Death of former S.C. state trooper renews doubts about wife’s 1998 suicide
The police radio crackled to life as a frantic voice shouted over the airwaves: “It’s my wife! It’s my wife!”
Emergency crews raced to the James Island home of state trooper William Shaw on March 7, 1998, and found him hovering over the limp body of his wife, Susan, 26.
Shaw told them he’d found her slumped and unconscious in the driver’s seat of her idling Chevy Tahoe inside their exhaust-filled garage. She’d stopped breathing, and burns covered nearly all of her body. She quickly died.
Tests revealed she’d died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She’d been drinking wine on top of anti-depressants, and friends said she’d been troubled by marital problems.
To the medical examiner, it seemed a clear case of suicide.
Or was it?
Susan Shaw’s family and friends never accepted the notion that the bright, hard-working young nurse had taken her own life. Some investigators didn’t believe it either and couldn’t understand why her widower husband refused to answer their questions.
Now, William Shaw’s recent death in a domestic-related police shooting in Phoenix, Ariz., has renewed those suspicions and prompted new questions about the former trooper and Susan’s untimely death.
Phoenix officers shot the 46-year-old former trooper on St. Patrick’s Day after he trained a laser-equipped pistol on them at his apartment, police said. Police had been called there to check out a report that Shaw was fighting with his latest wife and breaking things.
Susan Shaw’s parents hope the violent incident will spur South Carolina authorities to reconsider the official ruling in their daughter’s death.
“Our whole thing has been to get that cause of death off her death certificate,” her mother, Shirley Beachman, said. “We don’t believe it was suicide.”
Shirley and Tom Beacham had been suspicious of Bill Shaw from the start.
He seemed nice enough at first and promised to care for their daughter, a nurse at Medical University of South Carolina. But he’d been married before, had a penchant for partying and seemed perpetually short of cash, Shirley Beacham said. And at times, he would disappear on weekend trips without explanation, she said.
The couple’s friends told State Law Enforcement Division agents that their six-year marriage had begun to fray in the year before Susan’s death.
Fellow law enforcement officers had seen Shaw openly disparage his wife in front of others. Her friends said Shaw’s partying and loose spending habits had caused problems, as had an online relationship he’d had with an Arizona woman he’d met on the Internet, according to SLED documents.
Friends told SLED that Shaw had traveled to Arizona, telling his wife he was participating in a law enforcement funeral detail. Instead, he spent the day alone with his online paramour, authorities said.
Susan sought counseling at her church and told friends she was distraught over the possibility of her marriage failing. Her fears grew when her husband took off to Florida for a week and didn’t call.
On the night of March 6, 1998, Susan Shaw telephoned a close friend, crying and sobbing over the phone. She and Bill had argued on the way home from an oyster roast and he threatened to leave her, she told her friend.
Susan also called trooper Robert Gilstrap, a friend of her husband’s, who agreed to meet her a parking lot at 1 a.m. During a three-hour conversation, Susan detailed her frustrations and told Gilstrap she “was going to go home and tell Bill he would have to leave,” according to a SLED report.
About seven hours later, Susan Shaw turned up dead.
Emergency workers described Bill Shaw as distraught when they found him on the back porch of his Trapier Drive home shortly after 1 p.m., giving his unconscious wife CPR.
Shaw told them he returned home for lunch and found Susan unconscious inside the garage with the car running and the door shut tight. He pulled her from the super-heated space, dragged her to the porch and began first aid, but it was no use, he told them.
Shaw later told Gilstrap that Susan had been crying when he left for work that morning. When he found the car running in the garage “I knew immediately what she had done,” he told his friend.
Sheriff’s deputies found a half-full wine glass in the kitchen and a broken glass and wine bottle in the garage. Tests showed Susan’s blood alcohol level was .07, just below today’s legal driving limit, and she had ingested more than twice the normal dosage of a prescribed anti-depressant. With no trauma to her body beside the burns, authorities ruled the death a suicide.
Still, some details bothered investigators.
Susan Shaw hadn’t left a suicide note, and friends saw no indications she would harm herself.
Someone had cut a circuit breaker to keep the electric garage door from opening, and that seemed beyond Susan’s limited technical know-how, her family said.
Someone using the Shaws’ home phone had also called their voice mail at 1:01 p.m. that day — before calling 911 — while Susan lay unconscious in the garage. Records showed 20 more calls made to their voice mail later that day. But when investigators checked, the messages were all gone.
Investigators also determined that Bill Shaw had left a message for Charleston criminal defense lawyer Andy Savage at 10 a.m. that day — three hours before Susan’s body was found.
The Beachams said Shaw contacted MUSC two days later inquiring about Susan’s $130,000 life insurance policy.
Pushing for answers
Sheriff’s investigators tried to meet with Shaw on March 30, 1998, to get a written statement from him, but he put them off, saying he would be out of town. They and SLED were still waiting for a statement when Shaw resigned from the Highway Patrol in October and moved to Arizona.
Pushing for answers
SLED agents traveled to Phoenix to interview Shaw, but he refused to speak with them, saying his attorney had told him to stay quiet, said retired SLED Agent Sam Tanner, who went on that trip.
“He would never talk to us,” he said.
Tanner said they looked hard at the possibility that Shaw had killed his wife, but in the end, the evidence pointed toward suicide.
“My honest opinion is, I don’t think he actually killed the girl. She probably took her own life, but his mental abuse of her had something to do with it, I’m sure,” he said. “He probably drove her to doing what she did.”
Former 9th Circuit Solicitor David Schwacke, the county’s chief prosecutor at the time, said authorities had plenty of suspicions but nothing they could take to court.
The wine glasses at the home hadn’t been preserved as evidence after Susan’s death, so investigators couldn’t test to see if someone had spiked her drink with the anti-depressant. And authorities had allowed Shaw’s attorney to take the Tahoe in which she was found to a detailing shop that same day, wiping the vehicle clean of whatever evidence lay inside, records show.
“I still think it would have been impossible at that point to mount a successful prosecution against him,” Schwacke said.
The Beachams said they heard Shaw tried unsuccessfully to get back into law enforcement in Arizona, where he married the woman he’d been courting on the Internet. She later called the Beachams when that romance fizzled, complaining about the way Shaw had treated her. She also notified the Beachams after Shaw was shot by Phoenix police on March 17, they said.
Police said Shaw had racked the slide on his gun, told officers to leave his home and then pointed the pistol at one officer after they retreated. Shaw and police exchanged gunfire, and he died. The officer was not wounded, police said.
The Beachams said they hope their former son-in-law’s actions will cause South Carolina officials to take another look at Susan Shaw’s death.
SLED was noncommittal, saying only that they had not received an official request to reopen the case.
Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten, however, said she plans to review the case to see if any new information has emerged that could affect earlier findings.
At this point, any action would be welcome to the Beachams.
“It’s been 15 years, but you never forget it,” Tom Beacham said. “We think about her every day.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.