New Richland jail director perpetuated sexual harassment, toxic culture at former job, ex-employee says

·9 min read

The scrutiny began in earnest earlier this summer with some faulty paperwork: It said Tyrell Cato had left his post as director of the Kershaw County jail voluntarily.

But that wasn’t true. Cato, recently hired to run the Richland County jail, was fired for violating polices related to sexual harassment. Now that scrutiny has grown into a web of accusations calling into question what’s been described as a toxic culture that allegedly flourished under Cato at the Kershaw County jail, brought to light by newly uncovered allegations from a former employee.

Concerns about the allegations are heightened because the two men at the center of the storm remain in high-ranking positions of authority — Cato, now the head of the Richland jail, and his former colleague Ervin Whack, the lieutenant of administration at the neighboring Kershaw County jail.

The accusations trace back to at least 2020, when a former female officer at the Kershaw County jail made a formal complaint to then-assistant county administrator Danny Templar and county councilman Jimmy Jones that she had been harassed by her supervisor, Whack.

Her report implicated Cato, at the time a captain at the jail. The former employee who made the report asked not to be named in this article for fear of retaliation.

More than two years later, it was Whack who wrongly reported to a state agency that Cato voluntarily left his position in Kershaw County, only weeks before Cato was hired by Richland County.

State authorities are now investigating why Cato’s firing was initially incorrectly reported. And at least one Kershaw County leader insists that the county will take a closer look at how allegations against Whack and Cato were handled.

Allegations of harassment

Shortly after the female officer started working at the Kershaw jail in summer 2018, Whack, a lieutenant, began making unwelcome sexual advances, according to complaints she filed with county officials.

The former employee, who worked on and off as a corrections officer since around 2002, said that it started with Whack taking her to try on her new uniform and commenting, “Mmm those fit nice,” according to interviews and complaints she sent to Templar and Jones. She also provided copies of the complaint emails to The State.

Whack attempted to kiss the employee at least twice, she said, including in his office at the jail.

Whack sent her at least two sexually suggestive photos of himself standing in front of a mirror wearing only underwear and holding his genitals in one hand, according to the email. Those photos were included in her emails to Jones and Templar and were provided to The State.

While much of the harassment came from Whack, Cato also participated, encouraging a relationship between Whack and the employee and commenting on at least two occasions about her breasts, the employee said in the emails.

“Captain Cato would tell me he knsows Lt. Whack likes me and for me ... not to hurt him,” she wrote in her emails to Jones and Templar. “Cato told me .. that if Lt. Whack hurts, he hurts.”

The female employee was fired from the jail in May 2019, according to separation paperwork filed with the state Criminal Justice Academy. That paperwork, signed by Whack, says the employee was terminated for “violation of agency policy not involving misconduct.”

The termination came two months after the employee made an emailed report to then-jail director Peggy Spivey about the culture Cato created at work, which she said included gossiping about other employees and intimidating staff.

“Everyone feels bullied and intimidated, Capt. Cato often says his (way) or no way. This is not half the issue,” she wrote in the email to Spivey.

That email, which she also provided to The State, did not include details about sexual harassment from Whack.

The employee said she was told she was fired for failing to do a perimeter check, something she said she was never trained to do. But she believes she was fired because of the report to Spivey.

When reached Tuesday by The State, Spivey declined to comment.

Nearly a year after she was fired from the jail, the female employee reported the harassment to Jones and Templar in February 2020. The employee never filed a formal grievance because she said she was told she missed the 14-day window to do so.

She became depressed “and it took a while to get myself mentally and emotionally together,” she wrote to Jones and Templar. “But it still bothers me how I was sexually harassed and had to work in such a hostile work environment.”

Jones confirmed receiving the email from the female employee, as well as speaking with her and a male colleague who Jones said also reported a toxic culture at the jail.

Cato’s attorney, Beth Bowen, said that Cato adamantly denies the allegation that he created an inappropriate culture within the jail. “The accusations ... were investigated by Kershaw County and were not substantiated,” said Bowen.

The Kershaw County Council never formally met to discuss the allegations, Jones said, adding he was assured by county administrators “it would be dealt with and taken care of.”

Four days after the former employee’s 2020 complaint was received, Whack was fired from his job at the jail on Feb. 24. In documents signed by Cato and filed with the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, Whack is described as having been let go for a policy violation. Employment status changes in detention centers legally must be reported to the Criminal Justice Academy.

