By MANDY MATNEY and LIZ FARRELL
For the first time in several months, international headlines are once again focused on South Carolina’s “injustice system” — and this time, the spotlight is on something other than the insane Murdaugh Murders Saga.
The story of the Bowen Turner case is being shared across the globe this week after Judge Markley Dennis sentenced the privileged 19-year-old from Orangeburg, who has been accused of raping three young women in three different counties, to five years probation on a single charge of first-degree assault and battery.
Prosecutor David Miller agreed to the shocking plea deal, which appeared to be hastily assembled to shield Turner from consequence after he was found to have violated the terms of a 2020 house arrest agreement.
Between November 2021 and February 2022, Turner violated his court order more than 60 times, according to court documents showing his ankle-monitoring tracking. He visited golf course, his friends’ houses, as well as the gravesite of one of his victims, who died while waiting for her more than three-year-old case to go to trial.
Though the court order called for his immediate arrest upon violation and for him to be detained pending a hearing, the Second Circuit Solicitor’s Office — which appears to have known about the violations since March 2 — failed to take action.
Instead, at the end of March, a hearing was scheduled for April 8 to address the violations.
Somehow, though, that hearing morphed into a plea deal, apparently put in place by his attorney — who happens to be a powerful state senator.
As FITSNews founding editor reported on Friday, this case “has all the ingredients readers of this news outlet have come to associate with a classic South Carolina miscarriage of justice: Horrific acts, a privileged defendant, a powerful attorney and a broken system seemingly bent on accommodating the victimizer – at the expense of victims (and at the expense of public safety).”
Turner was accused of raping three girls between 2018 and 2019 in Calhoun, Bamberg and Orangeburg counties. Up until last week, he faced charges in two of their cases.
One of those victims, Dallas Stoller, died in November from an accidental self-inflicted wound. She was 20 years old. She was attacked by Turner six months after he’d been accused of raping another girl, according to documents.
Despite the availability of physical evidence and witness testimony — as well as an affidavit from Dallas Stoller — Miller dismissed the sexual assault charge against Turner in her case, citing her death as a reason.
Stoller’s family says Miller told them that he didn’t want to waste his time or 12 jurors’ time on a case ”he couldn’t win.”
While out on bond in Stoller’s case — and just 41 days after his lawyers successfully argued to have his ankle monitor removed — Turner was accused of assaultIng another girl, Chloe Bess.
In Friday’s pop-up plea deal, Turner’s first-degree criminal sexual assault charge was reduced to a first-degree assault and battery charge, even though Bess was willing to testify in her case.
In effect, Turner admitted to harming or threatening to harm Chloe, the same girl Turner’s attorney — state Sen. Brad Hutto — slut-shamed in open court in 2019, claiming she had consensual sex with Turner.
Turner’s deal requires him to adhere to the rules of the sex offender registry for the next five years. If he does that, he will not have to register as a sex offender.
FITSNews spoke with Chloe Bess, her father, as well as Dallas Stoller’s father and sister this week to find out more about what happened.
“The injustice system … the corruption and nepotism, they stand in the way, I think, of ultimately keeping the citizens of South Carolina safe,” the Rev. Dr. Darren Bess, Chloe’s father, said. “I think we’re just tired of being stepped on to be honest with you.”
What Happened to Dallas?
Dallas Stoller was an exceptional student and athlete who was president of her class at Orangeburg Preparatory School. She was senior class president, editor of her yearbook, and had plans to become a physical therapist.
“Dallas was literally just a huge, bright personality,” Brette Tabatabai, Stoller’s older sister, said this week. “She always had a smile on her face.
But, Tabatabai said, everything about her sister changed the night she was assaulted in October 2018.
Dallas Stoller knew Bowen Turner. The two of them were classmates and their families knew each other. They hung out with the same group of friends — which is why they were both at the same party on Oct. 7, 2018, in Bamberg County.
