshua Harpe, was in court Friday and said he thought justice was served.

“She sent me into an ambush,” he said at the Charleston County Judicial Center, adding that he never would have opened his door had she not telephoned first, seeking help for a broken-down car.  Harpe also approached Gaskins’ family, saying he was sorry for their loss.

The case centers on two burglaries that occurred three days apart in February 2010 in West Ashley and on James Island. Gaskins admitted to faking car trouble to get access to both the residences.  The goal was to allow former Citadel players Miguel Starks and Reggie Rice to get inside, bind the occupants with duct tape and loot the residences.

Starks, 20, of Ashley Crossing Drive was a Citadel quarterback who recently had been suspended for bad grades.  Rice, 23, also of Ashley Crossing Drive, was a former linebacker.

Gaskins testified in her defense that she feared Starks would harm her if she didn’t take part, allegedly telling her at gunpoint, “Don’t mess this up or I’ll kill you.”

In his closing argument, Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd described Gaskins as a willing participant in both robberies who had every opportunity to get away but never showed an inkling to do so.  “She had three days of reasonable means to get out of that harm’s way, to get out of that danger,” he said.

Gaskins should be convicted under the “hand of one is the hand of all” doctrine, Kidd told the jurors.

Defense attorney Ken Sowell argued Gaskins took part because “she had no choice.”  He described her as a confused 18-year-old caught up in something she could not get out of. At 18, “They don’t think about what to do,” he said.  “They think about how to stay alive.”

Also charged is Stephen Francois, 21, of Fairburn, Ga., who was Gaskins’ boyfriend at the time.  He helped loot the apartments.

All three male defendants — Francois, Starks and Rice — pleaded guilty in January to kidnapping, first-degree burglary, armed robbery and possession of a firearm during a violent crime. Starks also pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct for assaulting a woman in one of the apartments.

A fifth subject, Breanna Bruster, 19, of Greenville, also a former College of Charleston student, was with the group when the apartments were robbed.  She pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery and is awaiting sentencing as well.

The date for the next court appearance was yet to be determined and depends on the schedules of the lawyers and judges involved.

Gaskins gets 18 years

Schuyler Kropf Posted: Post & Courier Thursday, March 31, 2011

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Gaskins/Bruster Guilty

The two female accomplices in the home invasions of two men with Citadel ties were sentenced to prison moments ago.  Sasha Gaskins, who fought the charges for her role, was given 18 years, while Breanna Bruster, who cooperated with authorities, was given the prosecution-recommended 10 years (See Live 5 News).

Three men, including two former Citadel football players, were sentenced earlier for the home invasions of a former student on James Island and a former coach in West Ashley in February 2010.

Gaskins, a former College of Charleston student, was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and two counts of first-degree burglary.  She admitted to faking car trouble to get access to both the residences. Bruster, 19, of Greenville, also a former College of Charleston student, was with the group when the apartments were robbed.  She pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery.

Brandon Simmons trial begins in deputy’s wounding

Posted in the Post & Courier, December 14, 2010

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Brandon Simmons

Did Brandon Simmons fire six shots at Charleston County sheriff’s Deputy Jeffrey DeGrow in January, or was Simmons mistakenly identified?

A Charleston County jury heard opening arguments in Simmons’ trial Monday and is expected to issue its verdict by week’s end.  Simmons faces two counts of assault and battery with intent to kill and one count of possessing a firearm during a violent crime.

Deputy DeGrow

Deputy Jeffrey DeGrow was struck in the eye, head and body in last January’s attack.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Simmons shot DeGrow after he had chased Simmons around a mobile home Jan. 21 on James Island.

DeGrow, who had arrived at the Grimball Road area to investigate a home burglary there, was struck in the eye, head and body but survived the attack.

”This is an old-fashioned investigation with eyewitnesses,” she said.  “You have to be the judge about the witnesses.  They aren’t perfect people.  They don’t lead perfect lives, but you will see how it all fits.

”Simmons’ attorney, Beattie Butler of the Charleston County Public Defender’s Office, began by telling the jury that he hadn’t wanted to appear before them.  “Ours is a law and order society, and it should be,” he began.

But then Butler noted that the initial description of the shooter that DeGrow sent out — dressed in a black jacket and black pants and sporting a goatee — didn’t match Simmons’ appearance upon his arrest, when he wore different clothes and had a full beard.

Butler called this a “tough case” that would require “strength and courage.”  “I’m honored to be here before you,” he concluded in his opening argument.  “I am proud to stand here and represent Brandon Simmons. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

DeGrow, who was wearing an eye patch, sat between Wilson and Assistant Solicitor Dale Savage.  His testimony could come today.

