The stunning news about Tom Sponseller

Last week, I had been set to have lunch with my friend Bob McAlister, but he suddenly had to cancel because of a new client — he was representing the S.C. Hospitality Association in dealing with the media with regard to the disappearance of its CEO, Tom Sponseller.

Today was the day that we’d set for the rain check. We had just sat down with our food from the buffet at the Capital City Club when another diner came over, smartphone in hand, to tell Bob: “They’ve found Tom’s body.” In the parking garage. And Bob had to run out.

Later, on the way back to the office, I saw The State‘s John Monk and Noelle Phillips outside the building on Lady Street that houses the Hospitality Association’s offices. Chief Randy Scott had just given reporters the barest of details, and now the Association’s employees were being told what was known.

I asked John and Noelle the most obvious question: How do you not find a body for 11 days in a parking garage? The reporters told me they had searched the place themselves last week, and that there were several doors opening off the garage that they were unable to enter.

This is what little has been released so far:

The body of missing lobbyist Tom Sponseller has been found, according to Columbia police.

Sponseller killed himself, said Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott. His body was found in a lower level of the parking garage at 1122 Lady Street just before 11 a.m., said Jennifer Timmons, a Columbia Police Department spokeswoman. The S.C. Hospitality Association where Sponseller was chief executive officer has its headquarters at the building.

“It’s very devestating,” said Rick Patel, the vice chairman of the S.C. Hospitality Association.

Investigators found the body in a double enclosed room as they were conducting a follow up check of the building, she said.

Police have searched the building multiple times, including a search with dogs trained to find cadavers, Timmons said.

A 2 p.m. at Columbia police headquarters is planned, Timmons said.

As John and Noelle headed over to the police department for that presser, I left them. I’m sure they will have more to share soon.

One reason I found the reporters out on the street is that they were barred from entering the building where the SC Hospitality Association has its offices.

42 thoughts on “The stunning news about Tom Sponseller

  1. Brad

    It was a little hard to see the reporters go without following them, but I’d been gone from the office long enough.

    Even though I spent most of my career as an editor supervising writers (my last reporting job was in 1980), when something this big was happening, I would often assign myself to go watch over the reporters’ shoulders. But I’m sure they’ll ask the right questions, and we’ll know more soon enough…

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  2. Brad

    The news conference is over. I didn’t hear anything much new (I missed the beginning, during which I think something was revealed about a suicide note, inferring from what followed).

    But I was impressed with the quiet dignity with which Chief Randy Scott handled it, including the fact that he went out of his way to express his sorrow that it took the police this long to find the body. It was in a room, apparently behind two locked doors, to which the police had not had access in previous searches. Apparently, the doors had to be rekeyed to gain admittance.

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  3. Brad

    Former WACH-Fox News Director Bryan Cox agreed with me, over on Facebook, about what the chief said:

    “Kudos to Chief Scott for facing the media today and taking his lumps about the city’s handling of this case. This is exactly the type of openness that needs to infect the rest of city government.”

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  4. Brad

    Don’t know what Bryan is referring to specifically in city government, but I would expand that to say the chief’s attitude needs to infect ALL layers of government — and the private sector as well, I might add (in fact, I think I will).

    Try to imagine, for instance, Nikki Haley standing up and talking like that. You can’t, can you?

    Chief Scott is a grownup.

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  5. Gary Karr

    I guess I expect more. I expect a news conference to be done professionally. I expect the police chief to not discuss the reaction of a deceased person’s wife. If you’re going to be humble, you should start off by admitting your department probably made a mistake (rather just simply wishing you’d done better). And put on a coat and put a flag over the stupid outlet.

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  6. bud

    Ok, Chief Scott is a “grownup” for owning up to his agency’s apparent ineptitude. Maybe there’s a good reason not to look behind every door in the parking garage where Mr. Sponseller’s body was found but I can’t imagine what it could be. What is really puzzling though is why the cadaver dogs didn’t find him? Those dogs can detect incredibly faint scents from a great distance. It will be interesting to hear the full story on this. I don’t think this one will serve as an example of how to find a missing person in the CSI classroom.

