Edit August 14, 10:30AM: Changed “County Solicitor” to 9th Circuit Solicitor. Added Section on Sheriff Al Cannon’s election. Made several grammar edits.
…were my words to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the Charleston City Council at an open forum meeting at the Charleston City Hall back in February of this year. The city council was debating whether to approve a bike lane across the Ashley River bridge, connecting West Ashley with the downtown peninsula. The small, historic city hall was packed that evening with supporters of the initiative. There was not an open seat in the entire building, and many people were standing along the walls and out into the hallways waiting their chance to voice their opinion on the matter and await the council’s vote.
I was one of more than 50 people that addressed the council and mayor that day. And I was one of at least three people who were there representing families who have lost a loved one while cycling through the Lowcountry streets of Charleston. I’m far from a skilled public speaker. And when my chance finally came to speak on behalf of my brother and my family, I was nervous. My hands were shaking, and my thoughts were jumbled. Though, I pray my point to the city council was clear that day – for my brother, and for my family, the city has failed us. From providing safe roadways and passageways for all modes of transportation, establishing clear jurisdiction and protocols for first responders on James Island, ensuring CPD officers and the sheriff’s office communicate, to the legal system and victims rights. Nothing went right that day. Nothing.
Below, I will try to detail the stonewalling and frustration my family has run across since my brother’s death. Though, my father has done a much more eloquent job in his note keeping. I encourage you to read his notes and reports here…
- Timeline Questions for Sheriff’s Department
- DUI Officer Craven’s Report
- Sargent Grimsley’s Report
- Sheriff’s Department Supplemental Report (10/30/2012)
- Summary of Meeting with Al Cannon and Sheriff’s Department
On August 17, 2012 around 8:15PM my older brother, Matthew Denton, was riding his bicycle home from an afternoon bike ride to Folly Beach. While on his final stretch, less than two miles from his house, he was struck by Jeffrey Lewis Thomas on Riverland Road.
This was a path my brother rode countless times. Both he and I relocated to Charleston together in April of 2011. I found residence downtown on the peninsula, and Matthew rented an apartment in the Riverland Terrace community on James Island. Prior to moving to Charleston we both were living in Charlotte, NC, though, we were raised here in the Lowcountry – in Beaufort, SC. And when we discussed relocating to be closer to family and the ocean, Charleston seemed like a logical fit. Matthew and I were both single, self employed, and loved the outdoor lifestyle. And as Charleston’s own Visitor Center website touts, Charleston is the number one place to live in the world for those seeking a rich, outdoor experience. And Matthew certainly tried to take advantage of it. There was hardly a day he wasn’t running to the gym, biking to the beach, learning to kite surf out on Sullivan’s Island, or rising before the sun to ride out to the beach to catch the sunrise. Like many of Charleston’s residents (old and new), Matt LOVED the outdoors! Proof of this are found in the countless photos and videos he took of his adventures. Matthew loved documenting his life in this way, mainly because he couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t as amped as he was for the outdoors and God’s beauty.
Here is a personal video Matthew posted just a few weeks before his passing. This shows him riding from his house in Riverland Terrace, down Riverland Road, to Folly Road, to Folly Beach, and into the ocean to catch the sunrise. This was his bliss!
While we could never get Matt to wear the typical cycling clothing or helmet, Matthew was overly concerned about his safety on the roads. He spoke to me often about it. While driving down Riverland Road together a few weeks before his death, he pointed out how dangerously narrow the roads were, and specifically how dangerous the intersection of Camp Road and Riverland Road is for bikers. While getting the tour of his apartment one day, he showed me his bikes and how he customized them with lights on the front and the rear sides with extremely bright LED lighting. He also had mirrors installed on his handle bars. I can recall specifically him talking about how Riverland Road is the scariest part of his ride, as there is absolutely zero room for cyclists. And where a shoulder does exist, the shoulder is extremely soft often with thick grass hiding ditches with standing water.
