South Carolina legislators say they want answers after two mental health patients drowned in a sheriff’s office van during Hurricane Florence.
45-year-old Wendy Newton and 43-year-old Nicolette Green died in the back of an Horry County sheriff’s van that was in Hurricane Florence-related flooding on September 18.
Sheriff Phillip Thompson said the deputies had driven around a National Guard barricade in Marion County before the vehicle overturned in floodwaters, trapping the women in the locked rear compartment.
A state Senate subcommittee is investigating the deaths to review if state law needs to change. “Two women needlessly lost their lives,” the panel’s chair State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said Thursday.
Newton’s family attorney Tommy Brittain testified before the Senate Corrections and Penology Subcommittee. He said Green and Newton were not restrained or shackled in the van, which had a rear door. But he said the two deputies did not have a key to that door.
“The illegal, conscious indifference to the rights of the mentally ill is a serious problem in our state,” Brittain told senators.
He said the van dropped into a 5-to-7 feet deep hole which had formed after floodwaters washed away a portion of U.S. Highway 76 west of Nichols.
The deputies were driving the women from the Waccamaw Center for Mental Health and a mental-health center in Loris to facilities in Darlington and Lancaster. South Carolina Sheriffs Association executive director Jarrod Bruder said the medical facilities were following a state law which requires law enforcement transport mentally-ill patients deemed by a doctor or probate court judge as likely to cause serious harm to themselves or others.
Investigators said the deputies involved, Stephen Flood, and Joshua Bishop, tried to rescue the women before the water eventually overcame the van, Both men were fired as the investigation continues. In a termination letter, the sheriff’s office said the two made a “conscious decision” to drive around the barricade.