Alleged hoax case closed; questions still open

Shafer

Prosecutors closed the books Thursday on an alleged holdup hoax in Waterfront Park, but many questions remain about what happened that night and how two college kids ended up wet and naked in a downtown hotel.

Students Penelope Murray and John Shafer, who were accused of fabricating the robbery two years ago, agreed to enter a pre-trial program that will allow them to keep their records clean if they behave themselves.

The resolution, agreed to by all parties at a municipal court hearing in Charleston, is not an admission of guilt. And don’t expect that to be forthcoming, Murray’s mother said.

Barbara Murray insisted that the holdup did occur, and she accused Charleston police of turning on her daughter when she needed their help most.

“She has been a stellar citizen. She has not done one thing wrong in her life,” Barbara Murray said. “This has hurt our family and she has struggled for the past two years to rise above this.”

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said he stands by his investigators’ work and the conclusions they reached.

“The information and evidence we were able to gather clearly indicated the offense did not happen,” he said. “She has not given us any information to lead us to believe that theory has changed.”

Penelope Murray, then 19 and a College of Charleston sophomore, and Shafer, a 21-year-old Trident Technical College student, caused a stir on Nov. 23, 2010, when they showed up naked and muddy in the lobby of the HarborView Inn.

The students, both white, told people a black couple beat and robbed them in Waterfront Park before tossing them into the harbor.

The incident elicited a great deal of community sympathy, and Mayor Joe Riley even phoned the pair to pass along his regrets.

Not long after, Charleston police said they determined that the crime never occurred and the students’ story was a hoax. Arrest affidavits stated that Shafer admitted the robbery story was bogus.

Mullen said Shafer admitted that he and Murray were not thrown off the pier and they were in the water nude. Then he clammed up, and he never would say just how they ended up there, he said.

“We wanted to figure out what really happened,” Mullen said. “But he would not go any further.”

The students surrendered to police in December 2010 to face a charge of filing a false police report. The pair requested jury trials and the misdemeanor case dragged on for months, with one continuance after another.

Penelope Murray declined to comment Thursday on the outcome, but her mother had plenty to say.

Barbara Murray said police maligned her daughter’s reputation with no proof. She said Penelope has been in therapy to recover from the incident, knowing that the people who robbed her are still out there.

Murray said the moral of this story is that people shouldn’t report a crime to the city police unless they have it on video, are willing to catch the crooks themselves and can afford a lawyer when police turn on them.

Mullen said her comments were off-base. Police spent many hours investigating the complaint, he said, and backed off only when they were confident that the holdup didn’t occur.

“We are not bashful about investigating robberies,” he said. “But we are not going to continue investigating something when one of the alleged victims tells us it did not happen.”

Riley said he is confident that police handled the case appropriately. “It was a thorough investigation,” he said. “They did everything they could and every lead was a dead end.”

Shafer did not appear at Thursday’s hearing, and his attorney, Andy Savage, signed the court paperwork for him. When asked whether he agreed with Barbara Murray’s statements about the case, Savage said simply that the resolution that was reached was the best option for all involved.

“Policing is a tough job, and they have to make tough calls,” he said. “I don’t know who would have been successful if we had gone to trial.”

The pair will be required to complete community service in the city while in the pre-trial program. Officials have yet to determine how long they will remain in the program and how much community service they will be required to perform.

Barbara Murray said her daughter and Shafer were in the early stages of dating when the incident occurred. They are no longer romantically involved but remain friends, she said. Both are continuing their studies.

Penelope Murray, now 21, returned to the College of Charleston after the incident and was exonerated by the school’s honor board, her mother said. The school would not confirm that statement, citing student confidentiality laws. She will be a senior next year.

In the meantime, Barbara Murray said her daughter will gladly perform community service to put this case behind her. “She just wants this nightmare to end after two harrowing years.”

Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story misidentified Penelope Murray. The Post and Courier regrets the error.