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Crime & Courts

Another South Carolina Boat Crash Steeped In Scandal

Lawsuit points to alleged cover-up in Kershaw County …

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On Saturday, May 6, 2023 – nearly two months ago – Kershaw County, South Carolina coroner David West announced the death of a 15-year-old Camden High School student following a boating accident on the Wateree River.

According to West, the accident occurred at approximately 10:16 p.m. EDT on the previous evening – May 5, 2023. It involved a collision between two boats at a bend in the river near Pine Tree Creek – which flows into the Wateree approximately a mile to the southeast of where the river is traversed by Interstate 20.

The day after the crash, West told reporter Christopher Buchanan of WLTX TV-19 (CBS – Columbia, S.C.) “both boats were moving when one hit the other,” resulting in the death of the student.  He declined to identify the victim, citing his status as a minor.

West told Buchanan “people on both boats were friends and they were brush fishing at the time.”

“No foul play” was suspected in connection with the crash, West added – indicating the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) was leading the investigation.

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Over the years, West has provided dozens of media outlets information related to hundreds of fatalities in Kershaw County. In the hours after this tragedy, nothing about the initial disclosures coming from his office seemed out of the ordinary.

Forty-eight hours later, though, a report from Mayra Parrilla-Guerrero and Andrew Fancher of WIS-TV 10 (NBC – Columbia, S.C.) offered the first indications that this was – and is – going to be a very out-of-the-ordinary story.

For starters, “West confirmed to WIS his grandson was the driver of the boat in which (the victim) was a passenger.”

That’s a pretty significant piece of information for a sitting coroner to originally omit from the narrative, isn’t it?

Parrilla-Guerrero and Fancher’s story identified the victim as 15-year-old Chase Wyatt Newman, who was described by his aunt as “a kind soul, (and) a loving child,” someone who “lit up the room when he walked in it, gave the best hugs and had the best laugh.”

Newman was a member of his high school golf team and an avid outdoorsman. According to his published obituary, he loved “the outdoors, his friends and family and his Boykin Spaniel, Millie.” He left behind his parents, five siblings, grandparents and many other aunts, uncles and cousins.

(Click to View)

Chase Wyatt Newman (Provided)

Driving the boat Newman was traveling on at the time of the crash? Zach Cameron, West’s grandson.

“I’m heartbroken,” West told Parrilla-Guerrero and Fancer, adding he was “floored” to learn his grandson’s friend had been killed when he was “called to the scene of the crash as a coroner.”

In the WIS article, West claimed he was investigating the crash – and that Newman’s autopsy was being performed by a third-party, the Newberry Pathology Group. However, that same day editor Martin L. Cahn of The (Camden, S.C.) Chronicle-Independent reported West as saying he “did not actually investigate the boy’s death as one of his family members was aboard one of the boats involved.”

West maintained his “no foul play” narrative in the Chronicle-Independent story, too.

“They both swerved to try to avoid each other,” West told the paper. “There was no foul play, and they both had their lights on.”

“The other boat hit him, but he never went into the water,” West continued, referring to Newman. “People from both boats rendered first aid. There were four people on the boat that was hit, and three in the other boat.”

(Click to View)

Kershaw County coroner David West (Facebook)

According to a lawsuit filed this week in Kershaw County, though, there was no shortage of foul play associated with this senseless tragedy – before and after it occurred.

Filed by attorneys Pete Strom and Jessica Lerer Fickling of the Columbia, S.C. Strom Law firm, the filing (.pdf) was submitted on behalf of Newman’s parents – Melissa Branham and Shane Newman. It named Cameron (the coroner’s grandson), Trent Mathis (the driver of the other boat) and five unnamed entities, each of which allegedly sold alcohol Cameron prior to the crash, as defendants.

The allegations leveled in the lawsuit are seismic – hinting at widespread institutional corruption and evoking memories of the now-notorious 2019 boat crash involving the late Paul Murdaugh. That crash led to the collapse of the Murdaugh family empire (and, according to state prosecutors, precipitated Paul Murdaugh’s own murder at the hands of his father, Alex Murdaugh).

According to the pleading, at approximately 4:00 p.m. EDT on the day of his death, Newman “joined his friends after school at a local sandbar on the Wateree River” – a location where Cameron was “already on site and drinking.”

Cameron was able to purchase the alcohol thanks to “his political connections in Kershaw County,” the pleading alleged, referring to him as “widely known and recognized as the grandson of Kershaw County’s elected coroner, David West, and the nephew of elite members of the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office.”