But four months later, in June 2020, Whack was reinstated.

Kershaw County fired Whack for fraternization, not for sexual harassment, after deciding that his relationship with the female employee who reported him was “mutual,” said Templar, who is now the Kershaw County administrator.

After a conversation with the woman, Templar said that he investigated the claims of sexual harassment. In the course of the investigation, Templar said that he considered meals that Whack and the woman had together, and he reviewed texts that demonstrated a “reciprocation of communication.”

“(Fraternization) is just what I can factually prove,” said Templar. He described the texts between Whack and the woman as “cordial.”

“It struck me at the time as mutual,” Templar told The State. “I could never find, to my memory, anything that would have led us to believe that it was anything that would have been unwanted.”

Templar said Whack was reinstated following a grievance hearing because the jail did not have a policy against fraternization.

This policy was “immediately” changed after the grievance procedure, Templar said.

The former employee told The State the relationship was not mutual and that she felt pressured to respond cordially to Whack’s texts because he was her boss. She did have two meals with Whack, and the first was after her uniform fitting. At the second dinner, Whack tried to kiss her and she declined, she said. The former employee says she told Whack several times that she was not interested in a relationship.

The county grievance committee made its decision to reinstate Whack without speaking with the former employee who reported Whack for sexual harassment. She was never interviewed or asked to testify as part of Whack’s grievance hearing, both she and Templar confirmed.

The State has requested and is waiting to receive documents from the county relating to Whack’s firing and grievance process.

Templar described Whack as an “exemplary employee” outside of the allegations.

Kershaw County also investigated the woman’s claim’s against Cato, Templar said, but no action was taken against Cato because the county’s investigation did not turn up any proof.

Through his attorney, Bowen, Cato told The State that he was not involved in Whack’s return to the jail. He also maintained that there was “no collusion” with Whack on the Criminal Justice Academy filings, as Cato was unaware that there was anything wrong with his own separation paperwork.

Whack has not responded to The State’s multiple attempts to reach him for comment.

Continued employment

Despite the allegations against them, Whack and Cato remained employed at the jail for two-plus years. Cato was fired in May 2022 after another employee accused him of sexual harassment, and he shortly thereafter was hired as director of the troubled Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Richland County. Whack remains the lieutenant of administration for the Kershaw jail.

After Cato was fired in May, Whack wrongly reported to the state Criminal Justice Academy that Cato left his position voluntarily.

“I feel like it was an honest, clerical mistake,” Templar told The State this week. “If it turns out to be something different, then we’re fully prepared to address it.”

Cato, was fired after an employee accused him of propositioning her for a relationship, making repeated sexual remarks and, on one occasion, using a hug as an opportunity to smell her hair, according to documents from a grievance hearing that upheld the firing.

After Cato was fired, Whack wrote a letter to the county supporting Cato.

“I have never worked with a person who gives as much attention to detail as he does,” Whack wrote. “His skills do not end with his office work, he also projects warm, embracing attitudes to our personnel by showing appreciation to help promote a cheerful environment.”

Jones said he plans to ask for an executive session of the Kershaw County Council to further investigate the county’s handling of the claims against Whack and Cato.

Problems at the Richland jail

These new details surrounding Cato’s employment in Kershaw County further complicate his hiring to run Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

Richland County hired Cato without checking his records on file with the Criminal Justice Academy, The State has previously reported. The county did request those records three weeks after he was hired, according to the academy.

But even had the county requested them earlier, the initial documents would have been wrong. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is now investigating why Cato’s documents were erroneously filed initially. SLED has declined to comment on the investigation.

Richland County officials have refused to answer questions about Cato. When asked Tuesday if Cato was still employed at the jail, a county spokesperson said, “Per Administrator (Leonardo) Brown, our office will not be giving employment status updates for County staff, so unfortunately we can’t give an update on Mr. Cato’s status.”

Multiple Richland County Council members have not returned calls or have declined to comment on Cato’s employment. Brown, the county administrator, also has not returned calls from The State about Cato.

The State reached Cato Tuesday by phone at the Richland jail, but he declined to comment.

The jail has been under scrutiny for more than a year because of severe under-staffing, violence inside the jail and reports of poor conditions for detainees. Three people died at the Richland County detention center this year in the span of two months. One of those detainees, 27-year-old Lason Butler, died in February from dehydration, and his death was ruled a homicide by Coroner Naida Rutherford. Butler’s family is now suing the jail.