Widow files suit in death

SLED crime scene photographer invistigates the location where Bernard Bailey was shot and killed outside the Orangeburg County town's offices and police department on May 2, 2011.

The widow of a man shot dead last year during a confrontation with Eutawville’s former police chief is now suing the town, and community leaders are calling on authorities to end their “deafening silence” on the case.

Orangeburg lawyer Carl Grant filed a wrongful death lawsuit late Monday against the town, its police department and former Police Chief Rick Combs. Grant took the action on behalf of Doris Bailey, whose husband, Bernard, was killed in the May 2, 2011, shooting in the parking lot of Eutawville’s Town Hall.

“It has been 17 months since this most tragic incident occurred,” Grant said in a written statement. “It is time that this case is brought to court so that the thirst for the truth can be quenched, and the hunger for justice can be satisfied.”

Friends have said the 54-year-old father of five was shot during a dispute with Combs over a traffic ticket issued to one of Bailey’s daughters. Town officials have refused to discuss the case, and law enforcement agencies have said next to nothing about how the shooting transpired.

That has led to deep, mounting frustration in this small, rural town in Orangeburg County. And for some, the issue is all the more troubling because the shooting — involving a white police officer and a black man — conjures images of the Old South.

Clergy leaders and others gathered at a community forum in Holly Hill last week and discussed writing a letter to state, county and federal authorities demanding answers in the case. They also talked about holding prayer vigils and possibly marching on the county seat.

The Rev. Gralin Nix-Hampton, president of the Holly Hill Ministerial Alliance, called Bailey’s death a “tragedy of epic proportions” for his family and the community at large. That no answers have emerged is unacceptable, he said.

“I call it a deafening silence,” he said. “The community needs answers. It has to do with right and wrong and justice being done.”

The State Law Enforcement Division investigated the shooting with assistance from the FBI. The case is now being examined by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Justice Department for possible criminal and civil rights violations.

Authorities have provided no timetable for a ruling on those issues.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, whose jurisdiction includes Eutawville, said he has no word from federal authorities on when the case might be resolved.

Beth Drake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Columbia, said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., must review cases where civil rights violations are at issue.

While people may be anxious for answers, the Washington office is juggling a large caseload spanning all 50 states, and it can take time for reviews to be completed, particularly when a death is involved, she said.

“Typically, it takes a while,” Drake said.

Justice Department spokesmen said no one was available Monday or Tuesday to answer questions about the case.

The Bailey case is one of two area police shootings under review by the Civil Rights Division. The other involves the May 16, 2011, shooting of former Cottageville Mayor Bert Reeves during a confrontation with a police officer in that Colleton County town. No formal action has been taken on that case either.

State Sen. John Matthews Jr., a Bowman Democrat who attended last week’s forum in Holly Hill, said authorities have withheld information on the Bailey case for an unreasonable amount of time, and he intends to push for some action.

“They have had more than a year and a half to investigate, and they should have reached a conclusion by now,” he said. “Someone needs to make a decision about what to do.”

Matthews, like others who knew Bailey, described the former correctional officer as a gentle, kind-hearted and law-abiding man. They have difficulty believing he fought with a police officer or did something serious enough to warrant the use of deadly force.

Friends have said Bailey was shot in his truck outside the municipal building after exchanging words with Combs that morning. An autopsy showed that Bailey was shot twice in the chest and once in the shoulder.

Town officials initially placed Combs on paid leave after the shooting, and he later parted ways with the town. A new police chief took over in December.

The Rev. Tom Hendrickson, rector of the Historic Church of the Epiphany in Eutawville, said people are trying to keep an open mind and are willing to listen to the facts. But the dearth of information about the case has led to “a huge level of frustration among the people who live here,” he said.

“What I’m saying is, let’s have some information,” he said. “How can someone walk up to another man, shoot him three times and have the penalty be that he loses his job? I don’t understand that. There has to be a story that goes along with that.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.