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SC teen died on a boat trip. But details unclear after police fail to ask key questions.

Jaden Phillips

A poster calling for #truthforjaden hangs on a pole June 5, 2021, at the Bates Bridge Landing in southeast Richland County on the Congaree River. More than a year later, family and friends of Jaden Phillips are still seeking answers about the accident that led to the 19-year-old's death in May 2020. Jessica Holdman/Staff

COLUMBIA — Jaden Phillips was spending his 19th birthday cruising along the Congaree River with friends when the souped-up jon boat he was riding in rounded a bend some 40 miles downstream from Columbia's Gervais Street bridge an hour before sunset.

What happened next that day in May 2020 remains unclear, but it would cost the Elgin teen his life.

The boat's driver, the sole eyewitness, told police Phillips was hit in the head by a low-hanging limb. When other friends arrived, they found the teen on the floor of the boat, his arm hanging over the right side. He was unconscious and struggling to breathe.

Phillips would linger on life support for four days before his family made the decision to remove him from the ventilator. He died within minutes, never having regained consciousness.

The state agency charged with investigating boating mishaps would learn, only by chance, that the accident occurred on the river. That delayed any action on the case until the day of Phillips' funeral — three days after his death and a week after he was injured.

"I reached out to a family friend and asked, 'Am I crazy?' " said Jaden's mother, Sabria Phillips "It never occurred to me that no investigation was being done."

By then, video taken by Jaden Phillips less than 30 minutes before the accident had surfaced. It showed the driver, who had a criminal history of boating under the influence and a suspended license, with a beer in his hand. Others would later tell authorities they saw the driver drinking earlier that day and that there had been empty beer cans on the floor of the boat when it arrived at the landing.

Richland County Sheriff's deputies who responded that night had neither questioned nor attempted to verify the driver's story. No sobriety or blood alcohol test was given.

Medical experts would later tell The Post and Courier the injuries to Phillips' body suggest he endured greater trauma than the boat pilot described, but they couldn't say for sure without more information. 

"Police officers are supposed to be determining what happened, not just taking someone's word for it," said Todd Rutherford, a state legislator who is an attorney for the Phillips family. "Basic questions, had they been posed, might have changed this whole thing around."

A lack of inquiry and immediate action by numerous law enforcement agencies means the public will likely never know for sure whether it was a tragic accident or more serious negligence that led to the death of Phillips, a 6-foot-4 practical joker with a passion for duck hunting and the outdoors.

Jaden Phillips

Jaden Phillips, at age 18, pictured after a day spent duck hunting with his friend Spencer Spradley, his arm around Spradley's dog Timber. "Duck hunting, to him, was his Christmas morning," said Phillips' mother, Sabria Phillips. Provided

A review of witness statements, investigative reports and police body camera footage shows questions went unasked the day of the accident, like the driver’s name or where in the boat his passenger was seated. Possible evidence went ungathered, including contents of the boat. Errors in the coroner’s report went uncorrected. And an investigation was critically delayed by a lack of interagency communication.

Meanwhile, the boat's driver faces a pair of minor violations. And though he could clear up any questions, "it would not be appropriate to make further statements" given the pending case, his lawyer said.

Tragedy strikes

Jaden Phillips' empty breakfast plate from that morning still sits on his pillow. He ate bacon, biscuits and eggs, scrambled as usual — cooked for him by his mother the morning after his 19th birthday.

The finality of touching anything in his room is still unbearable for Sabria Phillips a year later.

“I can still hear him singing, his boots clunking through our short hallway,” she said of his departure that May morning.

Before walking out the door, he tossed, over his shoulder, the signature “I love you” he gave family and friends every time he left the house or hung up the phone, common words said through a crooked grin that always gave his voice a certain lilt.

Climbing into the truck, Phillips and his father drove the roughly 30 miles from their home in Elgin to Bates Bridge Landing on the Congaree River, near Congaree National Park on the southeast edge of Richland County, less than 500 feet from the Calhoun County line. They met six other men, family friends who were there for a weekend of riverside camping and birthday celebrating.

The group arrived around noon, launched their six boats and rode some 30 minutes upriver to set up camp.

It would be a day filled with fishing and cruising by some in the party; sipping beers and swigging moonshine by others, according to witness statements and video the Phillips family shared with The Post and Courier.

