Charleston police share details from muddy college students case
The young man took long pauses as he sat across the table from a detective, trying to explain how he and his girlfriend wound up naked and muddy in the lobby of a downtown Charleston hotel.
John Shafer’s tale revolved around a late-night stroll, a pair of robbers who made them strip and an unexpected swim in Charleston Harbor. The detective videotaping their interview searched for explanations to the parts of the story that made little sense, for a reason why the polygraphs called a bluff.
“What happened is, we took a walk,” then 20-year-old Shafer said. “We ended up on the pier and, somehow, we ended up in the water and in the pluff mud. That’s really all I can say at this point.”
No, he told the detective, they hadn’t been drinking that night at Waterfront Park. And no, the people he and Penelope Murray, 19 at the time, described in great detail in previous interviews didn’t really attack them, he eventually conceded.
“Nobody threw us down,” Shafer said in the video recording. “I can’t tell you how I got in the water.”
He told the detective that he wanted to protect his and Murray’s futures, to avoid serious legal trouble, but he never fully explained what happened on that cold November day in 2010. The pair, accused of fabricating a robbery, this month agreed to enter a pre-trial program that keeps their records clean if they stay out of trouble.
Police opened their case file for The Post and Courier, now that it’s all over, and explained why they decided to arrest the college students.
Detective Sylvester Williams received the case on the morning of Nov. 23, 2010. Just hours earlier, Shafer and Murray had showed up in the lobby of the HarbourView Inn, saying that another couple with a knife had beaten and robbed them at Waterfront Park.
Williams tried to interview Shafer and Murray, but both students’ parents said they were sleeping. The detective also searched for the couple’s tracks between the pier and the hotel but found nothing.
A Charleston Harbor Patrol boat looked for the students’ missing clothes or other evidence also came up empty, and the State Ports Authority pulled surveillance footage of the pair running across its property toward the inn.
“I actually began looking for a suspect,” Williams said.
Shafer and Murray eventually came to the police station. There, they told Williams that they began their night with a walk from Murray’s College of Charleston dorm down King Street to Market Street and onto East Bay Street and the park. While they were sitting at the end of the pier, a man asked another couple what time it was, they told Williams.
The man then approached Shafer and Murray, they said. He again asked for the time but, according to Murray’s and Shafer’s statements, the man began beating Shafer, and a woman with him pounded on Murray.
The other couple spoke about a knife, Shafer and Murray told Williams, but they never saw a weapon. Shafer told Williams his attacker threw him in the water. Murray told the detective that the man then grabbed her by the neck and threw her off the pier.
Williams noted that, in evidence photos, both students had mud missing from certain parts of their bodies that should have been covered in muck, had they waded waist-deep into a marsh. Other spots showed visible handprints, Williams said, as if someone had rubbed it on their bodies.
The detective spotted an apparent shoe print on Shafer’s body which, Williams said, matched the Converse sneakers that Murray wore and never removed during the alleged robbery. Murray also never lost her glasses, despite her insistence that someone threw her into the water by her neck, Williams observed.
The detective began looking into the information the couple shared and immediately noticed other apparent holes in their story. He couldn’t find them on surveillance footage taken along Market Street within a two-hour window of the time that they had reported walking the street. Williams also failed to find any red marks on Murray’s neck, where she said the man had lifted her off the pier.
Both students provided vivid descriptions of their alleged attackers, down to the woman’s blond braids and the man’s mustache and goatee, but they declined to help a sketch artist draw a composite. “I said, ‘Something’s definitely wrong,’” Williams remembered.
The detective asked the pair to take a polygraph test. They both agreed, but the results of each showed deception.
Or, as Williams put it, “They failed miserably.”
He brought the college students back in.
Williams said Murray stuck to the story. When pressed, she asked for her parents. Shafer also held strong to the claims but eventually said there never was another couple.
“They just wanted to be alone that night, so they walked down to the pier,” Williams said. “They ended up in the water naked.”
Shafer never told Williams anything further, and Murray sticks by their original story. Neither could be reached for comment for this story.
The pair’s names appeared repeatedly on municipal court dockets for more than a year, before their case finally reached resolution on May 18. Shafer’s attorney, Andy Savage, said his client never admitted wrongdoing but made the mistake of discrediting his original account.
“It was problematic for his case that he said that, but there are a lot of cases in which people, for whatever emotional or psychological reasons, just give in,” Savage said. He said his client’s inability to explain what happened, if not an attack, is “the telling part” of the case.
With a resolution to the case, Savage said, “it’s in everyone’s best interest to move on.”
Following the final hearing, Murray’s mother accused police of turning on her daughter. Murray’s public defender, Jason Mikell, said his client accepted the agreement — but never admitted guilt — as the easiest path.
“I would assume it’s because of her ... emotional well-being,” Mikell said. “This happened a couple years ago. When people have to relive bad experiences, they don’t always like to do it and sometimes choose the road that is a little bit easier, especially when you’re young and in college and have a whole lot to look forward to.”
Mikell questioned the reasons behind his client’s arrest, noting that polygraphs hold no bearing in court, and that Murray likely avoided helping a sketch artist because police turned their investigation toward her.
Police said they had nowhere else to look.
Reach Allyson Bird at ?937-5594 or Twitter.com/?allysonjbird.