COLUMBIA, SC (AP) – A South Carolina deputy whose police van was swept away by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, drowning two women seeking mental health treatment trapped in a cage at the rear was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Thursday.
A Marion County jury found former Horry County Deputy Stephen Flood guilty of two counts of manslaughter and two counts of reckless homicide.
Judges ordered Wendy Newton, 45, and Nicolette Green, 43, to be involuntarily committed on the day they died in September 2018, but their families said they were not violent. Newton was only seeking medication for her fear and anxiety and Green’s family said she was committed to a mental institution during a regular mental health appointment by a counselor she never had. seen before.
Flood, 69, was sentenced about 30 minutes after the verdict and after several relatives of the women said his decision to go ahead with the shortest route had left an unfixable hole in their lives.
“It was a deliberate act set in motion by a pompous and stubborn man,” Green’s sister, Donnela Green-Johnson, told the judge. “He abused the trust my sister, Nikki, Wendy, and the state of South Carolina placed in him. And why? Win time.”
Circuit Court Judge William Seales sentenced Flood to five years in prison on each manslaughter charge and four years on each reckless homicide charge and ordered that the sentences be served consecutively.
Floodwaters swept the police van off its wheels in September 2018 and pinned it against a railing, preventing women from exiting through the sliding door they used to enter the van. Flood and a deputy with him did not have a key to a second door and there was no emergency escape hatch, according to trial testimony broadcast by WMBF-TV.
Deputies said they spoke to the women and tried to calm them down for about an hour as the water continued to rise before it became too dangerous and lifeguards could no longer hear them.
“How awful must it have been to sit there and wait for your own death? attorney Ed Clements said in closing argument Thursday.
While other factors like an emergency radio that failed to notify rescuers of the exact location of the van contributed to the deaths, Clements said the drownings all resulted from Flood’s reckless decision to drive 3 .2 kilometers in the water.
National Guard troops erected barricades on U.S. Highway 76 just outside of Nichols, but Flood walked around them after briefly talking to the soldiers.
Clements read in Flood’s statement to investigators that he felt like once in the water he couldn’t turn around because he couldn’t see the edge of the highway and was afraid of falling. in a ditch hidden by the water.
“Maybe it hurt his pride or his stubbornness. I do not know. He pushed forward into the water which was not only standing in a large puddle, but rushing in, breaking through the railing. It was all the Little Pee Dee River then,” Clements said.
Flood’s lawyer said that while it was a terrible tragedy, others were trying to unfairly blame only the former deputy instead of the equipment problems, the troops who had abandoned them around the barricades and supervisors who knew dangerous floods were starting and sent him even though taking the women to mental health facilities was not an emergency.
“I ask you to resist the urge to try to bring justice to these two ladies by giving this good man an injustice,” defense attorney Jarrett Bouchette said. “They want to make him a scapegoat for this accident.”
Flood did not testify, but before being sentenced he told the judge he had tried everything to calm the women as the waters rose and help was slow to arrive.
“It was a series of mistakes on my part and others that got me to this point and I’m sorry for what happened to the girls,” Flood said.
Flood and his deputy, Joshua Bishop, were eventually rescued from the top of the transport van, authorities said. Bishop will stand trial on two counts of manslaughter at a later date.
They tried to pull the locks on the second door, but it still wouldn’t open. The delay in getting help was also costly. A firefighter testified that he managed to cut the roof off the van and started working on the cage, but the water rose faster and faster and it was too dangerous to continue.
Newton’s son Charles said he hated that Flood had to learn to follow the rules and use his common sense at such a high price.
“I can forgive, but I can’t forget. Fortunately, I still remember my mother as a happy woman, a cheerful woman who loved her family,” he said. “But you, Mr. Flood, you will remember my mother hearing her screams in the back of that van.”