FLORENCE, S.C. — A 79-year-old man was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without parole for fatally ambushing police at his South Carolina home.
Frederick Hopkins killed two officers, including the lead investigator in a sexual abuse case involving his son, and wounded five others in 2018. The Vietnam veteran, who was awarded medals for marksmanship, fired from a sniper's nest he set up behind an oak desk in the sunken den of his home in an upscale Florence neighborhood, said prosecutor Ed Clements.
The families of the officers killed and the wounded all asked for the life sentence after Hopkins agreed to plead guilty and prosecutors promised not to seek the death penalty.
Many of them hoped for the life sentence was short and uncomfortable for Hopkins, who entered court in a wheelchair.
"I'm sure he will have a swell time in prison for the few remaining months and years he has left. And after that I hope he enjoys the fires of hell," said Florence County deputy Sarah Miller, who spent 16 days in the hospital recovering from her wounds.
Hopkins was waiting for officers that day. They let his family know investigators were coming with a search warrant because someone in the home reported being sexually abused by Hopkins' adult son.
Miller said the officers arrived in polo shirts and knocked twice with no answer on Oct. 3, 2018. Hopkins suddenly opened the door and started firing.
Florence County Sheriff’s deputy Farrah Turner was the main investigator in the sex abuse case. Miller said after seeing Turner was wounded, Hopkins shot her before retreating inside. She would undergo nine surgeries, including the amputation of her legs, because of blood loss, before dying from her injuries 19 days later.
Officers rushed to try to help but Hopkins, using a high-powered rifle pointed down his street that was straight for blocks, kept picking them off.
Florence Police Sgt. Terrence Carraway was killed with a bullet to the chest fired from at least 300 yards (275 meters) away, investigators said.
One officer kept waving the dozens of would-be rescuers pouring into the neighborhood away from the line of fire. An armored military vehicle had to be brought in from dozens of miles away to rescue the wounded, who were put on the beds of pickup trucks to be taken to ambulances. It took at least 30 minutes.
Miller and others hurt said they watched time pass on their cellphones, listening to dozens of shots being fired and not daring to make a noise because there might be other people waiting to finish them off. Most of the shots from police were fired into a second story window because the officers couldn't pinpoint where the gunfire was coming from, Clements said.
Hopkins pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder last week in an unannounced hearing more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from where the shootings took place.
He was sentenced to life for both murder charges and the maximum of 30 years in prison for each attempted murder charge.
Hopkins said he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder that night from a firefight in 1970 where 27 men in his 101st Airborne Division were killed. His defense introduced a report from David Ferrier, a private investigator who works with Vietnam veterans, who reviewed his military and health records.
After reading the report, Hopkins stopped insisting he was acting in self defense and agreed to plead guilty, defense attorney Boyd Young said.
Ferrier's report cited a long history of PTSD claims from Hopkins since his 1977 medical discharge from the Army and cited a doctor saying he appeared to have the onset of dementia shortly before the shooting.
“While they can in no way ameliorate the tragedy of his actions I firmly believe they provide a genesis for the explosion which resulted in the death of these two officers,” Ferrier wrote.
That defense irritated many of the victims and their families.
"I served in two wars. Never have I mistaken anybody for being my enemy. You shot me from over 300 yards — lined up the sight, looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger," Florence police officer Travis Scott said. “Last time I checked, I didn't look like somebody who you were fighting in a war in Vietnam.”
The sexual abuse case against Hopkins' son moved foreword and 33-year-old Seth Hopkins is serving 20 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2019 to second-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.
Hopkins, an attorney who agreed to give up his law license in 1984 after he was accused of taking $18,000 of fees improperly, had interrupted previous hearings with rants about how the legal system was railroading him or to insult the prosecutor.
On Thursday, he said nothing at all in court.
Defense lawyers, prosecutors and the judge kept much of the case away from reporters. In June, they all agreed to close the courtroom to the media and the public during pre-trial hearings and kept all motions and records off South Carolina’s public court records site.
Clements said the families of the dead and the wounded officers agreed to the life sentence, knowing at 79 Hopkins was never going to see the execution chamber.
“If anybody deserves the death penalty it might be Mr. Hopkins,” Clements said. “We had what we needed to go for the death penalty. We just didn’t have enough time.”
When Hopkins was told of Turner's death weeks after the shooting, he replied he was just taking out the trash, according to his monitored phone calls from jail.
Turner's mother had no pity for him either.
“I hope the general population treats you in the manner you truly deserve for the rest of your worthless natural life,” Katie Godwin said in a statement read in court by her niece.