When Jaden Phillips and his father, Shayne Phillips, made plans to go camping with friends on the Congaree River for his nineteenth birthday, neither of them imagined it would be his last weekend alive. Nor did Shayne Phillips and his wife ever imagine they would have to fight so hard for answers – and accountability – following their son’s tragic (and still unexplained) death.
At 7:57 p.m. EDT on May 16, 2020 – just one day after his 19th birthday – a bystander at the Bates Bridge landing along the river called 9-1-1 to report an “incident.”
The bystander was only able to report what he saw and little else.
“There’s a boy pouring blood from his head,” the caller noted.
Since that day, Jaden’s parents have been unable to get clear answers about what happened on the day their beloved son died – and why no one has been held responsible for his death.
Jaden and Shayne Phillips arrived the Bates Bridge landing – located just south of the Congaree National Park on the border of Richland and Calhoun counties – around noon on that fateful Saturday. They met up with friends, and the group packed up their boats with camping gear and began the 30-minute trek upriver to the campsite. After everything was set up, half the group headed back downriver in their boats to the “sandbar” – an area where boaters frequently gathered to party.
According to incident reports from the Richland County sheriff’s department, Jaden spent the afternoon with 30-year-old Irvin Franklin Eckrote – a friend of the family. Witnesses indicated Eckrote had been consuming alcohol throughout the day. Jaden recorded a short video just after 7:00 p.m. EDT on his phone in which Eckrote is seen drinking alcohol and appearing to sway while attempting to walk in a straight line.
In the background of the video Jaden tells his friend, “you are fucked up.”
Sometime after this short video was made – but before the first 9-1-1 call was placed at 7:57 p.m. EDT – the boat began heading back to the campsite from the sandbar with Eckrote at the helm. A second boat driven by Eric Langen – another member of the camping party – followed behind, although Langen told investigators he did not witness what happened next.
Incident reports (.pdf) indicate the boat struck a fallen tree as Eckrote was allegedly “cutting the river” – which refers to skirting the riverbank at a high rate of speed while traversing a bend in the river. Jaden – who apparently didn’t see the branches (and didn’t have time to duck to avoid being hit) – sustained multiple injuries to the front and back of his head.
Langen – whose boat had fallen behind Eckrote’s – came around river bend a few moments later. He saw trees shaking and realized Eckrote’s boat had crashed into them. When he pulled alongside the vessel, he told investigators he saw Jaden slumped over with his arm hanging out of the side of the boat. According to Langen, Jaden was gurgling while trying to breathe. Langen told Eckrote to call 9-1-1 and have an ambulance meet them at the landing while he went to the campsite to get Shayne.
No 9-1-1 call was placed until the boat reached the landing, however.
By the time the boat arrived at Bates Bridge, Jaden was unconscious on the floor of the boat bleeding profusely from his head and still struggling to breathe. Incident reports indicate the floor of the watercraft was littered with empty beer cans, blood and vomit.
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Paul Catoe was at the landing when Eckrote’s boat came flying around the river bend. Catoe – who happened to be a first responder – immediately began administering first aid to Jaden while additional bystanders called 9-1-1. Unfortunately, the Bates Bridge landing is located just 500 feet within the Richland County border and calls were volleyed between Calhoun County, Orangeburg County, Lexington County, Richland County and S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) dispatch operators – with those on these calls struggling to figure out who had jurisdiction.
When it was finally determined the accident had occurred in Richland County, an ambulance was dispatched to the scene – but its driver reportedly struggled to locate the boat ramp entrance. Additionally, the ambulance left the station with only two people – apparently unaware Phillips was unconscious and unstable, which would have required a third person to assist with his transportation.
Even after arriving, the crew reportedly had to wait for the arrival of a third emergency responder to safely transport him to the hospital.
Throughout the process, precious time was lost – and with head injuries, every second matters.
SCDNR was notified of the incident via a separate call. That recording clearly indicated agency dispatchers knew someone had suffered a serious injury on the river, but it’s not immediately clear whether they knew the incident had occurred on the water – which matters a great deal as it would have resulted in the investigation becoming the agency’s responsibility.
Richland County sheriff’s department deputy Daniel Brigman responded to the scene of the accident along with a reserve deputy who was riding with him. Bodycam footage showed Brigman did not ask Eckrote’s name or inquire whether he had anything to drink despite a crowd at the scene telling him other members of the party had been consuming alcohol.
According to a still-pending civil suit filed by the family in May of 2022, there is no record of a field sobriety test being administered – nor was a breathalyzer examination ever sought. The scene was also allegedly never secured or processed for potential evidence of a crime. Furthermore, SCDNR was never officially notified of the accident as required by state law. Brigman cleared the scene at 8:32 p.m. EDT – just moments after Jaden Phillips departed in an ambulance.
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Jaden Phillips was transferred to a nearby hospital where he remained on life support for four days before his family made the painful decision to remove him from the ventilator. He died minutes later – on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 – having never regained consciousness following the accident. Eckrote was eventually charged with negligent operation of a water device and boating under suspension – tied to a previous boating under the influence incident – although neither charge was related to Jaden’s death.
Jaden’s parents told police in an interview during the four days that Jaden was hospitalized they assumed the sheriff’s department and SCDNR were actively investigating the incident – and that they fully expected Irvin Eckrote would be arrested in connection with the death of their son. They later learned later the investigation actually began on May 23, 2020 when SCDNR first learned it had jurisdiction in the matter.
