For the past month, every second Donnela “Jewels” Green-Johnson has gone without answers about her sister’s death has been a second too long.
Nicolette Green, 43, was one of two female mental-health patients who drowned last month while being transported to higher ground in a sheriff’s van. The vehicle was swept away by the rising floodwaters of the Pee Dee River in the wake of Hurricane Florence. The two deputies in charge—Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop—safely escaped the submerged van. But Green and fellow patient Wendy Newton, 45, died inside the van.
Newton’s family declined to comment on the record for this story.
After learning of her sister’s death via breaking news on TV, Green-Johnson has made repeated attempts to contact authorities to demand answers about why her sister, who was 15 months older than her, was left to die.
But the mother of four has only been met with silence, she said—either repeatedly put on hold or never receiving a call back.
“These people need to be held accountable and it falls on more than just the two deputies,” she told The Daily Beast.
“They act like I’m some demon because I am wanting answers. That’s not fair. They demand answers of civilians all the time and we have to be forthcoming immediately,” the middle school teacher added. “They don’t want to be held accountable. We absolutely want criminal charges brought against both men.”
Immediately following the women’s deaths, three law-enforcement agencies launched investigations into what Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson deemed a “tragic accident.” Flood and Bishop were placed on paid administrative leave.
The sheriff’s office spokeswoman, Brooke Holden, confirmed to The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the two men are still on paid leave as the investigation continues.
When asked for an update on the internal investigation, however, Holden referred “all inquiries to the State Law Enforcement Division due to a pending investigation,” adding that Horry County Sheriff's Department has “complete trust and confidence” in their probe.
But for Green-Johnson and her family, the lack of any immediate consequences for the deputies is a “slap in the face for the victims’ families and friends, [protecting] their men at the cost of their honor and integrity.”
She surmised that if she had driven into flood waters while responsible for two passengers, she would already be in handcuffs.“We are fighting the ‘good old boy’ system here,” she railed. “It is obvious manslaughter, reckless endangerment with gross negligence. Whether or not they press charges, who knows?”
While an investigation will surely look into whether the deputies should be held criminally liable for Green’s and Newton’s deaths, Green-Johnson believes authorities are stalling to hold the men accountable, despite some details suggesting poor judgment.
The Pee Dee River was considered a “major flood” river and had been closely monitored by officials after Florence, Horry County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Brooke Holden told The Daily Beast last month. Despite that, the deputies chose to drive around a road barricade, where they encountered the river’s flood waters, pinning their van against a guardrail.
“The water is deep, fast, and contaminated,” Marion County Coroner Jerry Richardson told The Daily Beast at the time. “They were trying to negotiate with it and it just didn’t work out.”
Making matters worse, Green and Newton were restrained in the back cage at the time, making it impossible for the deputies to get to them through a padlocked door separating the front seats from the holding area.
Horry County authorities confirmed to the The Daily Beast that the standard police-issued Ford van used to transport the two mental-health patients had only two exit points: the front side doors and a set of double doors on the back of the vehicle, which was padlocked. The van also contained a video-recording device that was retrieved by state investigators.
“My understanding is that they didn’t have a key to the lock and the side exit was unavailable to the women because it was blocked by either guardrail or pressure from the water,” said Scott Bellamy, the Green family’s attorney.
The two women drowned while the deputies climbed atop the submerged van to wait for rescue teams from Marion and Horry counties to arrive, after which they were transported to a nearby hospital.
The fate of the two deputies depends on the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s inquiry, spokesman Thom Berry told The Daily Beast, adding that no further comment can be made while the investigation is ongoing.
Initially, the quick action of state agencies proved promising to the grieving families, and Sheriff Thompson said in a statement the day after the drowning that his department was “working hand-in-hand… to cooperate in this investigation. Two additional investigations, including a traffic investigation and an internal investigation, are taking place.”
But since then, the grieving families say they’ve been met with silence.
“I had to call and leave messages a week after the incident occurred,” an exasperated Green-Johnson explained. “I had to reach out to them! Since then, when I questioned their professionalism and their lack of compassion for the victims’ families, now the [state] investigator won’t return my phone calls… He is either scared of me or has absolutely no professionalism.”
“The family has anxiety that the investigation will not be full and complete, and while I don’t believe any agency has any reason not to be complete, I am trying to gather all information for the family,” Bellamy, the family attorney, added.
The Greens have also grown especially agitated by their inability to speak with the sheriff since meeting with him two days after Nicolette’s death.
“You sat across from me and my parents, in our lawyer’s office, and you expressed your condolences. Like idiots—like grieving, naive idiots—we believed you,” Green-Johnson told The Daily Beast she wishes she could now tell Thompson.
She continued: “We clung to the old-fashioned idea that right was right, wrong was wrong, and that when a man gave his word it meant something. You promised that justice would be served and you promised that Horry County and your department would do right by the victims. Sir, you have not kept your word.”
The lack of communication prompted Green and her family to reach out to state politicians, where they were met with similar silence.
“Politicians in the state won’t answer my phone calls, emails, nothing. They won’t get back to me. Elections are coming up and they don’t want to be associated with a polarizing issue like this,” Green-Johnson said, adding that Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s office finally returned her call Wednesday to say they will demand an investigation timeline. “It has a lot of ‘uh-ohs’ attached to it, especially for a Republican state. They don’t want to piss off their Republican constituents” by being seen as antagonizing law-enforcement officials.
The scene of the incident is still blocked off in Marion County, as large portions of the road have been washed away by the floods. There’s a makeshift memorial placed by the Green family near the site, on the side of Highway 76: A wreath, pink and white flowers, and a cross with the names Nikki and Wendy painted above.
The sheriff’s van is no longer there, as it was extricated from the waters and investigated five days after the incident. But before it was towed from the scene, the Green family’s lawyer discovered that investigators left behind Nicolette Green’s baseball cap on the floor of the cage where she died.
Authorities said they did not view the hat as necessary for their investigation and so they left it in the van. But for Green-Johnson, it’s symbolic of how she feels officials have treated the victims and their families.
“It was just carelessly left on the van floor, like trash. Which is how they treated my sister and Wendy,” she said.