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Indecent Conduct

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Former firefighter’s checkered past went unchecked for years before joining fire district

How did Brandon Thomsen – with a history of reckless, violent behavior, run-ins with law enforcement and a previous connection to another case involving sexual assault of a minor – land a job in the public trust?

By Mindy Lucas

When Brandon Thomsen made his first court appearance recently since being arrested on charges of soliciting and sending obscene messages to a 13-year-old girl, Thomsen’s checkered past wasn’t part of the discussion, but perhaps it should have been.

The former Beaufort County firefighter was found and arrested in a Georgia hospital in December after fleeing the area.

It wasn’t the first time Thomsen tried to run from the law or evade accountability.

Thomsen, 47, has a history of run-ins with local law enforcement and reckless and violent behavior, according to police reports, court records and other public documents.

What’s more, he has decade-old connection to another case involving the alleged sexual assault of another 13-year-old in Thomsen’s home.

All of which occurred before Thomsen was hired by the Burton Fire District in 2011 and prior to Thomsen’s 2018 encounter with Trey Pringle — who died after Thomsen was accused of employing a chokehold on the 26-year-old in an altercation involving police.

Now the question remains, how did Thomsen, with no previous experience as a firefighter or in public service, and with at least two criminal charges on his record prior to his hiring, manage to land a job as a firefighter in Beaufort County?

Recklessness, aggression and evasiveness

Brandon Thomsen moved to the South Carolina Lowcountry from Colorado, in the year 2000. An electrician by training, Thomsen started his own electrical business and began working for himself, employment records show.

However, just two years after moving to town, Thomsen, then 28, and members of a group he is with, are involved in a physical altercation at the now-closed Cinelli’s Restaurant in Burton.

After members of the group take issue with their bar tab and begin cursing at the restaurant’s owners, a fight breaks out and Thomsen hits the man in the face and head, while his friends attack the man’s wife, a Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office report states.

Thomsen is later picked up and arrested, but not before fleeing the restaurant on foot.

Found walking nearby by police, initially Thomsen denies being at the restaurant but is identified by the victims who are brought to where he is.

He is arrested for assault and battery and later pleads no contest in Beaufort Magistrate Court. It won’t be the last time Thomsen runs afoul of the law.

In fact, by the time he applies for a job with the Burton Fire District in 2010, he has wracked up more than a half dozen traffic violations and misdemeanors and paid hundreds of dollars in fines since moving to South Carolina.

A few charges such failing to wear a seat belt or disregarding a stop sign, are minor or less severe to be sure. Others, less so.

In October of 2009, Thomsen is spotted staggering down Bay Street, in Beaufort, around 2 a.m. by several uniformed police officers on patrol.

Thomsen tosses a cigarette on the ground, walks between the officers nearly striking them as he tries to maintain his balance, and shouts in a “loud and obnoxious manner,” ‘Five O is here,’” according to a Beaufort police report from the time. Five O is slang for police.

Thomsen then begins to stagger away, but before he does, an officer tells him to stop. Thomsen says his father is a judge and he does not need to comply, the report states.

The officers ask for him to stop several more times as he continues to stagger farther away from them. When they catch up and detain Thomsen, they ask him about the cigarette. Thomsen denies tossing it on the ground, saying “I do not believe I did.”

He is charged for public drunkenness and littering and taken into custody.

In October of 2010, a year after the Bay Street incident and within days of applying for a job with the Burton Fire District, Thomsen is charged with reckless driving.

He pleads guilty in Beaufort’s Municipal Court and is fined $445, according to court records.

The following year, in 2011, after only a couple of months on the job with the district, Thomsen is warned by Port Royal police to “watch his speed.” A resident has complained that Thomsen was driving at a “high rate of speed” near Port Royal Elementary School and peeled off after restarting his car near the school, according to an incident report from the time.

And Thomsen’s violations aren’t limited to the roads and streets of Beaufort County.

In 2009, he is charged with a violation in a no-wake zone, a charge which can include anything from going too fast on a waterway, to obstructing or interfering with navigational markers. He is charged again in 2019 with a similar charge of “obstruction of waters or marking system so as to endanger operation of watercraft/ no wake zone violation.” In both incidents he is fined $105, Beaufort County court records show.

Despite these documented charges for drunkenness, violence and reckless driving, Thomsen is sent by the fire district to South Carolina’s fire fighter candidate school in February of 2011.

There he receives training in the operation of emergency vehicles, handling of equipment and hazardous materials and other such courses needed to become a registered firefighter with the state of South Carolina.