And those familiar with the ride out to Folly Beach will also see that Matthew adapted the “locals route” to biking Folly Road when the biking lanes become too narrow or non-existent. Like many locals choose to do, Matthew rides a stretch down the middle turning lane, between both directions of traffic to allow for more buffer between he and the cars. For drivers and bikers, we both know this is a scary proposition. But, obviously, one selected by many to avoid the narrow, unkept shoulders of this major thoroughfare on James Island. You’ll also see that he often rides against traffic, so that he can at least see the traffic approaching him.
The city has failed us in this regard. While simultaneously attracting thousands of new residents to this town every year based on the merits of the outdoor lifestyle, they have failed to provide the proper infrastructure which is required to sustain safe passage for all its residents and visitors who desire to take advantage of this lifestyle. As I noted in my address to Mayor Riley and the City Council, cyclists can take many safety measures when they prepare for a ride. They can wear bright colors, protective and reflective gear, and install lights and mirrors on their bikes. But, one thing cyclists cannot do is build safe roads. It is incumbent on the city to do this. If the city is going to take our tax dollars and accept awards that Charleston is the number one city in the world, then they damn well must ensure that they provide the infrastructure to ensure the safety for all citizens and visitors for all modes of transportation!
While multi-million dollar, mega-mansion auditoriums are being built downtown, the streets of Charleston (throughout the entire city!) remain certain death traps. The narrow roads with sharp curbs, soft shoulders, and non-existent bike lanes aren’t cute and historic. They are dangerous! Mortally dangerous.
My brother was killed upon impact. The coroner said the driver struck my brother with enough impact that it snapped his neck, tore a hole in his throat, and he was dead before he hit the ground. Police reports indicate that Matthew did not swerve into the line of traffic. He was simply riding his bike along the side of the road. Upon hitting my brother, witnesses state that the driver, Jeffrey Thomas, stopped, attempted to pull my brother out of a ditch, and attempted to perform CPR on him. When other witnesses stopped to assist, Thomas, who was barefoot and wearing swim trunks, ran to his SUV and told the other passersby to “call the fucking cops”. Thomas then got into his vehicle and sped away, leaving my brother alone. In a ditch. Dead.
To be clear, Jeffery Thomas hit my brother. Killed him. Then ran. Call it vehicular manslaughter, call it felony hit and run. Call it whatever you want. The man hit another human being, left him for dead, and fled the scene.
Charleston Police Department arrived at the scene, and began to control the site. Traffic on Riverland Road was re-routed for several hours. Once the police arrived, witnesses alerted the officers that the driver who struck Matthew fled the scene. An APB triggered an immediate search for the driver and the car that struck my brother. About 45-60 minutes after the accident, Jeffery Thomas returned to the scene of the accident with his girlfriend in the same vehicle. He identified himself to the officers and he was detained for questioning. In this line of questioning, it was revealed that Thomas was alone in the vehicle when the accident occurred. He told the officers that he had rented a house on Folly Beach that weekend and was driving to West Ashley to pickup his girlfriend. He admitted to have been drinking that night. Sheriffs officers stated in the report that after returning to the scene (even 45+ minutes after the fact) that Thomas smelled of alcohol.
A DUI officer was called to the scene – Deputy Craven. Deputy Craven questioned Thomas on camera (as per state law), and requested a field sobriety test and breathalyzer test. Thomas declined, but consented to a blood test. It was during this time that Thomas stated “do I need to call my captain?” He then began a conversation with the DUI officer, Deputy Craven, stating that he was a DNR officer and that he had “pulled bodies out of the water before, but nothing prepares you for something like this”. He requests a chaplain for himself, and tries to infer to the officer that he is not drunk but shaken.
Thomas was then arrested for felony hit and run, taken into custody, and processed by the sheriff’s office.
Not once has Jeffery Thomas attempted to reach out to us, the family. In two years. Not once. He has never communicated remorse. He has never revealed what happened. He has never indicated if he was on his cell phone, or distracted in any way. Not once has he thought about anyone other than himself. Thomas, a local DNR officer, killed my brother, left him for dead, and has never issued a statement or apology to my parents.
