MOUNT PLEASANT -- Charles Jason McDonald told police he was on his way to meet his wife for lunch at Bojangles when he saw two motorcycles slowing in front of him along U.S. Highway 17 on May 11.
McDonald, vice president of a local engineering firm, told officers he thought he had "plenty of distance" -- two or three car lengths -- between his company's Ford Explorer and the bikes. But when he hit the brakes, the sport-utility vehicle wouldn't slow down, according to the written statement he gave to police.
"All I know is I applied the brakes and it wouldn't stop," he stated.
McDonald, 38, of Meggett stated that the SUV's air bags suddenly deployed and when he came to a stop, he saw people all around and the two motorcycles on the ground. The two riders, James Doucette, 80, of Port Charlotte, Fla., and his son-in-law James Hines, 50, of Yaphank, N.Y., died from their injuries in the crash.
Police decided Tuesday not to file criminal charges against McDonald in connection with the wreck. He instead was cited for traveling too fast for conditions, a minor traffic violation. His attorney, Lionel Lofton, said McDonald already has paid the fine associated with the ticket, but Lofton could not recall the amount.
The decision to forgo criminal charges against McDonald has incensed the victims' families and many area motorcycle riders. Police, however, said they found no evidence of wanton or willful disregard for the safety of others that would warrant criminal charges. Police consulted with 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson before making their decision.
McDonald told investigators he attributed the crash to computer problems he had experienced with his vehicle since a December rear-end collision the Explorer had been involved in. In particular, he had experienced problems with the vehicle's Advance Trac system, which is designed to prevent roll-overs, he said. Since the crash, he had heard a grinding noise when he applied the brakes or made a sharp turn, his statement to police said.
Police Capt. Stan Gragg said investigators obtained service records for the Explorer and found no history of complaints about its brakes or any brake problems identified by mechanics.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Post and Courier, police turned over those service records Thursday. The records show that Ravenel Ford checked the brakes May 6 and reported no problems. They also show that on April 13, McDonald took the SUV to the same dealership to check on a problem with the anti-lock brake system light staying on. Mechanics recalibrated the ABS system and it worked fine, the records show.
McDonald's wife, Melanie, and authorities have indicated that the vehicle's insurer, Auto Owners Insurance, has investigators looking into whether a brake malfunction contributed to the crash. The company and its Columbia-based attorney declined to comment on the case Thursday.
The SUV is owned by McDonald's employer, Britt, Peters and Associates. The engineering firm is based in Greenville, and McDonald manages its Charleston-area office on Queensborough Boulevard, about a half-mile from where the crash occurred at the Highway 17 intersection with Anna Knapp Boulevard.
McDonald told police the crash occurred after he left an architectural meeting at Watermark. He said he wasn't on medication and had nothing to drink. He stated that he was on his cell phone with his wife discussing what to eat for lunch after the meeting, but he hung up when he made a left from Bowman Road onto Highway 17, according to his statement to police.
Mary Crone was driving alongside McDonald as he approached the bikes. She said she grew worried when he failed to slow with the rest of traffic stopping for the red light. She honked at the driver, whom she couldn't see, but it was too late, she said. The SUV plowed into the motorcyclists with a powerful impact that launched both men from their bikes.
"I couldn't believe it and I still can't believe it," she said Thursday. "There was no screeching of brakes. There was nothing. Just a full impact."
Crone said McDonald told her after the crash that he couldn't stop, and he got out of his vehicle holding what appeared to be a cell phone. He seemed dazed, dropped to one knee and asked someone for a cell phone so he could call his wife, according to her statement to police.