Before opening arguments, Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson heard arguments about whether a photo lineup should be admitted in the trial. While he was in the hospital, DeGrow picked Simmons from among six photographs.  Jefferson ruled that the lineup was not unduly suggestive and could be admitted.

DeGrow had investigated a burglary report near Cuffy and Seawater lanes and moments later confronted three men, who fled. He gave chase on foot and pulled out his Taser as he drew close to one suspect.

Wilson told the jury that DeGrow was able to pinpoint Simmons as the shooting suspect with ease. ‘One-hundred percent sure,’ he said,” she added.

Investigators have not found the handgun used in the shooting, but Wilson said it appeared to be a revolver because no spent cartridges were found at the crime scene.

The first witness to testify Monday was Benny Brown, a truck driver who called in the burglary report.  He testified that he did not see any suspects.

Simmons’ brother, Theodore Simmons, 21, and a cousin, Curtis Williams, 21, were charged with misprision of a felony.

Simmons guilty of shooting deputy

Schuyler Kropf Posted: Saturday, December 18, 2010 12:01 a.m.

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Brandon Simmons was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Brandon Simmons

A jury took less than one hour Friday to find Brandon Simmons guilty of shooting Charleston County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeffrey DeGrow six times.

Immediately afterward, the deputy got his pocket angel back.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson returned to DeGrow an inch-high angel encased in clear plastic.  The protective good luck charm had been a gift from his wife that he hadn’t seen since the morning he was shot near Grimball Road on James Island.

Simmons, 22, received the maximum 25-year sentence from Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson, 20 years for one count of assault and battery with intent to kill and five years for one count of possessing a firearm during a violent crime.  The years will run consecutively.

One juror said the speed of the deliberation was fueled by DeGrow’s account of the chase for a burglary suspect through a rural section of James Island, and his positive I.D. of Simmons as the shooter.  The juror called it “the most overwhelmingly believable aspect” of the five-day trial.

DeGrow was shot Jan. 21 after chasing one of three suspects in his cruiser and on foot.  At the  end of the foot pursuit, the deputy was peering around the corner of a mobile home where Simmons stood holding what is believed to have been a .22-caliber revolver.

The deputy was struck six times by gunfire.  He survived but wears a patch over his right eye.

During his testimony, DeGrow described having a spiritual experience with God while he lay on the ground bleeding from his wounds.  He later made it back to his squad car and radioed for help.

From start to finish, the chase lasted one minute, 25 seconds.  Simmons was arrested the next day hiding in an abandoned car.

Besides DeGrow’s positive I.D., Wilson tried to convict Simmons through the chatter of cellphone text messages.  One text reportedly sent while Simmons was on the run in an area where police had set up roadblocks said, “you think they’d stop a cab?”  Wilson told the jury in her closing statement.

“He’s trying to get out of there,” she said of another.  “The ‘man’s’ coming,” said another.  Wilson called Simmons a “would-be cop killer.”

Defense attorney Beattie Butler tried to poke numerous holes in the state’s case, challenging the chain of custody for the police evidence and the fact that there was an absence of mud and debris on Simmons’ clothes after a day on the run.

Simmons was arrested wearing an oversized pair of pants and shirt that were different from what he had been seen wearing the day before, officials said.  After the verdict, DeGrow said he had forgiven Simmons long ago and suggested he find a way to turn his life around during the long years in prison to come.

“I’m not going to carry that burden with me,” he said.  “This is your time to carry what you did to me.”

DeGrow’s wife, Lisa, told Simmons that if one of his bullets had moved even a fraction from its striking point, it would have killed her husband. She also said Simmons showed no remorse during the trial, giving her no sign to move past asking for anything other than a maximum sentence.

“You showed nothing,” she said. Simmons’ incarceration begins immediately.

Brandon Simmons sentenced to 25 years in deputy shooting

Posted: Post & Courier Friday, December 17, 2010

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Brandon Simmons, Jeffrey DeGrow

Brandon Simmons was sentenced to spend the maximum 25 years behind bars this afternoon for shooting Charleston County sheriff’s Deputy Jeffrey DeGrow in January following a burglary call on James Island.

The sentence by Circuit Judge Deadra Jefferson is the 20-year maximum for one count of assault and battery with intent to kill, and five years for one count of possessing a firearm during a violent crime. DeGrow said he had forgiven Simmons, 22, long ago and pressed him to turn his life around while in prison.

A juror interviewed afterward said DeGrow’s testimony of getting shot six times and remembering Simmons’ face was the deciding factor in a deliberation that lasted an hour or less.

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