The investigation into Jaden’s death brought more questions than answers for the Phillips’ family, so they filed the aforementioned wrongful death lawsuit (.pdf) on May 13, 2022 in Richland County against SCDNR, various Richland County entities and employees and against Eckrote.
While they pursued the case civilly, though, Jaden’s parents still had questions about the cause and manner of their son’s death which they believed could only be pursued through criminal channels.
Images of the location where Eckrote’s boat crashed showed a tree lying across the river — not just branches or a branch as Eckrote claimed when asked by investigators. According to testimony, the accident occurred at a wide section of the river — a location at which it was neither necessary nor safe to be traveling so close to the bank.
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What happened in the moments leading up to Jaden’s death are still not clear, but Phillips’ family has not given up hope of one day getting answers – and finding justice. An inquest held on August 22, 2023 by Richland County coroner Naida Rutherford – who was not in office at the time of the accident – seemed to be their last chance.
After reviewing the records relating to Jaden’s death, Rutherford had concerns. She told The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier in June of 2021 that the injuries to Phillips were of particular significance because there was more than just a single blow to the head from a specific limb. The coroner’s report, EMT report and medical records provided by the family showed injuries to multiple sides of Phillips’ body.
These injuries did not match the account given to authorities by Eckrote.
Coroner’s inquests are rare in South Carolina. These informal hearings are statutorily authorized by the S.C. Code of Laws (§ 17-7-10) and afford coroners broad subpoena powers to investigate any casual or violent deaths occurring within their counties. The hearings are typically held in the county court house in front of a jury. The goal is to determine if the manner of death of an individual is natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal or undetermined.
If the jury were to have determined the death was by homicide, they would have forwarded the case to the solicitor’s office to determine if it could be presented to a grand jury for criminal charges. Anyone summoned to a coroner’s inquest is required to show up – but as in a standard court hearing they retain their constitutional right against self incrimination.
Jaden’s parents, Shayne and Sabria, sat in the Richland County courtroom listening to witnesses detail the last moments of their son’s life. Forced to relive every parent’s worst nightmare, they were there because they felt their son had been failed – by his “friends” who were supposed to look out for him, by law enforcement officers charged with protecting him and by a system of justice this is clearly broken on multiple levels.
The worst part is the individuals who could have given Philllips his best chance at survival – and his family the best chance of at long last achieving justice – didn’t even bother to show up.
Subpoenas were issued to Eckrote, Hannah Brown, Travis Long and Bryce Kelley – Jaden’s “friends.” They all failed to appear. Subpoenas were also issued to Richland County investigator Chris Truluck and SCDNR investigator April Smith. It is unknown why neither investigator appeared to testify, but Seton Tucker – co-host of the popular podcast Impact of Influence – indicated Jaden’s parents were shocked and confused by this development.
Paul Catoe – the bystander/EMT who happened to be at the boat ramp when Eckrote pulled in with Jaden Phillips lying on the floor of the boat – did testify at the inquest. He told the jury that in addition to the head wounds he observed and attempted to treat, Jaden had road rashes to his side and stomach area as well as bruising in those areas. In his opinion, these “injuries did not line up with what he (Eckrote) was saying.”
Catoe further testified during the inquest that he noticed Jaden’s clothing was wet when he was administering first aid to him while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Rutherford also noted Jaden had water in his lungs during the hearing.
Was Jaden ejected from the boat during the collision? Is that why he had injuries on his side and stomach?
Eric Langen estimated the speed of Eckrote’s boat at the time of the accident was appropriate – approximately 30 knots (or roughly 35 miles per hour) when it crashed. Others testified during the inquest that the boat went much faster – with its 150 horsepower motor capable of attaining speeds of up to 60 knots (or roughly 70 miles per hour). Langen also noted during his testimony the tree was not on a bend as previously reported. According to Langen the tree was on a “straight away.”
Langen further testified Eckrote told him he was on the phone at the time of the collision. As of this writing, it’s unknown whether investigators made any effort to determine the speed of the boat at the time of collision via GPS data or accident reconstruction.
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After jurors heard the testimony and reviewed all of the evidence presented, they ruled Jaden Phillip’s death an accident – leaving Sabria and Shane Phillips to once again wonder if anyone will ever be held responsible for their son’s death.
During his testimony, Shayne Phillips said Eckrote’s failure to appear spoke volumes.
“What are you (Eckrote) hiding if you didn’t do nothing wrong?” he asked.
The death of Jaden Phillips is especially tragic because so many things went wrong in its aftermath. Again, though, aside from the civil lawsuit his family is no closer to knowing the truth, finding justice or creating systemic changes to prevent this from happening to another family.
Whatever caused the accident, Eckrote’s failure to call 9-1-1 cost Jaden precious time – time he didn’t have to spare. Jurisdictional confusion after the call came in – and failure to communicate scene details to first responders – cost him even more precious time. Furthermore, the alleged failure of RCSD officers to conduct field sobriety or breathalyzer examinations on the driver of the boat – despite witness statements indicating he had been drinking and evidence of drinking on the boat – means there is no physical evidence available to determine whether Eckrote was intoxicated while driving.
The investigation to determine what caused this accident did not begin until a week after it occurred further complicated things – as did the apparent failure of the sheriff’s department to notify SCDNR of an accident within its jurisdiction.
So many things went wrong the evening Jaden died. All Sabria and Shayne Phillips have ever wanted is to know is what happened – so they can make sure this never happens to anyone else. Sadly, they have found themselves no closer to either goal after the inquest jury declared Jaden’s death was an accident.
Anyone with information regarding the death of Jaden Phillips is encouraged to reach out to this news outlet ([email protected]).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at [email protected].
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