More serious allegations

While Thomsen’s traffic violations and run-ins with members of law enforcement begin to taper off toward his hiring, they don’t completely disappear. What’s more, new, more serious allegations begin to crop up as well.

In October of 2010, only weeks before Thomsen applies for a job with the fire district, he is linked to an investigation involving the alleged sexual assault of a minor in Port Royal.

According to a report filed by the Port Royal Police Department, police launch an investigation after the mother of a 13-year-old girl notifies them that her daughter has been sexually assaulted by four boys in Thomsen’s home.

Thomsen, according to the report, was with the girl’s mother at her home nearby at the time of the incident.

Earlier in the day, the three had gone to the Port Royal Farmer’s Market and Thomsen had told the girl she could take the golf cart out for a ride when they got back. Around noon, the girl stops by Thomsen’s home to pick up the cart. After that she checks in frequently with her mother, the report states.

Sometime later, Thomsen calls the girl’s mother on the 13-year-old’s phone and asks if she can go with him to have his phone repaired so that he can have access to her phone.

The girl’s mother OKs their trip to the store, and waves to them as they drive past her house, the report states.

After they return from the store, the girl goes to see a friend, and Thomsen goes to the mother’s house to watch a football game, the report states. The girl comes home later that night, has dinner with Thomsen and her mother, watches part of a movie with them and goes to bed. Thomsen returns to his home.

Several days later, the mother calls police after she overhears her daughter telling a friend on the phone that she was sexually assaulted at Thomsen’s home by four boys from school, the report states.

All of the boys are interviewed as well as Thomsen, the mother and the 13-year-old girl. From there, accounts vary on what happened that afternoon.

Thomsen tells police, after he and the girl got back from having his phone repaired, the girl took the golf cart out and he went to watch the football game at her mother’s house, the report states.

But when he returned home later that night, he found an overturned soft drink on the floor. Suspecting the girl had been in his home earlier “without his knowledge or permission,” he confronts her though she denies having been there, Thomsen says. She then admits to being in his home, saying she went in to rest, he says.

Police check Thomsen’s home for signs of bodily fluid with negative results, the report states.

In her interview, the girl says when she went to Thomsen’s house to pickup the golf cart, Thomsen “fixed her a couple of drinks.” They then smoked a joint together, and he tells her not tell anyone, that it is “their circle of trust,” she tells police.

After Thomsen leaves, she takes the golf cart out, picks up the boys, returns to Thomsen’s house where they then smoke the marijuana and consume alcohol, the report states.

That’s when the boys sexually assault her, she says.

In their interview with police, the boys, who range in ages from 13 to 17, all state they had sex with the girl but add that it was consensual and that the girl tells them not to tell anyone what they have done.

One boy tells police that while out riding in the golf cart, the girl told them she had had sex with her mother’s boyfriend, Brandon.

In the course of the investigation, the girl is asked if she had sex or any relations with Thomsen. She says no, the report says.

Investigators determine the girl was a willing participant in having sex with the boys, the report states. In addition, she tells police she will not testify against any of the suspects in the case.

No charges were filed in the case and while Thomsen was also not charged, he was named in a 2012 lawsuit filed by the 13-year-old’s mother, according to FITSNews and Beafort Police Investigator Stephanie Karafa.

Given all this, Thomsen still tries to make a go at his new job.

However, in 2018, Thomsen is involved in yet another disturbing investigation and subsequent lawsuit – this time for the wrongful death of a man whose family just wanted help.

A call for help

Having never before served as a firefighter prior to his hiring with the Burton Fire District, Thomsen has been on the job for seven years when Trey Pringle’s family calls for help in February of 2018.

Pringle, who has a documented history of mental illness, has smashed a TV and cut himself. His family says he is “behaving erratically” and has called 911 for medical assistance.

Pringle is calm at first when officers and emergency personnel from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, Burton Fire District and Beaufort County EMS begin appearing on the scene. But when deputies attempt to restrain him he becomes agitated, according to news reports from the time.

That’s when Thomsen steps in.

According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2020 by the family, Thomsen employed a headlock/ chokehold “without authorization or training.”

Pringle was also Tased a total of five times during the altercation, reports say. 

Pringle stops breathing and flat lines at which point restraints are removed and EMS technicians perform CPR, but Pringle, who is unconscious and suffers cardiac arrest, dies in the hospital three days later.

An autopsy later determines that Pringle died during “restraint in a prone position with chest compression.”

Widely covered by news media, the case was brought up in various protests and on social media well into 2020. No charges were ever brought against Thomsen or relating to the incident.

