Arthur Lee Moultrie was one of the men charged in a killing last year on Edisto Island. The charges since have been dismissed. ‘How could they just lock me up for no reason, with no investigation — nothing — and just throw away the key?’ Moultrie said.

It began with a squeal of tires outside a low-slung island roadhouse in June of last year. Three gunmen jumped from an old sedan and opened fire, peppering a 29-year-old with bullets.

An eyewitness fingered Brown, 22, and Moultrie, 30, as two of the gunmen. The eyewitness implicated Brown’s older brother, Kendrell, as well. Charleston County sheriff’s deputies soon jailed the trio on murder charges.

Case solved. Or was it?

Prosecutors last month abruptly dismissed the charges against Craig Brown and Moultrie, citing the statements of alibi witnesses and other evidence that raised strong doubts about their involvement in the killing.

How this will affect the remaining case against Kendrell Brown remains unclear.

But the move raises fresh questions about the thoroughness of the sheriff’s office investigation and its willingness to probe the two men’s claims of innocence.

Detectives knew about the men’s alibi claims and the existence of potential exonerating witnesses from the outset, but they did little to follow up on that information, attorneys for Moultrie and Brown said.

Investigators instead let the pair stew in jail for months, despite growing doubts about the accuracy of the eyewitness’ identification and a lack of physical evidence tying the two men to the crime, the attorneys said.

“Basically, no one would stick their neck out on a murder charge and admit how weak this case was,” said Meg Fanning Horn, Moultrie’s lawyer.

Sheriff’s officials said detectives did everything in their power to get to the bottom of the case, but they were often stymied by people’s reticence in coming forward. Of some 16 potential alibi witnesses, only three agreed to speak with investigators, and two of those gave conflicting statements, Chief Deputy John Clark said.

“We were more than happy to listen to anything anyone had to say about the investigation,” he said. “Trust me, we don’t want people in jail who are not involved in a crime. That’s not how we operate.”

Moultrie doesn’t buy it. He said he’s spent 15 months in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, sinking deeper in debt and leaving his two boys — ages 2 and 3 — without a father.

Craig Brown (left) also was charged in the death of Kavares Brown (right). The charge was dropped in September for lack of evidence.

What’s more, he’s still stuck behind bars because a Family Court judge recently sentenced him to three months in jail for $3,000 in unpaid child support. The judge gave him no credit for the time already served, Moultrie and his lawyer said.

“They’ve made my whole life hell,” he said. “How could they just lock me up for no reason, with no investigation — nothing — and just throw away the key?”

A deadly barrage

The call came in at 12:30 a.m. on June 18, 2010. Shots were fired outside the Pit Club, a no-frills nightclub in a turquoise-colored cinderblock building that squats behind a chain link fence on Highway 174.

Kavares Brown, an auto mechanic and father of three, was standing outside the club with friends when a burgundy Buick rolled up. Three gunmen jumped out with bandanas over their faces and told the crowd not to move.

People scattered and the intruders opened fire, spraying Kavares Brown with bullets. He died before he reached a hospital.

Beverly Brown, the victim’s mother, said her son had no enemies. His rap sheet shows weapons convictions and a pending drug charge, but Brown said her son was also doting father whose generosity earned him the nickname “Big Bucks.”

“Everyone loved him,” she said. “He was a good man, and they gunned him down like an animal in the street.”

The gunmen were long gone when deputies arrived that night. Four days later, an eyewitness told investigators that Moultrie and the Brown brothers — no relation to the victim — were the killers.

The witness later identified the suspects from a photo lineup, according to arrest affidavits.

On paper, the men didn’t look like hardened killers. Craig Brown, then a student at Denmark Technical College and a youth football coach, had no criminal record. Moultrie, an unemployed landscaper, has misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence and marijuana possession.

Kendrell Brown, 25, was convicted of shoplifting and marijuana possession, court records show.

Moultrie said Detective Rocky Burke stopped by his home shortly after the shooting to ask where he had been that night. Moultrie said he was partying with friends near Hollywood and watching the Lakers play the Celtics for the NBA championship. He said several friends could vouch for him.

“Detective Burke told me ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ” Moultrie said. “Then, two weeks later, he came to pick me up with a murder warrant.”

Claims of innocence

Moultrie said Kavares Brown was a friend and he bore him no ill will. He said he didn’t even know his co-defendants, which Craig Brown confirmed.

Craig Brown turned himself in to deputies in late July after learning of a warrant for his arrest. A group of supporters accompanied him to Round O to meet detectives. The group offered 10 signed affidavits from folks offering alibis for Moultrie.

They said similar alibi witnesses were set to vouch for Brown, who claimed he was at a friend’s home in Jacksonboro when the shooting occurred.

“We’re not trying to obstruct justice,” Marvin Bowens, head of the Human Rights Foundation of Charleston County, said at the time. “We think Charleston County investigators weren’t doing their job.”

Moultrie and Craig Brown said friends tried to contact Burke, but the investigator didn’t return calls or wasn’t around when they went to meet with him. Moultrie said Burke also refused his repeated pleas to take a polygraph test.

Burke declined to comment for this story. But Clark, of the sheriff’s office, said investigators probed every lead in the case. “We cannot just go by what other people tell us,” he said. “Every time someone tells us something we have to substantiate and corroborate it, and that’s what we did here.”

Clark said investigators felt they had enough evidence to make the arrests, and a grand jury later indicted all three men on murder charges.

The case falls apart

Lauren Williams, Craig Brown’s attorney, said she saw whopping holes in the case from the start. For one, the state’s eyewitness was never 100 percent sure that he had identified the right men from the photo line-up. His confidence faded over time until he was about “50-50,” she said.

In addition, detectives never checked Craig Brown’s cell phone records. If they had, they would have found he made a call around the time of the shooting, and it “pinged” off a cell tower some 20 miles from the Pit Club, Williams said.

As for Moultrie, the same witnesses who were reportedly reticent to speak with detectives lined up to tell their stories to prosecutor Rutledge Durant, at a meeting arranged by the defense’s private detective.

Durant had some misgivings about the case and assisted Williams in securing the cell phone records that helped clear her client. He reviewed the evidence with his boss, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, and they decided last month to drop the charges against the two men.

“Rutledge and I talked about it a good bit, and obviously we were very concerned about what we were seeing,” Wilson said. “The goal is always to try to get to the bottom of what happened and not just go with it when there are red flags everywhere, as there were in this case. Certainly, we are not interested in prosecuting people who are not guilty.”

New start, old wounds

Craig Brown said he’s not bitter about what happened, even though jail put him a year behind in school. He since has moved to Vorhees College, where he is studying business and playing on the baseball team.

“I’m just very happy to get this off my back and keep moving forward with my life,” he said.

His brother, Kendrell, remains charged in the case, and Wilson said she is prepared to go to trial as early next month. Durant said stronger evidence ties him to the crime, including DNA on cigarette butts in the car used in the shooting.

Kendrell Brown’s public defender, Andrew Grimes, did not return a call for comment.

Moultrie hopes to get out of jail soon and move somewhere far away from Charleston. “I don’t want to live in a place where someone can lock you up for no reason. I can’t deal with that, so I’ve got to go.”

Sheriff’s officials said the investigation remains open and future arrests are possible.

The victim’s family doesn’t know what to think anymore. His mother said she got ill when she learned that charges had been dismissed against two of the defendants. She is struggling with her grief and trying to explain to his young children why Daddy won’t ever come home again.

“He always wanted a little girl, and she came just before he died. She will never know him,” Beverly Brown said. “It’s not right. Someone has to pay for my son’s murder.”

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