South Carolina

She drowned in floodwaters while locked in a sheriff’s van. Now her family’s taking action

Wendy Newton and Nikki Green drowned while locked in the back of an Horry County Sheriff’s Office van that was swept off the road by floodwaters. Nearly a year later, Newton’s family has filed a lawsuit they hope spurs change and fixes transportation for mental health patients.

“She’s looking down and she’s really happy with where we’re taking this,” said Allison Newton, Wendy’s daughter.

“We want change in this. We want to let people know just because this happened it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. … If we can’t trust the people we call for help, what are we supposed to do?”

Newton’s family filed a suit Monday in federal court against Horry County, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Phillip Thompson, Deputy Elizabeth Orlando, and ex-deputies Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop. They say all the defendants contributed to Wendy Newton’s death on Sept. 18, 2018.

“We’ll do everything that we can to make sure that nobody has to die like my mom did,” Allison Newton said.

The drowning

Wendy Newton’s children said their mom was always willing to help and take care of others. When her son, Charles Newton, was young, his mom would always ask friends if they were hungry, he told The Sun News. If they said “no,” Wendy kept asking until they were, Charles Newton said.

Wendy Newton would also make first-class spreads for family dinner, sometimes featuring her famous pork chops.

But, Wendy Newton had schizophrenia, leading to good days and bad stretches that would last much longer.

In mid-September, Hurricane Florence stalled out over South and North Carolina dumping dozens of inches of rain. On Sept. 18, Wendy Newton went to McLeod Hospital in Loris as her medication ran low. That same day, Green visited Waccamaw Mental Health outside of Myrtle Beach for her regular mental health check-up.

Nikki Green and Wendy Newton Provided by the families

Hours later, both were under court order for transportation to health facilities outside of the area. There was no written affidavit or certification by a doctor to commit Newton, according to the lawsuit.

The Horry County Sheriff’s Office provided the transport to both women in a van purchased by Horry County. The women were locked inside a caged compartment in the back of the van that had no functioning escape mechanism, the lawsuit contends.

Orlando was responsible for transport requests, according to the lawsuit, and assigned Flood and Bishop to the van. She knew that the two patients would be transported in a caged van, the suit claims.

Investigators say Bishop, Flood, Orlando and other deputies met at J. Reuben Long Detention Center to discuss the route as hundreds of roads were closed in Horry County because of widespread flooding. The deputies were told not to use S.C. Highway 9, state investigators said. Lawyers for the since-fired Flood and Bishop deny the meeting took place.

The deputies still used the Highway 9 route outside of Loris and drove around a National Guard barricade to S.C Highway 76 and into floodwaters, officials said.

Water pushed the van off the road and pinned it against a guardrail.

At 5:49 p.m., Bishop reported their distress to J. Reuben Long Detention Center, according to the filing. Bishop tried to free the women, including shooting at a padlock to the cage but was not successful, investigators, Bishop’s lawyer and the Newtons’ lawsuit state.

Bishop freed Flood by pulling him through the passenger door after he was stuck trying to escape through a partially opened window.

Green and Wendy Newton were trapped in the caged area “desperately attempting to escape and breathe” for an hour, the suit claims.

The deputies waited on top of the van for rescue and could not provide responders their exact location.

At 6:59 p.m., Bishop radioed that he could no longer hear the women screaming for help, according to the filing. Rescue teams arrived and cut into the top of the van to rescue the woman, but determined they were dead.

It wasn’t until the next day that Department of Natural Resources dive teams recovered their body from inside the van.

Jason Lee

“We’ll do everything to make sure nobody has to die like my mom did,” Allison Newton said. “She didn’t deserve it. The other family didn’t deserve it. No one does.”

Police did not immediately tell Charles Newton and Allison Newton about the incident as the two spent the day unaware their mom died. The next day, officials called and said Wendy Newton drowned.

“I understand a lot was going on that you can’t really say ‘Hey we got to go call these people,’” Charles Newton said. “As soon as it happens, somebody should have called because I could have gotten them both out of the van. I promise.”

The lawsuit

Wendy Newton died in modified 2016 Ford Transit van with three compartments. The deputies sat in the front and there were two areas for detainees, including a locked, caged area.

A padlock around a metal grate separated the prisoner compartments, the suit states.

