Family of bicyclist killed in James Island crash says missteps hurt investigation
The family of a James Island bicyclist who was fatally struck last month has called for a review of the investigation into the state wildlife officer who left the crash scene and whether alcohol prompted him to flee.
A charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving death against Jeffery Lewis Thomas, 46, a reserve officer for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, was dropped last week. Magistrate James Gosnell decided that not enough probable cause supported his arrest.
Thomas got out of his vehicle after the Aug. 17 crash on Riverland Drive and performed CPR on the bicyclist, 40-year-old Matthew Denton of James Island, according to reports. But he drove off when other witnesses stopped to help.
Andy Denton, one of the victim’s three living brothers, said Thursday that the charge’s dismissal “was a punch in the gut.” They were never told, he said, about the hearing that led to Gosnell’s ruling, and they think that investigators’ missteps contributed to it.
He said the magistrate should have considered a sergeant’s observation that Thomas had been drinking that night, which might have been the reason he left.
“I personally don’t want the guy to go to jail for the rest of his life,” Andy Denton, 38, said. “I just want whatever is right to happen. We just want to know what’s going on.”
Deputies and prosecutors said Thursday that they’re still looking into the case and haven’t ruled out future charges.
Maj. Jim Brady of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said the sergeant smelled alcohol, but a decision was made to pursue the hit-and-run charge instead. He added that because Thomas left the scene, it would have been difficult to prove a drunken driving charge.
The sergeant’s observation was not recorded in a report.
“They didn’t feel that he was impaired anyway,” Brady said. “(That Thomas left) does come into play, but they didn’t feel he was intoxicated.”
On the evening of his death, Matthew Denton biked to Folly Beach.
He had a fascination with God, family and the sun, and he regarded the beach as an ideal place to pray.
“He was a sunrise guy, but that day, he already had biked to the beach in the morning,” Andy Denton said. “So he wanted to go out and catch the sunset as well.”
But the bicyclist knew the dangers of riding through the night. His bicycle was equipped with lights, but he left the beach before darkness fell.
On his way home, he stopped at Walmart and bought a drink. His receipt was time-stamped 7:50 p.m. Sunset that day was at 8:02.
An incident report stated that around 8:38 p.m., Thomas’ Ford Explorer drifted off Riverland Drive and struck the back of Denton’s bicycle near Delaney Lane. Denton was one mile from his home.
After initially trying to help the injured man, Thomas drove off. He returned 40 minutes later with his girlfriend.
During Thomas’ absence and in the first few minutes of his return, the crash was being handled by the Charleston Police Department.
But the police relinquished jurisdiction of the crash to the Sheriff’s Office about 47 minutes after it was first reported. That time lapse contributed to the Dentons’ frustration with how the on-scene probe was conducted.
Family members have raised questions about why Thomas wasn’t tested for alcohol.
Karl Twenge of Beaufort, the family’s attorney, said the magistrate should have been presented with evidence that alcohol could have been the reason Thomas left the scene. “If that had happened, this might have been a different outcome,” Twenge said. “We just want to make sure the evidence is in front of them before they make another decision.”
Attempts Thursday to contact Thomas’ attorney, Michael Coleman of Summerville, were unsuccessful. Coleman told WCBD-TV in August that his client wasn’t drunk and that the crash was simply an accident.
Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis said the agency did not complete any reports accounting for the interaction between its officers and Thomas.
A sheriff’s document indicates that officers told deputies only that Thomas acknowledged his involvement in the wreck. But the paperwork does not account for any other statements Thomas might have made or for any observations police officers made during those 47 minutes before the Sheriff’s Office arrived.
“It really came down to a jurisdiction problem,” Andy Denton said. “Something must have happened in that time to cause this thing to go awry.”