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  7. Brad

    No, Bud, it won’t… and what I heard was the Chief saying that. He was embarrassed. I appreciate his candor on that.

    Gary Karr, for those who don’t know him, was press secretary to Gov. Beasley.

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  8. Bryan Cox

    Gary makes fair points in his comments about having a more polished appearance for the press conference, but a major problem in our culture is we’ve become more concerned with appearance than substance. I find it refreshing and encouraging to see a public official be so open and straightforward.

    I think the important fact here is that Chief Scott promptly and candidly addressed the public knowing his department faces tough questions about its actions and he’s likely to be criticized personally as the leader of the department.

    Our public officials owe us transparency and accountability, but if we call for their heads anytime a non-scripted, polished and approved message is communicated we can’t blame them for not wanting to talk. Kudos to the chief for facing the public today.

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  9. bud

    Brad and Bryan are focusing or FORM over substance here. Sure it’s nice when a public figure is candid in a public appearance. But a week from now will anyone be talking about how candid Chief Scott was? Of course not. Everyone will be talking about the 11 long days it took to find Mr. Sponseller.

    Let’s turn to the world of sports to see how this works. If Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks lose a football game and he gives a press conference with a humble and candid discussion about he failed the fans does anyone give him points for fessing up? Of course not. The fans want wins. If Chief Scott thinks for one second that he’s going to be off the hook because he was candid then I have some great bottom land west of the Lake Murray dam I’ll sell him.

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  10. Gary Karr

    Fair enough, Bryan. But other than the mere fact that he held a news conference today and didn’t try to suggest his department actually did a good job, I’m not sure what the chief did that’s worthy of praise. I know if it were my wife or daughter found today, I would be furious. And a mere news conference to actually take — but not really answer — questions wouldn’t assuage my anger.

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  11. Bryan Cox

    Chief Scott holding a press conference doesn’t get him “off the hook” but it does eliminate the speculation and criticism that would follow if he hadn’t spoken today. I gave him kudos because for years the city culture has been to hide and ignore questions. Praising his openness doesn’t excuse any failures, but it is a step in the right direction toward building trust and credibility.

    Good crisis communications does not make failures disappear; it just prevents the situation from being made worse and gives you the opportunity to tell your side of the story. To that extent, the city thus far is doing a far better job communicating than it has in the past.

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  12. `Kathryn Fenner

    I’m stunned. I worked with Tom on a task force and really came to like and respect him. Randy was also on that task force and he’s a straight shooter. I, too, do not understand why the cadaver dogs couldn’t detect the scent. I don’t know if there were building plans available and if so, were they consulted. Noelle and John wrote last week that there were many doors they could not get through because they were locked. What puzzles me also is why there were so many doors and closet spaces in the garage, and why there were not adequate working surveillance cameras in the garage. If I were a tenant of that building, I’d be demanding some answers!

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  13. Edward Bender

    What Randy Scott said, did or looked like at the press conference today misses a much larger and more frightening point. The CPD investigators could not find a missing person in the building where he was last seen. When asked why they could not find the body the police excuse appears to be because a “door was locked.” Additionally, there was suicide note left in Mr. Sponseller’s office. The police never found the note. A co-worker of Mr. Sponseller’s did . . .today. Mistakes happen, I understand that. What is scary is that the police seem to lack a basic attention to detail required in all types of police investigations. This was a very high profile case and the police failed at basic tasks. What happens in an investigation without media scrutiny, without a high profile individual? Mistakes like these would never come to light. I fear for this city and its residents if the discourse surrounding these horrific events continues to be about the press conferences and “quiet dignity.”

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  14. `Kathryn Fenner

    Randy said they did not have probable cause to search the offices. I wonder if anyone asked for consent to search, and if so, was it denied? By whom?

    Bob McAllister could perhaps shed some light on this.

    Randy said the coworkers found the note–had they not searched heretofore?

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  15. Mark Stewart

    We now have three newsworthy stories out of this sadly strange (or strangely sad) situation; and yet it feels as though several more will be revealed as the investigation(s) proceed.