Thanks to these relationships, Cameron “avoided the consequences of his actions, including his reputation for underage drinking, disorderly conduct, and reckless boating.”

Specifically, the lawsuit claimed Cameron “had purportedly been either arrested or charged with drunk and disorderly conduct at (the) Carolina Cup, as well as ticketed for reckless boating” in the weeks leading up to the collision. Those charges were “inexplicably dropped,” the lawsuit alleged.

Citing “multiple witnesses,” the lawsuit claimed Cameron was “drinking at the sandbar for multiple hours before the collision, including while on the boat leading up to this collision, and was intoxicated.”

(Click to View)

Wateree River (SCDNR)

Cameron’s inebriated status – and the negligence of Mathis, the driver of the other boat – led to the crash as both vessels were “driving in the middle of the channel at high speeds … headed toward a blind curve,” according the lawsuit.

Despite both boats swerving at the last second to avoid hitting each other, “Mathis’ boat collided with the back of Cameron’s boat, where (Newman) was sitting.” After the crash, “it became immediately apparent that something was wrong,” the lawsuit continued. Newman was “bleeding profusely, and became unresponsive within minutes.”

Something else was wrong, though.

According to the lawsuit, “one of the first people on scene was David West, the elected coroner and Cameron’s grandfather.” West’s presence on the scene of the accident “was irregular, as there was no indication of a fatality at the time of the initial call.”

As additional law enforcement officers began to arrive at the scene, things got even more “irregular.”

“Coroner West actively engaged with these officials and inserted himself into the investigation, telling law enforcement that he, the coroner, had checked the kids including his grandson for alcohol, and that alcohol was not a factor,” the lawsuit alleged. “Meanwhile, witnesses have stated law enforcement along with West, told defendants Cameron and Mathis and the other kids at the scene to dispose of any residual trash in the boats, which would include any indicia of alcohol.”

These law enforcement officers also claimed to have “notified” West of Newman’s death, even though it was “clear that Coroner West was at the scene the entire time.”

“It is unclear why other responding agencies, including Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office, and the Department of Natural Resources, did not press further to determine whether alcohol was a factor in the collision, or why and to what extent either department allowed Coroner West to participate in the investigation on the night of the collision,” the lawsuit stated.

Strom said Newman’s family is ready for “answers” and wants “accountability” in the aftermath of this tragedy.

“I’ve been representing families who are in the hour of their grief for a long time,” Strom said. “What these parents are going through is unimaginable and this family is handling these circumstances with as much grace as I’ve seen. They know they cannot bring their son back. What they want now are answers and accountability.”

To read the pleading for yourself, download the document below. As we continue digging into these allegations, I would remind everyone reading this article that FITSNews has an open microphone policy which encourages any individuals or institutions named in our reports to address our audience directly.

Unlike other media outlets, we are happy to publish responses unedited and in their entirety.

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THE LAWSUIT …

(Via: S.C. Fifth Judicial Circuit)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Will Folks (Brett Flashnick)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.

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5 comments

Bryan Calhoun June 26, 2023 at 7:25 pm

Shocker! Yet another SCDNR led investigation that is littered with brass protecting brass. This only leads to zero accountability and zero answers for the families involved. Shameful. You should talk to the Richland County Coroner about #truthforjaden

This is a shockingly similar case with very similar circumstances. Both tragedies. Both investigations questionable. Zero accountability. Victims and their families suffer. ?

Reply
Jennifer June 26, 2023 at 11:01 pm

I am telling you. Ever since we moved to Camden, SC in 2019 we KNEW this town was SHADY AF. There’s something wrong here…. Besides if you have a certain last name and what they call old money here…. There is something terribly wrong. Don’t even get me started on the all of the sexual assaults that the youth have to go through and won’t say anything because the rapist had a certain “last name.” It’s f*cked up.

Reply
J Monday Top fan June 27, 2023 at 7:25 am

As highly publicized as the Murdaugh boat crash was & is, I cannot believe that lightning has struck twice. Did these people learn nothing from the death of a young woman at the hands of an underaged alcohol abuser? It is ground hog day in the worst way.

Reply
Geri June 27, 2023 at 11:17 pm

I’m a retired Maryland DNR officer and this is outrageous. In the case of a boating related fatality, first thing done should have been identify both boat operators and take them in for a blood alcohol test.
This is definitely the ‘Good ole boy’ network at its best.

Reply
Corrupt System June 29, 2023 at 9:25 pm

…bet that dirty rotten ‘coroner’ fixed lots of deaths resulting in millions of dollars or not.

Reply

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