According to Tabatabai, Stoller was drinking and, at some point that night, her friends realized she was missing. One of Stoller’s friends searched the woods and found a horrific sight. Stoller was lying on the ground unresponsive, and Turner was towering over her, Tabatabai said.
“Dallas was passed out on the ground unconscious, like in the woods, and he’s pulling his pants up and zipping up his pants,” Tabatabai said.
Stoller’s mom was able to pick her up from the party and she was taken to the hospital that night. She was badly beaten — bleeding and covered in bruises (the family has posted pictures to show what was done to her).
“One of her eyes was completely bloodshot from strangulation,” Tabatabai said. “Her neck was completely black and blue from being strangled.”
According to Dallas’ father Karl Stoller, Dallas completed a sexual assault exam at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She identified her attacker as Bowen Turner to law enforcement.
In January 2019, Turner was arrested and charged in Dallas’ case.
During the investigation, Dallas’ family found out that Turner had been accused of another rape that allegedly occurred in April 2018 in Calhoun County.
Turner was released on a $10,000 bond and ordered to wear an ankle monitor.
Less than three months later, his attorneys Charlie Williams and Shane Burroughs asked to have his ankle monitor removed and the solicitor’s office and the judge agreed.
In early June 2019, Bowen Turner was accused of rape yet again.
What Happened to Chloe?
Chloe Bess sat with Will Folks, our founding editor at FITSNews, and Dylan Nolan, FITSNews special projects editor, on Tuesday afternoon and talked to them about that night in June 2019 when she attended a party.
Click below to see that interview..
“I was just with my friends trying to, you know, have a good night,” Bess said. “And, you know, things like this happen all the time without bad things happening.”
Bess was with a group of friends and her twin brother. It was a regular night, but after a miscommunication, her brother and best friend left the party without her to get food. Bess stepped outside to call her best friend and see where she went.
“And as I’m making this phone call, he, Bowen, walks out, and I kind of start to feel uncomfortable,” Bess said.
Turner lived down the street from Bess and attended church where Chloe’s father was the pastor, but they weren’t good friends. Bess said she was trying to leave at the time Turner saw her. He kept telling her not to leave, which she found strange.
“And then I just remember him pulling me into, like a tree line. There was a truck parked there,” Bess said. “The next thing I know, I’m on the ground, and he’s a lot bigger than me, I only weigh like 115 pounds, … and so there was not much I could do at that moment in time.”
Bess said that she couldn’t move as Bowen sexually assaulted her. She tried to scream, but nothing came out.
“I was just petrified,” she said.
Click below to hear from Chloe’s father.
After the assault, Bess got up and ran as fast as she could.
She was able to hide behind a bush and call her friend.
“I don’t even know how he understood what I was saying, because I was so hysterical,” Bess said. “But all I said was Bowen’s name, and he knew, and he was like, ‘I’m on the way, like I’m coming to get you.’”
Bess also had a sexual assault exam at the hospital and reported the assault to authorities.
Turner was again arrested. Though he was initially denied bond, his attorney — Hutto — successfully argueed that his client didn’t belong in the Department of Juvenile Justice because he “wasn’t a gang member.”
A judge placed Turner on house arrest with strict guidelines.
‘She Didn’t Want To Ruin His Life’
Stoller and Bess both endured significant bullying from people in the Orangeburg community. People on social media posted comments with the hashtag #FreeBowen. It was so bad for both girls, they both had to change schools.
Stoller transferred from the College of Charleston to the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Bess moved out of state altogether to “try to live a normal life as much as (she) could.”
As much as she was struggling, Stoller didn’t have any hate in her heart for Bowen Turner.
“Even though he ultimately ruined hers, she did not want to ruin his life,” Tabatabai said. “But she knew he was sick, and he would hurt someone else. And she just wanted him to get help.”
The trauma from her assault weighed heavily on Stoller, as much as she tried to get help.
“She was so anxious she was getting physically ill,” Tabatabai said.