Body camera footage shows Richland County Sheriff's deputies responding to the injury of Jaden Phillips. Phillips would later die of a traumatic brain injury. The video was obtained by the Phillips family, who shared it with The Post and Courier. It has been edited for brevity.

About half the group took three boats and spent the afternoon on a sandbar not far from the boat landing, which was known for its party atmosphere. They arrived a little after 2 p.m., with several of them staying about 5½ hours before climbed into their boats and heading upriver for dinner.

Phillips rode in a riverboat, piloted by longtime family friend Irvin Eckrote, that was out in front of the trio of vessels returning to camp.

The 18-foot aluminum boat had an engine that was once clocked at 75 mph, according to witness statements. Steering with a handle attached to the motor, Eckrote easily sped off ahead of the others.

As the second boat rounded a bend in the river, the driver, Eric Langen, saw branches shaking. He soon realized Eckrote had crashed into the top of an overhanging tree, his fishing poles tangled in the branches, according to a statement Langen gave nine months later to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

Jaden Phillips tree

Jaden Phillips sustained fatal head injuries after the boat he was riding in May 16, 2020, hit this tree on the Congaree River. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources photographed the tree more than a week later, after several days of rain greatly raised river levels. SCDNR/Provided

It was a wide spot in the river, approaching the length of a football field, but Eckrote appeared to have cut closer to the bank, Langen said.

Langen told Eckrote, who appeared in shock, to call 911 and get back to the boat landing, 5½ miles downstream. According to 911 dispatch records, Eckrote did not call. Instead, he raced to Bates Bridge Landing while Langen went to get Phillips’ father, floating in another boat upriver.

“He (Eckrote) came up to the ramp at like Mach 10” and started screaming for help, bystander Paul Catoe told officers in an exchange recorded by their body cameras.

Catoe, an emergency medical technician for a local manufacturer, told officers he jumped in the boat, pushing aside beer cans and other items littering the floor to get to Phillips. Catoe turned him onto his side to ensure Phillips' airway was clear and applied pressure to a gash on the back of his head in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Phillips' father would arrive soon after and join him.

A bystander called 911 just before 8 p.m. Panic can be heard in the background, as the man tells the operator Phillips is bleeding heavily from his head.

The first call to 911 following Jaden Phillip's injury was placed by a bystander just before 8 p.m. on May 16, 2020.

A Richland County ambulance driver would ride back and forth on the bridge overhead, struggling to locate the entrance to the boat ramp.

A call also was placed to S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the state agency charged with investigating incidents on the water.

From the call recording, it’s clear DNR dispatchers knew someone had suffered a serious injury, but it's unclear if they knew whether it occurred on the water. If it had taken place on the boat ramp, it would have been in the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s jurisdiction.

A S.C. Department of Natural Resources officer was notified, via a phone call from a bystander on May 16, 2020, about injuries sustained by Jaden Phillips. That officer reported it to SCDNR dispatch.

Ultimately, DNR dispatch phoned for an ambulance. The agency did not say why they chose not to send an officer. Citing charges pending against the driver, DNR refused to speak about anything directly related to the case.

The emergency crew and fire department arrived 19 minutes after the first 911 call, according to dispatch logs. But the ambulance left the station with only two people, not yet knowing Phillips was unconscious and unstable, which would require a third person to help tend to him. They had to wait for a driver.

Meanwhile, minutes ticked by as the trauma swelled in Phillips' brain.

Police arrive

At the 28 minute mark from when 911 was called, after a woman asked a firefighter to call for police, Richland County Sheriff’s deputies came on scene, body camera footage and call logs show.

When the deputies arrived, they were directed to a boat floating beside the dock with no one around it.

“Don’t look anything unusual,” the responding officer, Deputy Daniel Brigman, can be heard saying.

Body camera footage shows the boat was completely empty. Gone were the fishing poles Langen had seen tangled in the tree. There were no seats, no empty beer cans, no cooler that had been there some nine minutes earlier, according to multiple witness statements later recorded.

The deputy gave the vessel a 20-second once-over. He noted blood in the boat, but not its location nor any of the damage to the watercraft later reported to DNR. That damage, documented in witness statements and photos, included a speaker hanging askew, a crack on the motor cover, large scratches in the paint and a dented front right corner.

“I can’t tell if this is an accident or what’s going on,” Brigman told firefighters before walking toward a woman who had waved to him earlier.