    We should all remember the most important lesson here: Trust matters.

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  16. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Edward Bender– AS Chief said, they had a missing person case, not a criminal investigation. The PC standard is a lot higher, and I wonder who could consent to a search of the offices in Tom’s absence, and if that person would consent. If the association were your client, or any of the employees, given the federal investigation, would you advise them to consent to a search?

    Now the building situation does give me pause. Again, we don’t know if the building management simply refused to cooperate or passive-aggressively failed to cooperate.

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  17. Joanne

    Devastating news for his family. Prayers for their comfort and eventual understanding. As a family member of a suicide, this is as hard as it gets for a family.

    Very sad. No answers. :(

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  18. Steven Davis II

    So there’s not a janitor in the building who has a master key to every lock in the building? Trained cadaver dogs can find bodies under feet of dirt yet Columbia’s dogs can’t sniff under a door? I suspect that after 10 days, the dogs weren’t needed…

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  19. Juan Caruso

    “How do you not find a body for 11 days in a parking garage?”

    Could it be rank incompetence of law enforcement, lack of effective leadership, or simply plain inexperience? Honestly, it must be one, but I dare not guess.

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  20. Bryan Caskey

    Kudos to the Chief for owning up to the mistakes. We’re not usually judged by our mistakes; we’re judged by how we respond to them. Hopefully, the CPD will do something different next time.

    As to Tom himself, it’s tragic that he thought this was the only option he had left. I’ll have the family that he left behind in my prayers.

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  21. Burl Burlingame

    Recall that your own governor was missing for several days without being found. Without a suicide note left in an obvious place, how would the police suspect suicide?

    And my first thought was of cadaver dogs. Hell, even a regular dog. It’s interesting that such structures have secret spaces. An obvious question — what made the police break into the locked room at all?

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  22. Edward Bender

    @Kathryn Fenner – I undoubtedly would have given the police authority to search Mr. Sponseller’s office. My fear is the CPD likely failed to ask if they could search the office. Based on the facts as we know them, it appears CPD made a half-hearted attempt to solve this crime and I would not be surprised to learn that they failed to even ask permission to search the office. Much like they were deterred by a locked “room within a room” I imagine the higher probable cause standard kept the police from taking the necessary steps required to search Mr. Sponseller’s office.

    Again however, a debate about probable cause is secondary to the bigger issue. What kind of mistakes, errors or ineptitudes have the CPD made in situations that did not involve high profile individuals with lots of media scrutiny? It is hard to believe that these fundamental failures are unique to this investigation. Absent this media scrutiny, these investigation issues would never be public and we, as residents, would remain ignorant to these problems. To date, how many investigations have failed or criminals remained on the street because of CPD’s limitations? It is my hope that the Mayor, the City Council and Chief Scott use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate the direction of the CPD and our priorities as a city.

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  23. Silence

    As I commented in another posting, the CPD’s handling of this case would be comic, if the case weren’t so tragic. I feel terrible for Mr. Sponseller’s family and friends. I feel equally terrible for all of Columbia’s citizenry who are cursed with being protected and served by the CPD. There are many capable and hardworking officers on the force, however, it’s time to give up the charade that they are an effective or competent organization. Due to personal politics, we missed a good opportunity to consolidate CPD and the RCSO. Now we are stuck with Inspector Clouseau investigating crimes in the city. It’s too much to hope that City Council takes Chief Scott to task for his agency’s failings….

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  24. Tim

    Its not uncommon to have an electrical closet in a small room within a room. Given it was a groundfloor parking garage, it may well have had a gasket sealing it to prevent flooding.

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  25. tired old man

    Chief Scott made an obscure reference to the room being some kind of a smoking room due to the number of cigarette butts therein.

    Tom was a smoker, and it seems obvious to associate a smoker with a place smokers smoke in public buildings.

    Second, who owned, controlled or rented that room? Was it an “underground” smokers’ retreat, and if so, why hadn’t any other smoker questioned lack of access in light of the missing man? At any rate, Tom seems to have had access to it. Did others?