Van photos 2.JPG
The Horry County Sheriff’s Office transport van is removed from the scene about a week after it drove into floodwaters outside of Nichols. Two mental health patients drown in the back and the deputies in charge of their safety were charged with manslaughter. Provided by the Department of Natural Resources

That gate could have been an escape route if it was not locked and the deputies did not have a key, the filing claims.

There were also no extraction tools onboard, such as the “jaws of life,” despite county officials knowing Horry firefighters performed 317 entrapment rescues in 2017, the suit claims.

“The vehicle was a death trap,” the suit reads.

By using a van traditionally used for inmate transport, it gave Newton no means of escape and was in violation of her constitutional rights, the Newtons argue.

Newton phots 433232.jpg
Photos of Wendy Newton provided by her children Jason Lee

The suit noted an investigation by The Sun News and The (Raleigh) News & Observer that found hundreds of mental-health patients commonly endured hours-long trips in handcuffs or cramped metal cages.

In 2018, Horry County deputies transported patients in handcuffs or cages 452 times for periods longer than an hour, according to the suit.

The Horry County Sheriff’s Office does not have a written policy for transporting non-inmate, mental health patients, according to the filing.

There are policies for inmate transports and medical transports for detainees. The inmate transport policy calls for a deputy — in this case, Orlando — to make sure others are aware of details such as special routes. The medical transport policy calls for inmates to be transported separately, but Wendy Newton and Green went together, the suit says.

The decisions by the county and the individual defendants caused Newton’s death, the family contends. The suit alleges wrongful death and that Newton’s rights were deprived without due process. It also says the defendants violated her rights by failing to follow the designated route and driving on a dangerous road.

It asks for an unspecified amount of money.

Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson told The Sun News he can’t comment on pending litigation. Horry County spokeswoman Kelly Moore said it’s county policy not to comment on pending litigation.

Bishop’s lawyer Bert von Hermann released a statement in response to the lawsuit:

“We all know that this is a tragic situation. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of these young ladies. The heroic actions taken by Officer Josh Bishop placed his life at risk trying to save people’s lives. This demonstrates the level of commitment he had to a everyone in a very complex situation. While we have not had the opportunity to read the allegations in any lawsuit, the events of that night profoundly effected all of those involved-to a degree that is.”

Flood’s lawyer Jonny McCoy said they welcomed the lawsuit.

“Finally, the victims have their focus set on the proper bad actors, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office and Marion County,” he said. “The civil discovery process should yield what we’ve found through the criminal proceedings, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office was grossly negligent and the cover-up that ensued was calculated, concerning and done so as to limit the liability of the Horry County Sheriff’s Office and their senior officers.

“The victims deserve just retribution from those who are the most culpable. Not just the ones that the Sheriff’s Department tells us to blame.”

Seeking change

Preston Brittain and the Brittain law firm represent Newton’s family. The lawyer said it’s easy to blame the two deputies who were “incredibly reckless.”

“But, a tragedy of this proportion requires a cultural or governmental indifference. It can’t be reduced to two individuals,” he said.

Police charged Bishop and Flood with reckless homicide after the incident, both pleaded not guilty and their cases remain active.

Charles Newton echoed his lawyer’s statements and added there are numerous people responsible for his mother’s drowning.

“We may not change the way the world rotates, but we can change some of the surfaces and some of the people on it,” Charles Newton said.

As Brittain worked on the suit, he said he tried to imagine the last moments of Wendy Newton’s and Green’s lives. He said he believes they looked at each other and asked what they did to deserve that kind of death.

“The death of Wendy is a horror story, but we aim to make a beacon for change,” Brittain said.

Charles Newton said the past year was filled with sadness and a bit of anger. Speaking about their mom can be difficult, but he and his sister admit time has helped.

“It has gotten a little easier because we’ve had so much time,” Charles Newton said. “But it hasn’t gotten any easier, if that makes any sense. It doesn’t get any easier.”

“We may not get a big change out of this,” Allison Newton said. “We may just get a small change. But, my only hope is to change the way people are treated.”

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Alex Lang is the True Crime reporter for The Sun News covering the legal system and how crime impacts local residents. He says letting residents know if they are safe is a vital role of a newspaper. Alex has covered crime in Detroit, Iowa, New York City, West Virginia and now Horry County.