If you live in the Charleston area, you may or may not be familiar with the literal jurisdictional hopscotch that is James Island. As a fairly recent transplant to the city of Charleston, my best educated guess of how this hazardous hopscotch of jurisdiction occurred comes down to taxes. The city of Charleston wants to retain James Island in its jurisdiction so that it can collect tax money from the JI residents. While James Island probably feels that they are sending all that money up to uncle Joe and the Charleston City Council to spend on pricey auditoriums and festivals, while never reaping any solid benefits themselves. So, what has occurred is the city of James Island has created a grassroots campaign to encourage their residents to opt out, and become annexed into their city - keeping their money local, while keeping it out of the hands of the greedy socialites of the peninsula.
Why does this matter?? Because, on the night my brother was killed, this issue of Charleston vs James Island jurisdiction initiated a modern day Keystone cops caper. Even though a Charleston County Sheriff’s Office substation exists less than a half mile away from the scene of the accident, the Charleston Police Department were actually the first responders that night. CCSO has jurisdiction over James Island residents and roadways. While CPD has jurisdiction over all other areas. So, for the first 45-60 minutes after the homicide, CPD was controlling the scene, taking statements from witnesses, issuing APBs, collecting evidence, making initial observations, and confronting the suspects. Once someone realized that the scene was actually in the James Island territory, CCSO was called to the scene and then took over the investigation.
Why is this important?? Because, while the DNR officer Jeffrey Thomas, refused a breathalyzer, he could have been observed by the first responding officers. An officer’s testimony of someone’s sobriety is just as incriminating as a breathalyzer exam or field sobriety test. So, it is very important that when jurisdiction changes in the middle of a crime scene that the two department cooperate and share intelligence gleaned while the presiding department was not on the scene.
A few months after the accident, I was able to ask Sheriff Al Cannon about this issue in his office. He smugly told me that there is no procedure for handing over an investigation. The two departments don’t share any notes, or request reports from each other. The investigation literally starts over once they arrive.
And in my brother’s case, this was about an hour after the fact. Again, the city failed us.
So, you are a DUI officer. This is your primary job. You are called to scenes of crimes or roadsides where suspects are detained for driving under the suspicion of alcohol. It is your job to prove definitively if the suspect is in fact under the influence or not. The state of South Carolina has a law that all DUI interviews be conducted in front of a camera for video and audio recording. So, when you are called to the scene, you grab the suspect, get them in front of your dashboard camera, turn on your microphone and conduct your analysis.
In my brother’s case, Deputy Craven was arriving to the scene where fatality occurred. Either this was an accident, negligence resulting in a vehicular manslaughter, or a felony DUI. It was this officer’s duty to assist in making this determination. A simple breathalyzer or blood analysis would provide this definitive piece of evidence required to rule on a felony DUI. Jeffery Thomas declined a breathalyzer, but consented to the blood test.
After using a Freedom of Information Act request, our family obtained the dashboard video of the DUI interview. Once viewing the video, it was clear that Thomas attempted to initiate comradery with the DUI officer stating that he was a fellow officer. Thomas asked if he should contact his captain. And it seemed to work! Deputy Craven, WHO HAD ONE DUTY THAT NIGHT, failed to collect any blood alcohol evidence that night – even after the driver CONSENTED to a blood test.
In the words of my father: “The driver admitted to drinking that night, consents to a blood test, and you have my son’s dead body over there in a ditch, and you let the man go without getting any blood/alcohol evidence?!!!”
At best, this was an abuse of Officer Craven’s discretion. His job was to collect evidence. Not to judge whether he felt he was drunk or not through conversation. Again, the city failed us.
In most states, including the state of South Carolina, victims have rights when a crime has been committed against you or a family member. Victims have rights to be alerted of all judicial hearings and proceedings involving your case. You have the right to be aware of the process, to provide input to county solicitors or district attorneys, and to address the court during those proceedings.
