Officers charged criminally after 2 women drowned in van

Hurricane Florence, Photo Date: September 17, 2018 / Cropped Photo: Mary Junell / U.S. Army / CC BY-ND 2.0 / (MGN)
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Two South Carolina law officers were charged Friday in the deaths of two women who drowned while locked in the back of a sheriff's department van during Hurricane Florence.

Stephen Flood is charged with two counts each of reckless homicide and involuntary manslaughter, according to online court records. Joshua Bishop faces two counts of involuntary manslaughter. Both men are expected to have bond hearings Friday.

Flood and Bishop were fired from the Horry County Sheriff's Office in October as part of an internal investigation. Authorities said the deputies were driving 45-year-old Wendy Newton and 43-year-old Nicolette Green through Marion County to a mental-health facility under a court order when their van was swept away by rising floodwaters as Hurricane Florence inundated the state.

The powerful tropical system smashed into the Southeast coast as a hurricane Sept. 14, triggering severe flooding as it weakened yet nearly stalled over the Carolinas for days.

Green and Newton drowned in the back of the locked van on Sept. 18.

During a November legislative hearing, advocates for the women said neither one was violent. Newton was only seeking medicine for her fear and anxiety the day she died, a family attorney said, while Green's family said she was committed at a regular mental health appointment by a counselor she had never seen before.

Horry County officials have said that the deputies tried unsuccessfully to rescue the women from the van, which was on its side, blocking the door the deputies would have needed to unlock with a key. When rescue crews finally arrived, the van was underwater, and the deputies were plucked from its roof.

Working numbers for Bishop and Flood could not be found Thursday night. It is unclear whether they have attorneys, and first court appearances were scheduled for late February.

Many roads in the northeastern part of the state were flooded out and blocked off in the days following the powerful storm. Authorities with the sheriff's department have said that the deputies, in a marked sheriff's department vehicle, were waved through a barricade near the Little Pee Dee River by National Guardsmen charged with keeping motorists out of the area.

According to records from the state Criminal Justice Academy, Flood made a "conscious decision" to drive around the barricade, and Bishop didn't try to stop him. The Little Pee Dee was one of several rivers officials watched closely in the days following the storm.

In the months since, a legislative committee has opened hearings into the incident, discussing potential changes to the laws on how patients who are committed to mental hospitals are handled by police. Democratic state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who has headed up those hearings, said bipartisan legislation will be filed in the coming week, in the hopes of preventing similar tragedies in the future.

"Mental illness is not a law enforcement issue," Kimpson told The Associated Press. "It's a health issue, and that's where our focus needs to be."