Dallas Hayes Stoller succumbed to a self-inflicted wound on Nov. 14, 2021. She was 20 years old. Here is a passage from her obituary:
“Dallas Stoller will be remembered as an example of strength and bravery, a heart full of boundless generosity, forgiveness and kindness to others. Her ability to see the good when others couldn’t and her resilience in times of adversity will be her legacy. Her light remains in each of us who have had the blessing to be in her presence during her short time on Earth.“
What Happened Last Week?
In South Carolina, circuit court judges are ”elected” by state lawmakers, many of whom are trial lawyers.
This system gives attorneys who are also legislators an unusual amount of power. The judges who rule in their cases also need their support.
Their role also grants them access to public agencies that non-legislator attorneys might not have.
It is because of this system that legislator-attorneys — many of whom are handsomely paid for their services — are particularly well-positioned to defend their clients.
Critics of the system say these attorneys aren’t hired for their legal skills so much as they are for their influence.
In the case of Bowen Turner, it appears to have been either money well-spent or the perfect storm.
Prosecutor David Miller is highly respected in his field and has a long list of accomplishments in his career. In 2020, he won the prestigious Ernest F. Hollings Award for Excellence in State Prosecution. Several times in the past 10 years, Miller has sought to become a circuit court judge.
Hutto, Turner’s attorney, has been a state senator since 1996. His longevity not only makes him intimately familiar with the players, he is an Orangeburg native and a key member of the establishment there.
Turner’s father, Walt Turner, was an investigator with the 1st Circuit Solicitor’s Office at the time Turner was charged, making him another familiar face in the Orangeburg Courthouse.
Then there’s Judge Markley Dennis — a longtime judge, who retired from the bench but returned and is now drawing two salaries.
According to multiple sources and news reports, he is known as a judge who is inherently friendly to defendants.
His appearance in the Orangeburg courtroom last week was unusual, according to his online schedule. The last time he presided over General Sessions there was September 2013.
Dennis’ father was a chairman of the University of South Carolina board. His judicial bio makes sure to note that he’s a relative of Rembert Dennis, one of South Carolina’s most legendary statesmen.
According to news reports from 1994 to the present, Dennis — like many judges — has a history that includes controversial decisions.
In one case, in 1995, he was widely criticized for sentencing a father, who admitted to raping his daughter from the age of 5 until she was 14, to therapy.
When faced with public backlash, an assistant solicitor at the time wrote an oped defending the judge’s decision and saying that the victim — who was a teenager — didn’t want her father to go to prison.
In 2000, Dennis was also criticized for the light sentences he handed out to the perpetrators of one of the biggest public embezzlement scandals at the time in Sumter County.
More than $3 million was stolen, misspent and misappropriated by more than a dozen Sumter school district administrators.
In one instance, Dennis sentenced a popular coach, who was facing up to 25 years in prison, to just 90 days in jail. The coach was ordered to pay $45,000 in restitution despite the more than $200,000 he’d been accused of taking. Soon after it emerged that the judge and he coach were acquaintances. Years later, a report noted that the coach had not yet paid his restitution.
Dennis, according to one news report, is a judge who is known as someone who grants bond to most murders suspects who appear in his Charleston courtroom.
The question of ”what happened in the Bowen Turner case?” is not one with a definitive answer.
Those who defend South Carolina’s system will dismiss the resulting outrage and blame it on the media, as well as a lack of understanding of ”how things work.”
Was this a result of a Good Ole Boy system? Was it a result of a broken justice system?
When you take a look at all the parts, it’s hard to think the answer is anything but ”both.”
“The system just continued to revictimize Chloe time and time again,” Dr. Darren Bess said. “She was slut-shamed by a sitting South Carolina state senator. She was made to feel insignificant by a solicitor And she and I were lied to by investigators and others as to the consequences that would be enforced should the accused rapist’s bond be violated and that happened over 50 times….And yet, nothing happened, the judge wouldn’t even hear the motion. And so I think citizens of South Carolina should be concerned for their safety.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to [email protected].
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at [email protected] or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to address proactively? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.