None of this happened for our family. Several weeks after my brother’s death, a preliminary hearing was held in Charleston County Court to determine if the case against Jeffery Thomas for leaving the scene of an accident should go to trial. My family was never contacted, alerted, or provided any information about this preliminary trial. We were only notified of the result of the case when my mother called the Sheriff’s Office in an attempt to retrieve Matthew’s personal property. Needless to say, hearing that the charges were dismissed in this fashion was a shock and felt like a knife in the gut.
Since this hearing was conducted in near secrecy, again, we had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to retrieve the transcript of the preliminary hearing. Once reading the transcript, it was clear my brother did not receive justice that day.
First, the preliminary hearing was conveniently brought to court on the date Sargent Grimsley, the primary sheriff’s deputy in charge of the crime scene, was out of town working the DNC in Charlotte, NC. This is the officer who noted in his report that Thomas smelled of alcohol, and the one who requested the DUI officer to the scene. It appeared that he wasn’t alerted of the hearing either. Second, the county solicitor never provided the judge the evidence of alcohol – that Thomas admitted to drinking several beers that night, and that the presiding officer reported Thomas smelling of alcohol 45+ minutes after the accident.
After talking with the 9th Circuit’s Solicitor Office many times about my brother’s case, it is clear that the office is severely understaffed, has a lack of resources, and has at least one incompetent solicitor on the payroll. After the dismissal of charges against Jeffery Thomas in the preliminary hearing, my family and I were told by two different solicitors on two separate occasions that the solicitor who presided over the preliminary hearing was incompetent. After reading the court transcript, my family agree. This solicitor single-handily let a felony DUI, and the man who took the life of my brother, off scot-free. He slept his way through the hearing, barely presented a case, agreed to go before the judge without having talked to the presiding sheriff’s deputy, or presenting any evidence of alcohol.
Again. The city failed us.
Shortly after my brother’s death, and after not being contacted by any law enforcement agency or victim’s advocacy agency, my mother reached out to the Sheriff’s Department to find out details of my brother’s passing and the status of the case. On those calls, she was put in touch with the presiding officer of the crime scene that night, Sgt. Rob Grimsley. On those calls, just days after the accident, Sgt. Grimsley reinforced to my mother that he smelled alcohol on Jeffrey Thomas at the accident scene. He was the one who requested the DUI expert to the scene to conduct a further investigation into Thomas’s sobriety. And he also stated that this should be a “slam dunk” case. This brought our family great comfort, and a feeling that we had an advocate for us closely related to the case – the presiding officer that night!
But then odd things began to occur.
When the preliminary hearing was held, the county solicitor never interviewed Sgt. Grimsley. Sgt. Grimsley was never notified of the hearing (nor was our family). In fact, the hearing was scheduled on a day where Sgt Grimsley was to be out of town providing support for the DNC in Charlotte, NC. As already stated, in that hearing, no evidence of alcohol was presented to the judge, and the presiding officer of the scene that night was suspiciously absent, as were his testimony and case reports.
Being unable to properly mourn the death of our brother and son, my family continued (and still continues) to seek answers. We contacted the press to help get our story out. And only after our story was on local radio, tv, and newspapers, and after reporters contacted the Sheriff’s Office for answers, were we granted a meeting with the law enforcement involved in the case.
On October 30, 2012, my parents, brother, and I attended a meeting a the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. There, we were told that Sgt Grimsley along with other CCSO and CPD officers who were on the scene that night would attend, along with the county solicitor.
When we arrived, the room was filled with officers, headed by Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, and a county solicitor. See my father’s notes of this meeting here. However, the officers in the room were just warm bodies. None of them – NONE of them – were on the scene of the accident that night. And neither Sgt. Grimsley or officer “Wojo”, who were both on the scene that night and who we specifically requested to be in attendance (and were confirmed to attend), were not in attendance.
After listening to just a few minutes of this meeting orchestrated by Sheriff Al Cannon, it was clear Cannon uninvited both officers Grimsley and “Wojo”. He wanted to handle this matter himself. And to be frank, he couldn’t have been more of an insensitive prick! I encourage you to read my father’s notes from this meeting to fully appreciate the poor handling of this case, and the attempted heavy-handing of this meeting by Al Cannon.
