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Fatal South Carolina Crash Renews Scrutiny Of Police Pursuits

“There is a set of known facts … and a set of unknown facts.”

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Law enforcement officers with the South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) and Richland County sheriff’s department may have handled a recent high-speed chase through a suburban neighborhood completely by the book.

Assuming there is a “book” on such matters …

Is there one? The jury appears to be out on that question … which is a big problem.

Here’s what we know: Shortly before midnight on July 14, 2023, a silver Jeep Cherokee carrying six teenagers (aged 14-18) was observed traveling without its headlights on near Piney Grove Road approximately eight miles northwest of Columbia, S.C.

For yet-to-be-disclosed reasons, SCHP initiated a pursuit of the vehicle – one which later involved assets of the Richland and Lexington County sheriff’s department. Speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour were attained during the chase – which traversed a stretch of road running through Harbison State Forest.

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At approximately 12:05 a.m. EDT on Saturday, July 15, 2023, the pursuit ended very suddenly, very violently … and, as it happened, quite tragically.

Upon rounding a sharp turn on Lost Creek Drive, the Jeep struck a curb and plowed through the intersection of the Chesnut Hill Plantation country club – taking out several street signs, a fire hydrant and several bushes. Flipping end over end, the vehicle crashed into a pond next to the clubhouse and was submerged.

Pursuing law enforcement officers immediately initiated rescue efforts, and five teens were pulled from the water following the crash and transported to local hospitals with unspecified injuries.

One teen – 16-year-old Brandon Nunez of Irmo, S.C. – was unable to be rescued. At approximately 10:00 a.m. EDT on the morning of July 15, his body was retrieved from the pond. Nunez was seated in the passenger seat of the Jeep when it struck the curb and went careening into the water. As of this writing, there is no update as to the cause and manner of his death.

Days later, the scene outside the Chesnut Hill neighborhood still bore the scars of this fatal crash – including skid marks, structural damage and massive divots in the ground littered with broken pieces of the vehicle’s shattered taillights.

In an effort to gain some clarity as to what prompted this chase – and its tragic end – our news outlet has submitted a deluge of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the various agencies involved in the pursuit and rescue. We are also reaching out to all of the agencies involved in the hopes of gaining their perspective on what transpired.

Unlike some media outlets, we are not rushing to judgment as to the conduct of the officers involved in this incident. We are simply trying to find out what happened …

As is the case with any story like this, there is a set of known facts – and a set of unknown facts.

Beyond those? There is the truth … or something resembling our best conception of it. And the latter of those is really the best we can hope to lay hold of on this side of the mortal coil.

In addition to gathering details from this particular incident, we are also doing a deep dive into police pursuit policies (or the lack thereof) across the Palmetto State. Our goal for that coverage is to ascertain best practices and encourage all law enforcement agencies (municipal, county and state) to follow them.

(Click to View)

Scene of the fatal crash in Irmo, S.C. which claimed the life of 16-year-old Brandon Nunez. (Dylan Nolan/ FITSNews)

South Carolina has one of the nation’s highest death rates for vehicular pursuits, according to a 2020 analysis by reporter Daniel Gross, formerly of The (Greenville, S.C.) News.

“The lack of a uniform, statewide policy prevents (law enforcement) instruction on the ins and outs of pursuits, when to engage in a chase and when to call one off,” Gross noted, citing officials at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy (SCCJA).

To be clear: On some level, running from blue lights will always be a definitional “F.A.F.O.” situation. Not to mention a crime. And I am disinclined at the moment to consider any policy which would criminalize law enforcement officers for demonstrating poor judgment in initiating chases – or which would provide violent criminals in this state with any more unfair advantages.

They have plenty of those already in South Carolina …

There’s a proper balance somewhere … and our goal is to work collaboratively with anyone willing to be a part of this important conversation.

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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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2 comments

Observer (the real one) July 20, 2023 at 11:08 am

Being as no innocent persons were harmed, I fail to see the problem, here. All the time, I see fktards driving without headlights after dark and during heavy rainstorms. They present a potential hazard to everyone due to their lack of visibility. Imagine pulling out of a side road where lighting conditions render a vehicle without illumination virtually invisible, then getting broadsided by a vehicle driven by such an idiot. No one held a gun to the driver’s head and made him run from the police. A passenger, upon failing to convince the driver to stop, could have turned the ignition off, pulled the emergency brake, or similar to cut this chase off and minimize risk, had they really wanted to. What was the reaction of the passengers? Likely encouraging and goading the driver on. The driver, not police, bears full responsibility for this tragedy.

No chase policies by departments only embolden people to drive recklessly and to run because they soon learn police will be forced to back off at the first creation of “unnecessary” risk.

How would you feel if a member of your family or close friend were killed by a reckless idiot driving without lights because police backed off when they offered to run? Potentially, it is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” for police in this situation. I feel safer if they pursue these cruds and not encourage their reckless behavior.

Also, it needs to be codified into state law, you lead police on a vehicular chase above the speed limits (which they will almost all be), minimum 7 years with no parole, good time, or other early release, to be served CONSECUTIVELY with any other sentences connected to the case. Why was something like this not done decades ago?

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Jason Wells Top fan July 20, 2023 at 5:33 pm

Failure to stop first offense should not be a misdemeanor. This is part of the problem. Also, if you don’t run from law enforcement you won’t die in a crash running from law enforcement. Everyone wants the murderer, drug dealer, burglar, etc. off the street, just don’t want to see how it’s done. Many people in the category of the previous aforementioned offenses have been caught by law enforcement stopping cars for improper lights.

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