Deputy Stephen Flood was stuck.
He had driven an Horry County sheriff’s van into floodwaters. Now he couldn’t open the door, and he became wedged in a partially opened window that was too small to fit through.
Locked in a cage in the back of the van were two women he’d been assigned to take to mental health hospitals. As the van submerged, they, too, had no way out.
Flood’s partner, Joshua Bishop, managed to escape from the passenger’s seat and tried to free the women. When he found the side door blocked, Bishop went to the back doors. They opened, but the women were still trapped behind a locked grate.
“I had been talking to them through this whole thing, trying to tell them to stay calm and help was coming to save them,” Flood wrote in a statement read out loud in court several months later. “But it didn’t show up on time.”
The women — Nikki Green and Wendy Newton — drowned.
The officers’ accounts of the hours leading up to the deaths were made public for the first time last month as part of a probable cause hearing. Both face manslaughter charges and were fired from the sheriff’s office.
An extensive review of public records, court arguments, parts of an investigation discussed by a S.C. Law Enforcement Division officer and interviews with family members and their lawyers helps paint the most complete picture yet available of what happened that day, Sept. 18.
Flood arrived at work at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center around 3 p.m., a bit later than usual. He’d been caught in traffic.
Van #25 was at the jail when Flood arrived, a SLED investigator told the court. It had been used less than an hour earlier to transport another patient between hospitals in Conway, according to a trip log.
Another officer drove Green from the Waccamaw Center for Mental Health to the jail. The 43-year-old waited in the van as Flood got settled and went to a meeting.
The Sheriff’s Office transportation unit was housed at the jail and Flood gathered with Bishop, two supervisors and another transport officer, police investigators said. They decided to transport Newton and Green at the same time, an unusual, but not uncommon move. The two deputies would do the transport together because of weather conditions.
Days earlier, Hurricane Florence had blown through the area, dropping feet of rain and pushing rivers over flood stage. For days, waters flooded roads in Horry County. More than 200 roads were closed in the days before and after the transport.
Newton, 45, had voluntarily gone to a Loris hospital because she was having difficulty with her schizophrenia. Her medication was running low and she needed help with her symptoms, most notably a hallucination of a person that wanted to harm her.
At the transportation unit meeting, a supervisor told the deputies not to take S.C. 9 because the road was closed, investigators told the court. A deputy familiar with the Loris and Nichols areas also said in the meeting that many roads were flooded.
“He said at this time it would not be passable,” SLED Investigator Stephen Howell said.
Bishop and Flood said that conversation about alternative routes never happened.
After the meeting, the deputies headed to Loris to pick up Newton. Flood was behind the wheel with Bishop in the passenger seat. Flood was a 10-year veteran with the Horry County Sheriff’s Office, while Bishop served six years.
They had a sworn duty to protect and serve the women in the back of their van, Howell said. He also said both had a responsibility to the people in their custody.
“They were working in tandem,” Howell said. “They were a transport team.”
Flood escorted Newton out of the hospital and into the van. He told authorities he put Newton in a caged part of the van where Green was already sitting. When transporting people of the same gender, officers typically put them in the same area, Flood said.
There are three parts of the transportation van. The front cab is where the deputies sit. In the back, there is a cage for inmates, split into two compartments, one small and the other large. Between the compartments is a locked grate.
Green and Newton were in the smaller compartment, but not shackled or otherwise restrained, authorities said.
Bishop said he wasn’t paying attention to the route and was instead focused on the women in the back. The deputies drove along Highway 9 until they reached a barricade near the intersection with Highway 76 outside of Nichols.
A National Guard high-water rescue vehicle was just beyond the barricade. The deputy drove around the roadblock and spoke to a guardsman, the SLED investigation showed.
The guardsman thought the deputies were trying to get to Nichols to survey flood damage, according to the investigation. The guardsman mentioned he had difficulty navigating the flooded roads in his high-water vehicle.
Another guardsman and a Marion County Sheriff deputy were on a break sitting in the back of the high-water vehicle, Howell said, so they didn’t hear the conversation.
Flood and Bishop continued down the road, initially with little water on it.