Why was Sgt. Grimsley’s testimony being suppressed? Why was he not interviewed by the county solicitor? Why was he not made aware of the preliminary hearing? It was a felony case, with a death! And, why was he uninvited to the meeting with our family?
Again, the city failed us.
Above I ask a few rhetorical questions as to why Al Cannon uninvited Sgt Grimsley, and wanted to handle this meeting with my family and I personally. Let me speculate the reasons I feel that led to this.
The meeting at the Sheriff’s office on October 30th lasted for about an hour. After the meeting, my family and I left to exit the building, but stopped at the restrooms before jumping into our cars. There, as we waited on each other in the hallways outside the restrooms, Al Cannon approaches my mother and I and says. “for you to believe this was some big conspiracy, can’t you imagine how many people would have had to be involved?” I responded, “We aren’t calling this a conspiracy. Those are YOUR words! We’re saying that NOTHING went right in this case. NOTHING. From the driver, to the arrest, to the dismissal of charges. Nothing went right.” My father then returned to hallway, hearing Cannon’s insensitive accusation, and Cannon appeared to back down.
Here was a grieving family approaching law enforcement, seeking answers of our brother’s death, and this self righteous Sheriff does all he can to insulate his staff and blame from his office. He then confronts my mother in the hallway that we are claiming a conspiracy for Jeffery Thomas’s release. What a jerk!
But why was Cannon such a jerk? Could it be because that in just a few days after this meeting that Cannon was up for re-election? Cannon, who was already arrested himself just a few days after my brother’s accident for punching a suspect in the back of a sheriff’s vehicle, had a lot to lose. He was already trying to wipe off a bad public image. Could he really afford another black mark on his resume of a poorly handled case? And so close to an election?!
Sheriff Cannon’s silencing of Sargent Grimsley and the manufacturing of reports months after the accident were about one thing – DAMAGE CONTROL.
Cannon was dealing with his own arrest, and his own re-election. He didn’t want any more bad press. He wanted this story to end – even if that meant proverbially spitting in my family’s faces. He did what he had to do, for his own sake.
Again, the city failed us.
Only after the constant pursuit of justice by my family, and the constant requests using FOIA requests, and many calls to the officers and solicitors office, and finally having to take our story to the press, were any charges ever finally brought against Jefferey Thomas. See the follow up stories here:
- Judge dismisses hit-and-run charge against a reserve state DNR officer involved in a fatal crash on James Island
- Documents in James Island hit-and-run point out investigation’s shortcomings, family says
- Former DNR reservist indicted on hit-and-run charge in James Island crash
Four months after my brother was killed, county solicitors indicted Jeffery Thomas for felony hit and run. Though that incident occurred two years ago, sadly no progress has been made on the case. The solicitor who brought those charges has since left the county office for private practice. And the solicitor which remains, remains under a steady backlog of cases, with no relief in sight. Many calls have been placed to the solicitor’s office to get this case on the books. So far, our repeated requests to get this case to trial have been unsuccessful. This is both frustrating and leaves a constant cloud of injustice over our family.
For a family who lost their son and brother, the city and law enforcement of the city/county of Charleston has been nearly contentious and secretive. To get any clue as to the details of my brother’s case, my family has had to file Freedom of Information Act requests on multiple occasions. When requesting to see the police and sheriff’s reports from the officers on duty that night, it was revealed that the reports we received were written months after the fact. Where were the original reports? Were facts changed? Was Sheriff Al Cannon controlling a paper trail that protected his DUI officer – the one who failed to collect a blood sample? Here was a clear felony DUI case, without any blood evidence, the driver being a fellow law enforcement officer (DNR), and paper work is being made up months after the fact? Something is not right.
So we wait. Will we ever know the truth of what happened that night? Will the man who took my brother’s life ever be brought to court to stand trial for his actions?
A victim’s family should never have to beg for information, file petitions, and for take the story to the press to see action in a case such as this. Again, the city has failed us.
