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SC lawmakers want answers after mental health patients drowned in van during flood

Two S.C. deputies who drove a van carrying two mental health patients into floodwaters in September did not have a key to the van’s rear door to allow them to rescue the trapped women, S.C. lawmakers were told Thursday.

Instead, Nicolette “Nikki” Green, 43, and Wendy Newton, 45, died a slow death, their families said.

“My aunt Nini was treated like a criminal,” said Green’s 14-year-old nephew, Connor Green-Johnson. “Her rights were violated through the actions of two negligent deputies and an old, outdated mental health care system.”

Senators called Thursday’s hearing after the women — Green of Myrtle Beach and Newton of Shallotte, N.C. — drowned Sept. 18 in the back of an Horry County sheriff’s van that submerged in Hurricane Florence-related flooding in Marion County.

The women were picked up by the sheriff’s van at a mental-health facility in Loris and the Waccamaw Center for Mental Health for transfer to facilities in Darlington and Lancaster.

Neither Green nor Weston — both described by their families as having no history of violence — was restrained or shackled in the van, according to previous media reports.

Green’s sister, Donnela Green-Johnson, told lawmakers that family members were told deputies were given an approved route to take that would avoided flooded roads.

Instead, the families said, the deputies drove down a flooded road. Once in the water, the van dropped into a 5- to 7-foot-deep hole, lifting the van and pinning it against a guardrail, Newton’s family attorney, Tommy Brittain, told senators.

U.S. Highway 76 in Marion County. Horry County Sheriff’s deputies were transporting Nicolette Green and Wendy Newton, of Shallotte, N.C., from Conway to medical facilities in Darlington and Lancaster when the transport van was swept into floodwaters along Highway 76. This is how the road looked in early October. Josh Bell

That made the van’s side door unusable. The deputies couldn’t free the women through the van’s rear door because they did not have its key or bolt-cutters, Brittain said.

Unable to free the women, the two deputies waited on top of the van until rescue teams from Marion and Horry could arrive.

Both women were trapped in the van for more than 24 hours until rescuers could remove their bodies.

“There was no policy here. ... There was no training here, Mr. Chairman,” Brittain told state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who chaired Thursday’s hearing. “The illegal, conscious indifference to the rights of the mentally ill is a serious problem in our state.”

Horry County deputies Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop since have been fired.

Their termination letter said the deputies “made a conscious decision” to drive the van around a road barricade and into floodwaters.

The S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigated the deaths at the request of the Horry County sheriff. SLED Chief Mark Keel told senators Thursday that report will be sent to the 12th Circuit Solicitor’s Office for a decision about whether to file charges.

Green’s family has called for both ex-deputies to face criminal charges.

‘We don’t want this forgotten’

In June, Green returned home to Myrtle Beach, mourning the death of her 7-year-old son, her sister Green-Johnson said. Green was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on medication.

“It’s bittersweet because we had just gotten my sister back,” Green-Johnson said

On Sept. 18, Green-Johnson said Green’s 19-year-old daughter drove her to a scheduled counseling appointment, where her new counselor decided Green should be committed.

Green’s daughter “feels like she delivered her mom to her death,” Green-Johnson said, adding the family never was given an opportunity to transfer Green themselves.

Lawmakers say state law about transporting mental health patients might need to be changed.

That law requires law enforcement to transport people who are deemed by a probate court judge or doctor to have a mental illness and, as a result, are likely to cause serious harm to themselves or others if not hospitalized, Jarrod Bruder, head of the S.C. Sheriff’s Association, told lawmakers Thursday.

That puts a tremendous strain on local resources, Bruder said.

“To put it bluntly, law enforcement officers are required, per South Carolina law, to treat individuals who have committed no crime as if they were criminals,” Bruder said.

Newton’s children told reporters Thursday their mom had been transported by law enforcement before but never in a “caged” van.

“We want change,” said Newton’s daughter, Allison. “We don’t want this forgotten.”

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter
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