Crime & Public Safety

Sheriff’s Office removes itself from investigation tied to fatal Beaufort Co. boat crash

Four weeks after 19-year-old Mallory Beach was killed in a boat crash near Parris Island, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office asked to be recused from an investigation connected to the crash because of its “long-standing relationship” with a former solicitor associated with the case, a law enforcement official said Tuesday.

On March 25, the Sheriff’s Office emailed the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, asking to be recused from assisting South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the lead investigating agency in the case, in its investigation into where the group of underage Hampton County boaters — who appeared to be “grossly intoxicated” at the scene — had obtained alcohol before the Feb. 24 crash, according to Maj. Bob Bromage, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.

It is the second government body to have recused itself from the case.

A day after the crash, the 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone asked South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to reassign the case should charges be filed because three of the boaters are related to employees of Stone’s office.

In the crash, Beach was thrown from the boat. She remained missing for a week.

Her body was recovered on March 3 five miles away from the crash site in a marshy area. A medical examiner ruled her death to be the result of drowning and blunt force trauma.

Five days before the Sheriff’s Office’s request for recusal, Beach’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Beaufort County alleging that two businesses — one in Beaufort and the other in Ridgeland — as well as two party hosts in Beaufort had provided alcohol to the group in the hours leading up to the crash.

Authorities found alcohol on the boat and all five surviving boaters — between the ages of 18 and 20 — appeared to be “grossly intoxicated,” according to reports from SCDNR and the Port Royal Police Department released less than a week after the crash.

Per South Carolina law, when a person under 21 dies in an accident where alcohol is suspected, a local law enforcement agency with jurisdiction must “commence a detailed investigation to determine the circumstances under which the beverage was obtained.”

“We wanted to make sure that portion of the investigation would be covered by a SLED officer,” Bromage said. “This is specifically about where (the boaters) got the alcohol.”

No charges have been filed so far in the case.

On Friday, Beach’s mother refiled the March 25 lawsuit in Hampton County — adding Randolph Murdaugh III, his son Richard Alexander Murdaugh and his grandson Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr., all residents of Hampton County, to the suit, alleging that each had “allowed” underage drinking to occur prior to the crash.

Richard Alexander Murdaugh, who goes by Alexander, owns the boat that was involved in the crash, according to DNR. His youngest son, Paul, was on the boat that night, according to Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and Port Royal Police Department reports.

Randolph Murdaugh III served as solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes Beaufort and Hampton counties, from 1986 to 2006. He continues to work for Stone’s office as a contractor on criminal cases, according to the Solicitor’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office also has a “long-standing relationship with the Murdaugh family,” according to Bromage.

“Considering Randolph was the solicitor for so many years, we have a lot of (deputies) who have worked closely with him on murder trials,” he said. “It was the right thing to do to not be involved with the investigation.“

Bromage said the Sheriff’s Office was never asked by SCDNR to conduct an investigation into where the boaters had obtained alcohol, but they wanted to pre-empt any possible future request.

“We wanted to make sure our position was known with the Murdaughs,” he said. “We were making sure it was being done. Someone has to do it. “

The investigation

On Feb. 24, four Sheriff’s Office deputies responded to Archer’s Creek, where the 17-foot boat crashed into a piling of a small bridge around 2:20 a.m. just outside the main entrance to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

A deputy was asked to collect DNA evidence off the boat for DNR around 4:30 p.m. on the day of the crash, according to a Sheriff’s Office report. At the time evidence was collected, the boat had been relocated to the Parris Island Boat landing, about a mile from where it had crashed roughly 14 hours earlier.

Asked why the Sheriff’s Office did not recuse itself when asked by SCDNR to collect evidence in the case, Bromage said expediency took priority over the potential perception of a conflict of interest down the road.

“We have trained individuals on our staff to collect and process physical evidence, and that kind of evidence is time-sensitive, which is why we were asked to do it,” he said. “We collected the evidence and gave it to DNR for processing and that was that.”

SCDNR is the lead investigating agency in the case and this includes finding out where the underage boaters purchased or consumed alcohol leading up to the crash, SCDNR spokesman Robert McCullough said Tuesday.

SLED Chief Mark Keel said Tuesday that his agency is assisting SCDNR with the investigation into where the boaters purchased or consumed alcohol that night.

“We are looking at who provided the alcohol and under what circumstances the alcohol was provided or suspected to have been provided,” Keel said.

Keel said SLED is assisting as the top law enforcement agency on behalf of the state. He said the agency was already assisting SCDNR prior to the Sheriff’s Office email.

“We have been involved in it since SLED was asked to be involved in it,” Keel said. “We are doing what we always have been doing.”

In general, someone who provides alcohol to underage drinkers can face criminal charges, Keel said.

Luther’s on Bay Street in Beaufort, Parker’s 55 Convenience store in Ridgeland and Beaufort County homeowners Kristy and James Wood are listed in Beach’s lawsuit as either selling or providing alcohol to the six boaters.

Kristy Wood is the principal of Brunson Elementary School in the Hampton District One Schools District.

“This was a tragic incident for our community, for which we are all sorry,” Ronald Wilcox, district superintendent, read from a written statement Tuesday. “We have been made aware by the principal that she was named as a defendant in an upcoming lawsuit, as the matter does not involve the school district per se and there is some pending litigation we cannot make comment.”

Despite Port Royal police officers noting in their report that all five surviving boaters appeared to be “grossly intoxicated,” in the crash, none of the boaters were offered sobriety tests on scene.

“It’s our No. 1 priority to treat the injuries first,” Bromage said when asked why deputies didn’t offer sobriety tests.

All five boaters were injured in the crash, a Sheriff’s Office report said. Deputies arrived on scene before EMS, according to 911 calls.

SCDNR agents also did not offer any sobriety testing to two suspected drivers of the boat.

The sobriety test wasn’t provided because the driver couldn’t be determined, McCullough says. He said that offering the test to two individuals would likely result in the case being thrown out if charges were brought. Legal experts dispute this notion, however.

“At that point it was just a missing person,” McCullough said. “For all we knew, we were going to have six people who could have been driving. I can’t walk into a room and say everyone is going to take a sobriety test — I have to have probable cause.”

Probable cause is different from reasonable suspicion, McCullough said.

“I have to be able to articulate in a manner that a reasonable person would understand why I am doing that,” McCullough said. “If we had done that, you would be asking, ‘Why did you give all those people that test when you were violating their rights?’’”

By the time two boaters were identified as possible suspects, both boys had a shared attorney, McCullough said.

“I know the attorney walked in and said they are not (taking the sobriety test),” McCullough said. “They were uncooperative at that point.”

Officials with SCDNR, SLED and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office have said that they are unaware of any other recusals in the case. The officials also said no employees in their agencies have asked to be recused.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette have not previously named passengers on the boat because no charges have been filed. Paul Murdaugh was named in this story because it is relevant as to why family members are being sued.

Mandy Matney is an award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed shark enthusiast from Kansas. She worked for newspapers in Missouri and Illinois before she realized Midwestern winters are horrible, then moved to Hilton Head in 2016. She is the breaking news editor at the Island Packet.