Fire district questioned

Thomsen, who had been on suspension since August, was fired in December, after warrants were taken out for his arrest, according to information recently obtained by The Island News through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Officials with the district previously refused to specify whether Thomsen was fired or had resigned, nor would they say why Thomsen was on suspension, stating only that the district does not discuss personnel issues.

However, in a one-sentence letter to Thomsen signed by Chief Harry Rountree received with the newspaper’s FOIA request, the letter states Thomsen was terminated for “immoral or indecent conduct.”

The Island News asked for comment on Thomsen’s long history of violations and run-ins with law enforcement and how Thomsen was hired – given he had no previous firefighting or public service experience, or work history with any company for any length of time outside of his own. Again, the district chose not to answer questions directly.

In addition, The Island News has discovered that Thomsen’s name was misspelled in a criminal background check conducted by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division on Oct. 25, 2010 as requested by the State Fire Marshal’s Office on behalf of the fire district.

In a 2010 email sent back to the district from the fire marshal’s office, Thomsen’s last name is misspelled with the words “No Record” listed beside it. Thomsen’s first name is also misspelled on a typed fire fighter registration data form.

According to SLED, if the name on a subject’s record differs from the one provided, it may result in a false negative or false positive result.

Asked specifically if Chief Rountree was aware Thomsen’s name appears to have been entered incorrectly in the state’s background check, no response was given.

The Island News recently conducted its own SLED background check through the South Carolina Press Association. The check immediately returned the two arrests mentioned in this article that occurred prior to his hiring – the 2002 assault and battery and the 2009 public drunkenness/ littering.

Asked had the background check returned these two charges, would that have prevented Chief Rountree from hiring Mr. Thomsen, again the fire district provided no response.

In an email sent on Tuesday, Fire District spokesman Dan Byrne reiterated the district’s stance, that it does not comment on personnel issues, and asked that questions be sent to the district’s attorney since it is “also a legal matter.”

Responding back, Beaufort attorney Fred Kuhn also reiterated that it was a personnel issue, then added that “Generally speaking, however, the District’s hiring practices have evolved and improved substantially over the years, and the District, like all employers in this more modern age, is now able to access information regarding candidates for employment that was not readily available ten years ago.”

‘You can’t let my wife know’

In his first court appearance since he was arrested in December on charges of soliciting and sending obscene messages to the 13-year-old daughter of a family friend, Thomsen appeared before Judge Nancy Sadler, in Beaufort County Magistrate Court on Friday, Feb. 26.

Brandon Thomsen recently appeared via Webex for a preliminary hearing in Beaufort County Magistrate Court. Beaufort Police Investigator Stephanie Karafa appears top right corner, while Thomsen, bottom left, has his screen turned off.

The preliminary hearing was held via Webex and Thomsen’s screen was dark, his camera presumably turned off.

In November, the mother of the girl contacted police after she learned her daughter had received illicit messages from Thomsen via Snapchat over the weekend of Nov. 26 – 28, according to a police report.

In Friday’s preliminary hearing held to determine probable cause, Beaufort Police investigator Stephanie Karafa took the court through the evidence, which included multiple messages from Thomsen.

The 13-year-old asked him to stop saying, “I’m the same age as your daughter,” but Thomsen continued to send the girl messages asking her to send him nude photos and saying he was love with her, Karafa said.

He also told the victim she was “too young” and referred to the size of his genitalia multiple times.

The girl repeatedly asked Thomsen how his wife would feel if she knew he was messaging her.

“You can’t let my wife know that we’re talking on here,” he messaged her after becoming friends with her on Snapchat. He also told the girl that his wife didn’t love him anymore.

The next morning the 13-year-old told her mother about the messages. When confronted by the family via text, Thomsen said he was sorry and had messaged the wrong person, a police report stated.

After that weekend Thomsen sent the victim’s father an email in which he offered a “sincere apology” for “whatever hurt was imposed on you over the weekend.” He also referred to problems with alcohol and “substance abuse,” testimony at the hearing revealed.

Other evidence investigators said they collected includes Google searches Thomsen made immediately after the incident – searches such as “How to make sure no one is tracking my phone” and “How do I know when the police are tracking my phone.”

Before fleeing the area, Thomsen also told his wife he had sent messages to “the wrong person.”

After picking up a rental car at the Savannah Airport, Thomsen tried to harm himself, Karafa indicated. In addition, his cell phone and two laptops missing from the home have not been recovered, she said.

Despite his attorney’s move to have the charges against Thomsen dismissed, Judge Sadler denied the motions citing enough evidence to proceed.

Thomsen’s case will now move on to trial.

 

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