Nikki Green’s family didn’t mince words about whether the two Horry County Sheriff’s deputies who drove into floodwaters leading to the death of two mental-health patients they were transporting should face criminal charges.
“Absolutely,” said Donnela Green-Johnson, Nikki’s sister.
Nikki Green and Wendy Newton drowned in the back of a transport van on Sept. 18 when it was swept away by Hurricane Florence floodwaters on U.S. Highway 76 in Marion County.
Newton and Green were mental health patients under court order for transport. Around 5:45 p.m. the deputies drove around a road barricade, where they encountered floods that pinned their van against a guardrail. The two deputies — Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop — tried to rescue the women but were not successful. The deputies waited on top of the vehicle until rescue teams from Marion and Horry counties arrived.
Green and Newton were not shackled or restrained in the transport, but there is a cage door to the holding area.
“I’m sure being locked in that cage was absolutely terrifying,” Green-Johnson said.
Sheriff Phillip Thompson called the event a “tragic accident.”
Three law enforcement agencies launched investigations and Flood and Bishop were placed on paid administrative leave. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division continues its inquiry, spokesman Thom Berry said. Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Brooke Holden referred questions about the deputies’ statuses to SLED.
Solicitor for Marion County E.L. Clements said he hasn’t met with SLED officials to discuss the case. Once they consider the facts, they will decide whether to file charges.
Green-Johnson said she is baffled the deputies haven’t been arrested and doesn’t like the protective treatment they have received. She said if she drove into floodwaters with two people in the back, she would already be in handcuffs.
Both deputies are culpable for the deaths, Green-Johnson said, as she called for them to be banned from serving in law enforcement.
“They have not shown they are capable of making practical, logical and safe decisions,” she said.
Like when discussing criminal charges, Green-Johnson had a one-word answer for those who call the incident an accident or the result of a natural disaster.
Possible Guard knowledge
There were recent reports that the sheriff’s transport was waived through by members of the National Guard. An armory is about 1.5 miles down the road from the Highway 76 barricades on Gilchrist Road.
After the reports, the National Guard released a statement saying it would not comment until the investigations are complete.
The Green family has doubts about the claims concerning the National Guard because residents along Highway 76 told the family that they never saw the guard stationed near the barrier, Green-Johnson said. Those locals said they would only occasionally see a Marion County Sheriff’s vehicle.
The Green family applauded the National Guard for refraining from comments until the investigation is complete.
‘A big sister role’
Nikki Green had lived in the Myrtle Beach area but was buried in her home state of Pennsylvania last week. For Green-Johnson it was just as important to attend the funeral for Newton.
After Nikki’s funeral, Green-Johnson immediately flew back to the area to attend Newton’s funeral in the Shallotte, N.C., area. She said she wanted to be there to support the family of the other victim. The two families have formed a bond as they grieve, posting on social media and texting.
Green-Johnson said she believes Nikki and Wendy also formed a bond in the back of the transport where Wendy watched over Nikki.
Members of the Newton family could not be reached in time for this report.
Strangers from across the globe provided condolences to the families and they started a Facebook page calling for justice for Nikki and Wendy.
“It’s from California all the way across to Vermont,” Green-Johnson said. Later she said, “It’s a little overwhelming to be honest, it gives me strength.”
The Green family also met with South Carolina elected officials in the past week to discuss the incident and changes they believe are needed in mental health care. One the family seeks, is to prevent transport of non-violent patients during a State of Emergency.
Chairman of the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee Leon Howard (D-Richland) confirmed he met with the family. He said he wants a panel of law enforcement, medical professional and experts to make recommendations on changes to mental health care.
“I think it’s a huge discussion,” Howard said.
He was trying to avoid a “knee-jerk” reaction to the incident but also said the state needs to make sure what happened to the victims doesn’t happen again.
‘Screwed up from the get-go’
The scene of the drowning remains blocked off in Marion County as large portions of the road were washed away by floods from the Little Pee Dee River. It’s a quiet area near Pee Dee Island Road with only a motel, a few homes and trailers dotting the area.
The only people near the site last week were Department of Transportation survey crews who were assessing the damage. Road officials say it will take weeks to complete repairs.
A makeshift memorial of a wreath, pink and white flowers and an R.I.P. cross for Nikki and Wendy also sit near the site, having been placed by the Green family.
When they created the memorial, Green-Johnson said it was her first time near where her sister drowned. She described it as a lonely road where the smell of the swamp water that washed the van off the road still permeated the air.
There she could imagine what her sister experienced, causing her to let out “non-Christian” words as the anger boiled to the surface.
“There were so many facets of this that were screwed up from the get-go,” Green-Johnson said.