She and others in the group point out Eckrote as the driver.

Recorded on a body camera, Eckrote told deputies he yelled out to Phillips, "Hey, limb."

"We ducked, just a simple thing," he said, leaning left and mimicking the motion. "Just like something you would always do on the river."

"But I guess something hit him just right,” Eckrote continued telling Brigman.

Eckrote said when he came up from ducking himself, he saw blood on Phillips’ head, gesturing to his own forehead.

Throughout the encounter, the deputy did not ask Eckrote’s name. He did not ask for his driver’s license. Eckrote made no mention of the others who had come upon the accident, and the deputy didn't inquire.

"That makes everything a lot more clear," Brigman said, without any further questions.

Brigman also spoke to Catoe, the EMT who initially cared for Phillips. But the deputy didn't ask for his name or what he first saw in the boat when it arrived. Instead, Brigman interrupted him as he spoke. 

“He’s probably going to be fine,” Brigman told to the group, referring to Phillips.

But the 19-year-old was far from fine.

What was missed

While Eckrote spoke willingly to police the night of the accident, he would not speak to law enforcement again as DNR began investigating.

“It was just a terrible accident,” said Eckrote’s lawyer, Randolph Hough.

Hough said Eckrote is sympathetic to the family, but states he is not guilty of the two misdemeanors he faces.

The deputy, Brigman, had left the boat landing after less than 16 minutes without calling DNR, despite having been told it was an injury that happened on the water. He left the boat unsecured, along with any evidence that might have been there.

Brigman also did not ask Eckrote whether he'd had anything to drink, even though the crowd said other members of the party had been drinking, including a man who was passed out in Eckrote's truck. And because the deputy did not conduct a sobriety test that night, the opportunity was lost.

“For someone who is intoxicated, time is very important because over time the body metabolizes alcohol,” said Jeremy Messenger, an instructor at the state Criminal Justice Academy.

Brigman also failed to follow several interview techniques South Carolina police officers are taught in basic training, such as separating witnesses to ensure one person's recollections aren't muddled with those of others.  

Officers also are taught to ask witnesses what happened and not interrupt.

“Let them freely tell you that, even if they start telling you stuff you know that’s not true,” said Scottie Frier, another instructor at the academy who worked 25 years as a homicide detective. “One of the most critical things is listening to them and letting them tell their story.”

After that, ask follow-up questions and address any untruths. 

Catoe, the EMT, later told a sheriff's investigator he could smell alcohol on Eckrote, noticed his face was red and his pupils were "big as baseballs." Based on the severity of Phillips' injuries, he also said he did not believe Eckrote's account of the accident.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott declined a request for an in-person or telephone interview, but said in an email that he stood by his department’s actions. He said deputies were called for a medical emergency and “the deputy responded within department standards.” He also confirmed his department conducted an investigation into the accident, at the request of the family, in February; that investigation has since been closed.

No extra training, internal review or disciplinary actions are planned, Lott said. The sheriff said “a reminder was sent out to all deputies (March 29, 2021) that they should notify DNR when there is any type of boating incident.”

Rutherford, the Phillips family's attorney, said it is not enough to say this was a medical emergency and move on. 

"Not only did this happen," he said, "but now the people in authority are justifying it."

Time erases evidence

The problems in the case would not end there.

Sheriff and DNR investigators told the family their agencies had not viewed photos of the injuries to Phillips' body. After receiving numerous requests from the family and an inquiry about the case from The Post and Courier, DNR agreed on May 28 to review them — more than a year after the accident.

Jaden Phillips

Jaden Phillips, at age 17, poses after fishing at his grandparents' house on Lake Murray. Provided

There's a high probability no further criminal charges will result, Sabria Phillips was told by multiple lawyers and law enforcement involved in the case. But it was important to her, she said, that she’s given her son every possible chance.

Lt. Tony Spires, who leads DNR’s investigative arm, said the agency often uses coroner’s reports to determine where a person was in a boat and what might have caused their injuries. But the summary in the agency’s case file makes little mention of Phillips' wounds. And they appear to rely solely on a statement by the driver of the second boat that Phillips, when they left the sandbar, sat in the front of Eckrote's boat, facing rear. 

Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford was not in office at the time of the accident, but has reviewed the records. She said the injuries were of particular significance because there was more than just a single blow to the head from a limb. The coroner's report, EMT report and medical records provided by the family to The Post and Courier showed injuries to multiple sides of Phillips' body.

“The body tells a story, and in this story, something doesn’t add up,” said Rutherford, who is the ex-wife of Todd Rutherford, an attorney for the Phillips family.

A 2-inch cut to the lower left back of Phillips' head caused him to lose so much blood that he required multiple transfusions. If he had been sitting facing the rear of the boat, this could have come from a branch, but it doesn't explain his other injuries, Naida Rutherford said.

The coroner's report noted a line of bruising stretching directly across Phillips' chest and upper arms. DNR's case file makes no mention of what might have caused this, and Eckrote never spoke of it.

The coroner ruled that Phillips died from a traumatic brain injury. The lower left side of his skull was fractured and he bled internally. The lower right side of his brain also showed bruising.

The forensic pathologist hired by the coroner couldn't say for sure what struck Phillips' head, but noted in her report that the injury likely occurred at a high rate of speed. 

In South Carolina, if a person operates a boat with a “willful or wanton disregard” for the safety of others and it results in someone’s death, that person can be charged with reckless homicide, which carries a possible 10 years of prison time. The penalty for involuntary manslaughter is up to five years. 

But proving those offenses requires further evidence — such as excessive speed or someone looking at their phone.

Sometimes DNR can use people’s cellphones to determine speed, Spires said, and some motors have microchips in them that record RPMs. But when approached with a warrant for his phone on May 24, eight days after the accident, Eckrote, through his attorney, said he couldn’t find it.

Whatever evidence may have been on Jaden Phillips' phone has been irretrievable, according to a report by a sheriff's investigator.

And though Eckrote gave DNR access to his boat, the engine computer chips that can record speed write over themselves each time the boat is restarted, Spires said.

Furthermore, neither the coroner nor the sheriff's department notified DNR of Phillips' death. DNR would only start its investigation the day of Phillips' funeral, after an unknown person at Lake Murray approached an officer to ask about the accident, the Phillips family said it was told by the agency.

Jaden Phillips tree

Jaden Phillips sustained fatal head injuries after the boat he was riding in on May 16, 2020, hit this tree on the Congaree River. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources photographed the tree more than a week later, after several days of rain greatly raised river levels. SCDNR/Provided

By then, rain had fallen on the Midlands for several days. The river gauge reading reached 20 feet, altering the river bed and its banks.

All of this has set the Phillips family on a path, seeking answers to what happened that day. They also plan to push for law changes to ensure this doesn't happen again. 

Avoiding a repeat

With all investigations closed, Eckrote awaits a trial date for misdemeanors of driving under suspension and negligent operation of a watercraft, neither of which, Sabria Phillips said, acknowledge her son's death.

In Kim Cockrell's 28 years as a member of the state’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving Chapter, she said she's never seen this type of failure in a case.

“I have never seen an officer on scene conduct an interview and not ask for a driver’s license, ask for a victim’s name," she said.

Had a drivers license been obtained, investigators would have seen that Eckrote had been convicted of boating under the influence in 2016 in Sumter County. His boating license remains suspended from that offense because he did not complete all of the required training that was part of his sentence. He also faced negligent operation of a watercraft charges in Calhoun County in 2015.

Amid counseling sessions and piles of medical bills, Sabria Phillips has sought an audience with top officials, including the State Law Enforcement Division, the state Attorney General and Gov. Henry McMaster, hoping to prompt changes to law enforcement procedures and accountability.

As a result, Naida Rutherford said she wants to form a task force with law enforcement and prosecutors, named in Jaden Phillips' honor, to review all water deaths in the county, the same way her office does for child fatalities.

The sheriff said his department, if invited, would participate.

And like the parents of slain children before her who championed legislative efforts, like the one that made boating under the influence illegal in the state, Phillips said she will contact lawmakers seeking legislative changes, though she's not yet sure what those might be.

“We have to change the story so it’s not rewind and repeat," she said.

Reach Jessica Holdman at jholdman@postandcourier.com. Follow her @jmholdman on Twitter.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Columbia reporter

Stephen Fastenau is a local government reporter covering the City of Columbia, Richland County and general assignments. He returned to Columbia after 10 years as a reporter at The Island Packet and is a University of South Carolina graduate.

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