However, the water level increased as they continued to travel about 1.4 miles from the barricade. Flood said the water was high enough to reach the bottom of nearby houses that were slightly elevated off the ground. He said he drove slowly so he didn’t create a wake and splash the homes.
As they drove, Flood looked ahead and reported what appeared to be a drop in the water level about a quarter-mile further.
“It was at that point the engine of the van shut down,” Bishop wrote in his statement. “Within a matter of seconds, the pressure of the water caused the van to slide up against the guardrail. The water level appeared to be rising quickly and entering the van.”
Flood said it felt like the van was floating and then pushed against the guardrail.
‘Do what you have to do’
With the doors pinned shut by water, Flood tried to exit through his window, but he couldn’t get it to roll all the way down. He attempted to climb out anyway and got stuck. Bishop escaped and went to help the passengers.
The sliding door that led directly to the women’s compartment wouldn’t open, so Bishop tried the back doors. He was able to get into the larger compartment.
The divider between the compartments had two padlocks. Bishop had no key. He took out his gun, intending to shoot open the locks.
As he prepared to shoot, Flood yelled to Bishop, “You do what you have to do.” The women tried to get as far away as possible, Bishop recalled in his statement.
Bishop said he shot both locks multiple times, but still couldn’t remove the gate. The women remained trapped.
Water began lapping over the van’s windshield. Flood was still stuck in the window.
“Bishop was yelling to free myself or I was going to die,” Flood recalled.
“His head was now barely above the water level,” Bishop wrote of Flood.
Bishop grabbed his partner’s leg and pulled him back inside the cab and out the open passenger door. Then he pushed him onto the roof. Flood didn’t know how to swim and had a phobia of water covering his head. Flood said he was gasping for air as his partner pulled him out the window, under water and through the door.
“If it weren’t for Officer Bishop, I would have died,” Flood wrote in his statement. “Officer Bishop and I worked our hardest to free the females.”
The deputies stood on top of the van as the waters rose.
“The 10-96 [police code for mental health] females were screaming to get out,” Flood said, “and I was trying to calm them down.”
Flood and Bishop used a cell phone and a radio to call for help. They were unfamiliar with the area and tried to relay landmarks, but their confusion initially led first responders to a different location.
Conversations continued until crews located the van by Pee Dee Island Road.
“I kept telling dispatch we were running out of time,” Flood wrote in his statement.
A National Guard vehicle was the first to arrive, though the guardsmen didn’t make a rescue attempt because of water conditions, investigators said. It wasn’t the guard crew Bishop and Flood had met minutes earlier. That group had been relieved of duty for a shift change. The new group had no idea of the interaction that happened at the barricade.
Around 7 p.m., an hour after the initial distress, rescue crews arrived at the scene.
“We’ve got eyes on them, we can see them,” a firefighter said over the radio. “I can see the deputies. The top of the van is open just enough that if they are standing up they should be able to breathe.”
Crews from both Marion and Horry counties arrived in the area. Rushing water now nearly covering the van made it difficult for rescuers to navigate. On the radio, rescuers were reminded not to risk their own safety. They talked about slowly moving their boats from the launch sites toward the van.
“We got one Marion County boat team on scene with them,” a rescuer said over the air. “Second boat team is approaching.”
The Marion crews quickly moved Flood and Bishop from the top of the van into a rescue vessel. They used axes to chop a hole into the roof and through the ventilation system.
“They started cutting into the roof of the van and the fire chief said, ‘This is not a rescue, this is now a recovery,’” Flood recalled. “At that point, I realized the females were dead.”
The deputies went to Loris hospital for treatment, the same facility where they picked up Newton. Several officials from the sheriff’s office met them there.
Rescue crews tried to remove the women’s bodies from the van, but it wasn’t until late the next day that their bodies were recovered. Their cause of death would be listed by a coroner as “accidental.”
A SLED investigator maintained it was the decisions by Flood and Bishop that led to their deaths. It was the combination of taking the unapproved route, driving around the barricade and into high floodwaters that led to criminal charges.
“The water in the road,” Howell said in court. “The deepening condition as they drove. That … that was reckless.”