Documents in James Island hit-and-run point out investigation’s shortcomings, family says
After he drove away from a crash scene where a bicyclist lay lifeless in a watery ditch, a reserve wildlife officer told authorities that he had been drinking that evening, according to documents provided to The Post and Courier.
Jeffery Lewis Thomas, 46, of Mount Pleasant, said he had a few drinks Aug. 17 on Folly Beach, where he rented a home. His sport-utility vehicle later fatally struck 40-year-old Matthew Denton on James Island.
At the scene on Riverland Drive, three law officers reported smelling alcohol on Thomas’ breath. A Charleston County sheriff’s sergeant thought Thomas seemed impaired, though evidence of drunkenness wasn’t noted in the reports.
Thomas offered his blood for alcohol testing, but deputies turned him down. Because he had left the scene for 40 minutes and later returned, deputies said they couldn’t prove that he was drunk when the wreck occurred.
Family members of Denton said the documents, obtained through S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests, indicate what might have motivated Thomas to leave the scene and point out faults in the sheriff’s investigation.
They also said the on-scene probe led to misinformation during a court hearing and aided the dismissal of the charge on which Thomas was arrested — leaving the scene of an accident involving death.
Unable to consider that alcohol was a possible reason for fleeing, a magistrate ruled in September that Thomas had fulfilled his obligation by briefly stopping and having someone else call 911.
“You’ve got my dead son in a ditch and a driver who admitted to drinking, and they don’t put him under arrest for DUI and do the test,” said Denton’s father, Dan Denton. “I find that striking and a probable abuse of discretion.”
Sheriff Al Cannon acknowledged some shortcomings by deputies, such as not gathering certain witness statements until after the charge was dismissed. But the sheriff said his investigators still put together the strongest possible case, which remains alive as prosecutors consider indicting Thomas on a hit-and-run charge.
He said that the extent of any intoxication was not enough to arrest Thomas on a DUI count.
“Officers have a certain amount of discretion,” Cannon said. “I can’t say we don’t make mistakes, but we still feel like we’re in a good position to go forward.”
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson declined to comment, and attempts to contact Thomas and his attorney, Michael Coleman, were not successful. Thomas has been relieved of his volunteer law enforcement role with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
As the sun set, Denton biked away from the beach, where he often went to pray. A light was affixed to the rear of his bicycle.
On Riverland Drive, north of Camp Road, Thomas’ Ford Explorer rear-ended the bicycle at 35 mph as they traveled north around 8:30 p.m., according to reports. There was no bike lane.
Denton’s body landed face-up in the ditch. The Ford was left with headlight and windshield damage.
A motorist stopped and reported that Thomas was performing CPR on the bicyclist, whose body was partially submerged in water. Thomas was barefoot and wearing a bathing suit.
Thomas told the motorist to call 911 and said he “had to get something from his car,” the motorist wrote in a statement. “(Thomas) then got in his vehicle and sped away.”
Charleston police responded to the 911 call. Deputies were not dispatched until 47 minutes later, when the police realized that the crash scene wasn’t in their jurisdiction.
City officers’ efforts were limited to speaking with witnesses and briefly with Thomas, and marking evidence.
They did not file incident reports. Their accounts instead were documented in October — more than a month after the wreck and after the charge was dismissed — through memos sent to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.
After the accident, Thomas told investigators that he drove to his girlfriend’s home in West Ashley. The woman, a Thomas co-worker at Santee Cooper, promptly drove the Ford and Thomas back to the scene.
Thomas returned about 40 minutes after he had left, telling officers who were directing traffic that “I am the one you are looking for. ... I did it,” according to the memos.
When he handed over his driver’s license, Thomas was quick to identify himself as a DNR reservist. His firearm was confiscated.
A police sergeant noted that Thomas looked disheveled and smelled of an alcoholic beverage.
“The individual was extremely emotional and distraught ... (and) made spontaneous and excited utterances stating that he was the individual who struck the (bicyclist),” the sergeant wrote in a memo.
Thomas said he had been drinking three or four hours before the crash. He agreed to provide a blood sample, but refused to submit to a field-sobriety test, citing his fragile emotional state.
Regardless of his cooperation, deputies said they had no good reason to draw blood. Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Grimsley checked a box in a report indicating that Thomas showed signs of impairment, but the lead crash investigator noted a caveat.
“The driver did appear to have been drinking, but had left the scene and then returned,” Grimsley wrote in the document. “This was the only reason he was not placed under arrest for felony DUI.”
No observations that alcohol might have been involved were presented during a preliminary hearing three weeks later.
Instead, Magistrate James Gosnell surmised that the crash wasn’t Thomas’ fault, though accident reports labeled Thomas as contributing to the wreck and Denton as bicycling properly.
“Really, the accident is not the fault of the defendant,” Gosnell said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “He did render aid, and he did ask for the authorities to be notified.”
Assistant Solicitor Larry Todd offered no arguments against Gosnell’s contentions, and Gosnell dismissed the charge.
“It was a fatality immediately, and a thousand doctors probably could have shown up and done nothing for this individual,” Gosnell said. “It’s unusual that he would leave for a very short period of time, but he then did come back, and he fully cooperated with law enforcement.”
Denton’s family members have accepted Thomas’ apology, which was offered through an attorney, but they have not heard the Sheriff’s Office express any misgivings.
The victim’s father described Cannon as unapologetic during a recent meeting. The sheriff said he understood the Dentons’ frustrations, but that he was trying to be candid.
A law that goes into effect next month will require drivers suspected of being at fault in fatal wrecks to undergo field-sobriety testing. The measure is a step in the right direction, Dan Denton said, but he added that legislation requiring blood-alcohol tests is needed.
“It’s appalling and almost apparent that this guy was treated differently than most drivers,” Dan Denton said. “We want those investigating and prosecuting this case to be held accountable.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede