When someone gets seriously hurt or dies in a boat wreck, the investigation isn't as straightforward as a car collision — with skid marks, lane lines, speed and traffic lights to guide it.
Evidence disappears with the wakes and sometimes sinks.
But determining what happened is handled roughly the same way. Investigators have to piece together a sequence of events from the boat parts that remain, and use eyewitness testimony and knowledge of the waters, too. Then they have to be able to back it up in court.
This year’s boating season brought increased scrutiny of these investigations by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, most strikingly after the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach following a boating collision in Beaufort County in February. Some questioned why investigators didn't do sobriety tests at the scene of the crash, which involved a member of a prominent legal family in the area.
This wasn't the first time the agency has received criticism for its investigations involving sobriety testing. Similar questions arose in 2017 after a Columbia auto dealer was involved in a boat crash that killed two people on Lake Murray.
While DNR investigators won't talk about specific cases, in interviews with The Post and Courier they defended the way they conduct investigations. The agency’s six officers who investigate boating fatalities are trained in the difficult task of crash reconstruction. It's painstaking work, and officers must follow the facts as they find them on scene, they said.
"They really have to have a sixth sense for it," said DNR Lt. Robin Camlin, one of the agency’s supervising investigators.
Adding to the difficulty is the workload.
Two officers had a combined seven active investigations and five cases waiting for trial when The Post and Courier interviewed them in July. One investigator, Tony Spires, had more than 200 miles to travel to get back to one of his cases after an interview.
In 2018, there were 142 boat wrecks in the state, which resulted in 15 deaths, according to the department. The state has had 12 boating fatalities so far this year, as of Thursday.
To cover these incidents, investigators rotate shifts, but they are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to handle the next case if the on-shift officers are already tied up with one. The calls come late at night, and in the early morning hours.
Can they take holiday weekends? Spires, 10-year veteran investigator, just rolled his eyes. Don't even ask.
Step by step
The toughest cases are those where a lone boat and a dead boater are found, the investigators said.
That happened in at least 13 fatalities since 2016, The Post and Courier found after reviewing three years of incident reports and investigative files for boating deaths. Alcohol or drug use was suspected as the primary cause of the crash in three of the cases, according to incident reports.
For those, like other fatalities, officers take the investigation step by step, Tony Spires, the DNR investigator, said. The team's work starts over the phone as the investigator heads for the scene. The aim is to secure the site, as well as record preliminary statements from the witnesses.
If necessary, they coordinate rescue or recovery work.
After that, it's accident reconstruction, working from templates not too dissimilar to a car wreck report. An initial report must be made to the U.S. Coast Guard within 10 days.
The injuries usually indicate who was steering. Most collisions leave at least parts of the boats floating, and often marks on the boats are telling. The water isn't lined like a road, but it is channeled with buoys, no-wake zones and other markers.
"You're basically locating where they hit something and what they hit," Spires said. Different materials offer different clues. Metal boats are left with dents; Fiberglass tends to pop back. Sometimes officers go to the manufacturer to get a better read on how the boat is put together.
Electronic witnesses also are becoming invaluable to the work. A GPS record on a cellphone can give an almost minute-by-minute recap of where the boater came from. It can indicate how fast the boat was travelling.
Then there's the black box — a little-regarded control device on an outboard motor that adjusts the fuel feed depending on how hard the motor is throttled. Where it was set when the collision occurred is as sure as radar when it comes to determining speed.
"In some situations, you can almost form a timeline — where they were, when they left, the speed they traveled," Damian Yongue, a department investigator, said.
Other clues from a crash scene can also provide tips. Investigators, for example, sometimes come upon empty beer cans among the wreckage, pointing to the possibility that alcohol may have been a contributing factor.
A death in Beaufort
When a boat carrying six people in Beaufort County crashed in February, local police officers arrived first at the scene.
Five of the boat's six passengers were “grossly intoxicated,” according to a police report. The other, Beach, was missing.
It wasn't clear, from interviews, who was driving the boat, but authorities were able to narrow it down to two of the passengers, one of whom was Paul Murdaugh, authorities said.
If boating under the influence is suspected, a breath, urine or blood test is usually taken. If the incident involved injury or death, that boating-under-the-influence charge becomes a felony. You can't refuse to take the test, which must be taken within two hours. The sample and other forensic evidence — blood, materials, fabrics — are turned over to the State Law Enforcement Division for lab work.
In the Beaufort case, paramedics arrived at the scene and determined the passengers needed to go to a local hospital, according to an incident report. A DNR investigator did not do a sobriety test on the suspected drivers because they were taken to the hospital before he arrived at the scene, Capt. Robert McCullough, a DNR spokesman, said.
A DNR investigator also went to the hospital, but was met by Murdaugh’s father and grandfather who said that Murdaugh and other passengers would not speak with investigators, McCullough said.
