HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — A lawsuit filed in Horry County accuses a former employee of county council Chairman Johnny Gardner and others of depriving a man’s heirs of more than $1.2 million in assets.
The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 27, names Gardner, his law firm, Anderson Brothers Bank and Luke Barefoot as defendants. Barefoot is accused of diverting “funds from the Estate of Benjamin Creel to various entities to benefit Defendants Barefoot, Gardner and Defendant Gardner Law Firm, in which [they] had financial interest in.”
Creel died in a car crash in November 2016. Barefoot “assumed control of the Estate…as personal representative and left a valid will naming Plaintiffs as his heirs at law” in November 1997, according to the lawsuit.
Barefoot was an employee at the Gardner Law Firm, where the estate file was maintained, according to the lawsuit. Barefoot and the law firm allegedly collected fees “in connection with the administration of the Estate of the late Benjamin Creel.”
The heirs allegedly received none of the personal items designated to them and were deprived of more than $1.2 million “without justification and excuse,” according to the lawsuit, which claims that all of the funds were channeled to businesses to benefit Barefoot and Gardner, and in some cases help reduce business loans to the bank.
The lawsuit accuses Gardner of knowing about Barefoot’s conduct and says Gardner “had a responsibility to monitor the activities of any and all of his employees or agents using his office.”
Gardner is accused of breach of fiduciary duty, negligence and gross negligence. He is not accused of fraud, conversion or conspiracy.
News13 reached out to Gardner and Anderson Brothers Bank for comment and is waiting to hear back. An attorney for Barefoot was not listed in court records for the lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses the bank of aiding and abetting “in the fraudulent and grossly negligent transfer of these funds from the true beneficiaries, the heirs at law, to various business and business interests of [Barefoot] and [Gardner].”
The bank had plenty of opportunities to observe the alleged fraud and took no action to prevent it, according to the lawsuit. The bank is also accused of not obtaining a copy of Creel’s will or ignoring the terms.
The bank allegedly helped Barefoot “perpetuate the scheme of fraud and theft” by not properly documenting the transfers, according to the lawsuit. The bank is also accused of not questioning transactions that were made with non-endorsed checks and undocumented money wires.
“Disbursements were consistently made through the offices of Defendant Bank to benefit Defendants Barefoot, Gardner, Gardner Law Firm, and others who had no entitlement,” according to the lawsuit.
The heirs were “tricked into allowing [Barefoot] to serve as a personal representative of the estate and use the offices of Gardner Law Firm due to misrepresentation of intent and a plan to defraud,” according to the lawsuit.
Barefoot allegedly said it would be in the heirs’ “best interest” for him to serve on as a personal representative of Creel’s estate. “He did so with one purpose, to misuse these funds for the benefit of himself, Defendant Gardner, and others. Barefoot also represented to the Court that he would conduct his duties as a personal representative in a fair and proper manner…which he did not do,” according to the lawsuit.
“Barefoot has admitted the essential allegations of this complaint in statements made to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and to representatives of Brittain Law Firm,” according to the lawsuit. Brittain Law Firm is representing the heirs in the lawsuit.
SLED charged Barefoot with two counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent in July 2022. Those charges are still pending in court, according to online court records.
The heirs are seeking an unspecified amount of actual and punitive damages. A jury trial is demanded.