Although my family and I have a strong Christian belief, and through our faith have reached our own sense of peace with things. Though, I can’t tell you the cloud that remains over us all with the lack of knowing of what happened.
Instead of grieving his death, we were forced to play solicitor, investigator, and press secretary on behalf of my brother to seek answers. No family should have to endure the roadblocks and stonewalling that we have received.
Yet, we get no answers from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. No answers from the Charleston County Solicitor. And more importantly, no answers from Jeffery Thomas.
My parents deserve to know what happened that night. And my brother deserves justice. The man who took his life that night should be held accountable in the court of law. Let the truth be told in court, and not suppressed by the county’s law enforcement stonewalling and red tape.
The city continues to fail us.
Matthew posted this video just two months before his death. It was a great testimony of just how happy he was here in Charleston. Together, with his girlfriend Elizabeth, he was capturing all that was special about this great city. He found love, and was able to take advantage of all the great beauty and culture that Charleston has to offer.
Matthew LOVED being outdoors. He couldn’t wait to share that with someone. And in this video, you see he takes Elizabeth on one of his many morning bike rides to the beach. He customized her bike, like his. And he was euphoric when they reached the ocean and sat in the sunrise together.
Like my brother, Charleston beckons to many of us! The ocean calls out to us. And we answer. We come from all over to enjoy this scenery, nature, water, and the warmth of the sun. We put our toes into the ocean and we stand in awe of what it feels like to stand on the edge of the earth. And for many of us, we realize just how lucky we are to be one of the few in this world who get to feel this emotion – even just for a day!
THIS is how Matthew felt about the ocean. And THIS is how he wants you to feel about it too.
As I write this, this Sunday will mark two years since Matthew’s passing. I will say that the second year of not having him here was easier than the first. But, for someone who has ever lost a close family member will attest, this is something my family and I will NEVER get over. The loss of my big brother is immeasurable.
But, I feel when we lose loved ones like this, they leave us with a story to tell. And that leaves those who love them with a responsibility to tell that story.
In Matt’s absence, my family and I continue to fight for justice in his case. I fight to get my parents answers of what really happened that night. We fight to ensure associated insensitivity in the legal system afterward don’t happen again to another family. And most importantly, we fight to ensure that no other bicyclist must endure a tragedy like my brother did on the streets of Charleston or James Island.
So what can be done?
- First, this case needs to be brought to trial. A man was killed by a driver who admitted to drinking that night and then fled the scene. The facts of the case should be brought before a court so that justice can be finalized.
- Jeffery Thomas can take ownership of his actions. He alone knows the truth of what happened that night. He needs to take ownership of those actions. And in the least, should show some sense of remorse to my parents.
- The city of Charleston can get serious about the safety of all modes of transport across our region. We live in a CITY. One used by cars, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, skateboards, runners, pedestrians, and sky-staring and navel-staring tourists. We need roads that provides safe travel for ALL modes of transport. Historic standards be damned!
- The city of Charleston and James Island need to establish a workable and clear jurisdiction for law enforcement on James Island. It’s not fair to the law enforcement officers who strive to respond quickly and appropriately. And in my brother’s case, it is clear that these jurisdiction issues can create significant holes in crime scene investigations.
- The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and Charleston Police Department need to establish a clear policy which encourages and requires CCSO and CPD to work together when both respond to scenes of accidents. It is unacceptable for these agencies to not collaborate and ensure reports are shared when jurisdiction changes midway through an investigation.
- Sadly, the law wasn’t enacted prior to my brother’s death. But, shortly thereafter, a law was passed in South Carolina that a blood alcohol test is required of all drivers involved in an accident where there is a fatality. This is a great step to ensuring vital evidence is collected, and it eliminate’s an officer’s discretion – as was the case for us. We must ensure this law is enforced and followed by our law enforcement agencies.
- Get involved with Charleston Moves. They are a wonderful non-profit in Charleston which advocates for safe roadways in Charleston for bicycles and all modes of transportation.
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