SC lawmakers want answers after mental health patients drowned in van during Florence

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A road barricade and an S.C. National Guard truck did not stop two Horry County Sheriff’s Department deputies from driving a van into a flood in September, leaving two female mental-health patients trapped inside to drown, S.C. lawmakers heard on Thursday.

But it was not just the two deputies who put Nicolette “Nikki” Green, 43, and Wendy Newton, 45, at death’s door, their families said.

The state’s entire mental-health system failed the two women, they added.

“Two women needlessly lost their lives,” state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said Thursday. “We must take these deaths seriously and let that spur us to action for the work that still needs to be done.”

Senators called Thursday’s hearing after the two women — Green of Myrtle Beach and Newton of Shallotte, N.C. — drowned Sept. 18 in the back of an Horry County sheriff’s van that was submerged in Hurricane Florence-related flooding near U.S. 76 and Pee Dee Island Road in Marion County.

Both women were trapped in the van, described by their families as a “cage,” for more than 24 hours until rescuers safely could remove their bodies.

Neither Green nor Weston was restrained or shackled in the van, which had a rear door. But the two deputies did not have a key to that door, said Newton family attorney Tommy Brittain.

Horry County deputies Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop since have been fired after an investigation showed they drove the transport van around a road barrier and into flood waters, pinning the van against a guardrail.

The deputies were driving the women from the Waccamaw Center for Mental Health and a mental-health center in Loris to facilities in Darlington and Lancaster.

An Oct. 25 termination letter, provided by the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, said the deputies “made a conscious decision” to drive the van around a road barricade and into flood waters — “a substantial risk” — that resulted in the deaths of both women.

In September, Horry County officials said Flood and Bishop attempted to rescue the women. When unsuccessful, they waited on top of the van until rescue teams from Marion and Horry counties could arrive.

The S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigated the deaths at the request of the Horry County sheriff.

SLED Chief Mark Keel told senators Thursday that investigative report will be reviewed, then sent to the 12th Circuit Solicitor’s Office for a decision whether to file charges.

Green’s family has called for both ex-deputies to face criminal charges.

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