Murdaugh is part of a family of influential attorneys with deep roots in the Hampton County area. That fueled concerns of light treatment by DNR officials. McCullough denied that was the case.
He said Murdaugh's blood was later taken at the hospital.
Beach’s body was found a week after the crash. On what would have been her 20th birthday, Murdaugh was charged by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office with boating under the influence causing death and boating under the influence causing great bodily injury.
Robert Kittle, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, declined to answers questions about the case, citing the ongoing prosecution.
The state senator who heads the committee that oversees DNR said he spoke with agency officials about the case and came away feeling it was handled appropriately.
“I don’t think they were complicit in trying to protect who was driving the boat,” Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, chairman of the Fish, Game and Forestry Committee, said. He said he has heard positive feedback about how DNR investigators have handled other boating crashes.
Other sobriety cases
The Beaufort case wasn’t the only time when DNR officers did not immediately conduct a sobriety test after a fatal crash, The Post and Courier review found.
In 2016, Jacque Bracewell Jr. reportedly had glassy, bloodshot eyes and admitted to drinking a six-pack of beer over the day when he spoke with investigators. The boat he was driving had quickly turned left on Lake Moultrie, on the northern edge of the Charleston area, sending all seven people on board into the water, according to an incident report.
Two people, Nathaniel Hawkins and Joseph Williams, were found dead.
In that case, Bracewell was quickly identified as the driver. He refused to take a sobriety test on scene without his attorney present, and later refused a breath sample, according to an incident report.
DNR officials filed a search warrant and took two vials of Bracewell’s blood less than three hours after his arrest.
He was later charged with felony boating under the influence, but the charge was eventually dropped.
There was no evidence of impairment and there was evidence of a defect in the boat, which was the basis for dismissal, according to Andy Savage, his defense attorney.
In April 2017, another prominent driver was involved in a boat crash that involved a sobriety test, this time on Lake Murray in Lexington County.
David Bruce Dyer, who The State newspaper reported was the president of Dick Dyer Toyota in Columbia at the time of the crash, told an investigator he had consumed alcoholic drinks earlier in the night before his boat crashed into another. Two people died from the crash.
An investigator noted that he smelled a “very faint odor of alcoholic beverage” on Dyer's breath. His eyes were not bloodshot.
Dyer showed clues of impairment during his field sobriety test, including an inability to follow some instructions, according to a field-sobriety test performance report. But there were not enough signs of impairment to make an arrest for boating under the influence, DNR investigators determined, according to documents. "Neither of us felt that Mr. Dyer was impaired and due to this, we had no reason or probable cause to pursue a warrant to obtain a blood sample from Mr. Dyer," a DNR investigator wrote.
An agency summary of the investigation said that the driver of the boat that collided with Dyer’s did not properly yield. That driver, who died in the crash, had “high levels of marijuana in his system,” toxicology reports showed.
Dyer made an effort to avoid the collision, called 911 and stayed on the scene for hours to help with the investigation, a DNR investigator wrote in a summary of the case.
The Lexington County Solicitor's Office decided not to bring charges, according to the investigator's summary.
Efforts to reach Dyer by phone and through an attorney were not successful.
In September, after two boats collided on Lake Murray, outside of Columbia, a driver of one of the boats refused to provide a breath sample after he failed a field sobriety test, according to an incident report. One person, Stanley Kiser, died and two people were injured in the crash.
Officials obtained a search warrant to draw the blood of the driver, Tracy Gordon. He was later charged with felony boating under the influence, causing death, and boating under the influence, causing great bodily injury, according to a DNR incident report.
Searching for facts
A proposed state law inspired by the 2014 death on Lake Marion of Millicent “Milli" McDonald could have taken the guess-work out of whether or not to test a person's sobriety after a fatal boat crash. The law, introduced by state Sen. Kevin Johnson, would have required that every person who operates a watercraft that is involved in a fatal crash, or one that causes great bodily injury, must take drug and alcohol tests.
“I just think if anybody goes out there to operate a watercraft under the influence, that’s something they should have to answer to," Johnson, a Manning Democrat, said.
But the bill never passed. In 2017, it stalled in the Fish, Game and Forestry Committee. Johnson said he wished it would have been assigned to a subcommittee so lawmakers could have heard the pros and cons of the bill. He said he may refile it in the future.
In the meantime, DNR investigators say they are confident in their ability to get to the bottom of what happened in a crash. Investigators undergo 40 hours of training and then advanced training in accident reconstruction before they are certified.
After that, they pick up training as they go. Along with boating fatalities, they investigate hunting-related deaths, working with local law enforcement. They also investigate abandoned boats, marine theft or marker violations, and do or assist in background, covert and internal investigations.
"There's plenty of opportunity in this state to experience working boat accidents, to keep fresh on those skills," Yongue, another DNR investigator, said.
That's why he applied for the job. Investigating boat crashes "goes so far in depth. It's that mental challenge to be able to put things together," he said.