COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A deputy charged in the deaths of two women who drowned in a locked police van in 2018 ignored barricades and drove into rapidly rising floodwaters against advice from his supervisors and officials on the South Carolina highway, a prosecutor said Monday.
Former Horry County deputy Stephen Flood is on trial on two counts of involuntary manslaughter and reckless homicide for the drownings of the women he was taking to mental health facilities under a court order as rain from Hurricane Florence inundated eastern South Carolina.
Flood faces up to five years in prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter and 10 years in prison for each reckless homicide charges.
Flood could have prevented the deaths of Wendy Newton, 45, and Nicolette Green, 43, four separate times that evening, Solicitor Ed Clements said in his opening statement Monday at the Marion County courthouse.
First, he could have listened to people in the Horry County Sheriff's Office to avoid the shortest route which was along a highway that had flooded in major storms before, Clements said.
Flood then drove around barricades closing state Highway 9 near Nichols, ignored National Guard troops in the road past the barricades who warned them the water was too deep to drive through and drove his police transport van into water covering the highway near the Little Pee Dee River bridge, the prosecutor said.
Clements told jurors they would see drone footage as crews tried to save the women.
“All you can see is water everywhere. Once he got in there and got stuck, there was nothing he could do," the prosecutor said. "It was stubbornness. I hate to call someone stupid, but this was a stupid act that took the lives of two ladies.”
Flood's attorney told jurors if Flood was stubborn it would have shown up in decades of his military and police employment records.
Defense attorney Jarrett Bouchette said the wreck and the death of the women was a tragedy, but argued the blame should be shouldered by others, including the county for putting the inmates in a van with only one way out, Flood's supervisors for encouraging Flood to always take the most direct and shortest route, as well as the officers just past the barricades who let Flood go by without stopping him.
“The state is hoping they can make Steve Flood the scapegoat for this terrible, tragic accident, but that's all it was – an accident,” Bouchette said.
The transport van either hit something on the submerged highway or the road crumbled beneath them, investigators said. The van then flipped on its side in the water, blocking the door the woman used to get into the cage.
The water was only a few inches deep when the van flipped, but the Little Pee Dee River rose fast, nearly submerging the vehicle in an hour, officials said.
Flood and a second deputy with him did not have the right key for a second door that wasn't blocked and there was no emergency release to let the women out, investigators said.
They tried to shoot off the locks, but couldn't and Flood stayed with the van even though he couldn't swim, Bouchette said.
There were dozens of officers nearby dealing with the flood and the deputies called for help immediately, but, as the water kept rising, it took an hour to rescue the officers and get to the women, Bouchette said.
Flood thinks about the incident every day, his lawyer said.
“If he’s able to sleep, it will be with him in his dreams," Bouchette said.
Flood and the deputy with him, Joshua Bishop, were eventually rescued from the top of the transport van, authorities said.
Bishop will stand trial for two counts of involuntary manslaughter at a later date.
Prosecutors spent a few hours calling deputies who handled transportation for the Horry County Sheriff's Office to talk about road conditions and what Flood was told that day,
The families of Newton and Green said they weren't violent. Newton was only seeking medicine for her fear and anxiety and Green’s family said she was committed to a mental facility at a regular mental health appointment by a counselor she had never seen before.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.