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  26. Tim

    My guess is that it was an unofficial smoking room, probably one that Sponseller and maybe a very few others used on the downlow, and did not share the secret locale freely.

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  27. bud

    Whatever happened to the traffic accident investigation involving Mayor-elect Benjamin? Seems like that one was bungled as well.

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  28. Steven Davis

    One question I have is if he were this apologetic in his suicide letter, why did he hide himself in a location where he knew that it would be difficult to find him. Why didn’t he shoot himself in his office or in his car. He had to know his body would eventually be found, why put your family and friends through this additional drama. I’m sorry if I’m not sympathetic but I know a handful of people who have committed suicide and it’s the most selfish and cruel thing a person can do to their family and friends. I have no pity or sorrow toward this coward who was too afraid to face the consequences for his actions or lack of action.

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  29. Mark Stewart

    Property managers have plan sets of all spaces within office buildings of this size; especially given that the room contained telecom equipment. I would assume that these would have been shared with the police at least by the Monday after his disappearance. From the descriptions of the search efforts, however, this seems debatable.

    It’s not much of a leap to assume that someone on the building staff gave Tom Sponseller a key to the door – as The State reported there were two chairs in the makeshift smoker’s lounge – and then wasn’t willing to fess up about it after he went missing. Smokers remain a thorn in the side of commercial property managers as they are always trying to find some den to light up in.

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  30. kc

    Very sorry for Mr. Sponseller’s family.

    For the life of me, I don’t understand why anyone would leave a suicide note in a locked desk, knowing no one else has a key, and commit suicide in an obscure locked room. Not that there’s a “right” way to commit suicide, of course, but that’s almost guaranteeing that it’s going to take a while for people to figure out what happened to you.

    I guess he wasn’t thinking straight. Very sad.

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  31. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Edward Bender–What crime? It was a missing person case–it is no crime for an adult to go AWOL, and there was no evidence to support a warrant that any other crime had been committed, from what we know.

    I would not give the police consent to search the premises unless the feds had already searched them–you do not know what they might turn up. What I don’t understand is why SCHA didn’t search their own premises better.

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  32. `Kathryn Fenner

    @bud– That was under the former chief, Tandy Carter, who lost his job over it. The investigation was not bungled. There was an appearance of impropriety because the Mayor-elect at the time would eventually be one of seven bosses of the police chief’s boss, the city manager, so it would have been prudent to call in the state cops. Then Tandy Carter defied the city manager, going so far as to solicit an Attorney General opinion.

    All evidence is that the investigation was competently done, and the Mayor-elect was found to be largely responsible.

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  33. Brad

    Yeah, the problem that time wasn’t the investigation; it was the then-chief’s inexplicable touchiness about it. I never quite understood that…

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  34. `Kathryn Fenner

    I hate to draw parallels, but in both Tandy Carter and Tom Sponseller, I see some serious distortion of the code of military honor — both seemed to have been motivated by some deeply held ideals, past the point of rationality.

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  35. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ kc– A friend of mine theorized that he did not want to be discovered (and possibly saved) before he was successful.

    Rationality doesn’t factor into this behavior–if he were terminally ill, I could understand, but under the circumstances as we know them, he was obviously not in his right mind.

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  36. Brad

    That’s just the thing, though, Kathryn. What Chief Carter did was most unmilitary. A good Marine is so attuned to his superiors’ orders that he anticipates them. He was clearly evading the intentions of command authority.

    In the end, he was fired, for a spectacular case of insubordination. He apparently was a good chief, right up until the moment he made it impossible to evade the need to fire him.

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  37. `Kathryn Fenner

    Tandy obviously felt he was the General of his troops. I think that’s why he sought the AG opinion, to validate his belief. He was wrong, of course.

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  38. Mark Stewart

    What would cause someone to lock a suicide note (and the gun’s packaging) in one’s desk door and then lock oneself in a subterreanean warren of utility closets? Shame would be the first irrationality to come to mind for me.

    Senseless agony for the family left behind.

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