The family of a man who died after he was signed out of emergency medical care by a Charleston police officer and taken into custody is asking for more information about the circumstances surrounding the incident.
At a press conference at the Clawson Fargnoli law firm on Monday, attorney Justin Bamberg spoke on behalf of Annette Rhodes and Megan Johnson, the widow and daughter of 58-year-old Nathaniel Rhodes.
Rhodes ran a red light and was hit by a pickup truck in the intersection Coming Street and Highway 17 on Aug. 12, according to an incident report released Monday afternoon. Charleston Police officer Paul Kelly spotted a bottle of wine in a black plastic bag that was one-third full. When asked about the wine, Rhodes said he had been drinking from it “about three hours ago,” according to the report.
The officer then asked Rhodes take a field sobriety test after EMS advised that “there was no reason he had to remain in the stretcher,” according to the report. Rhodes failed and was taken to CPD headquarters for a Datamaster test.
“On entering the station, the driver fell to the ground and reported that he was experiencing physical distress, at which point, officers called EMS and he was transported to a local hospital, where he died four days later,” police said in a statement Friday.
Rhodes had suffered eight broken ribs and a ruptured liver from the accident, according to Bamberg, who is also a S.C. House representative.
Bamberg and attorney Christy Fargnoli say first responders violated procedure by allowing an officer to sign a patient out of care and take him into custody.
According to documents provided by Bamberg, county medical responders had already put Rhodes onto a stretcher and into an ambulance to be transported for medical attention when the responding officer ordered Rhodes to be removed and took him to the police station.
“At the point in which Mr. Rhodes was in the custody of EMS and requested transport, it was completely inappropriate of them to allow the officer to sign him out and to allow them to refuse the medical treatment,” Fargnoli said. “That was a non-delegable duty that EMS had, and they breached it.”
On Fri. Feb. 22, the Charleston Police Department announced that the case had been referred to the State Law Enforcement Division after questions from media outlets.
“Late today, while gathering information in response to a news request involving this case, the CPD was provided with a document that raised questions about whether CPD officers followed proper procedure when the driver was not transported to the hospital from the scene of the accident,” police said.
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office referred all inquiries about the Rhodes case, including those having to do with EMS policy, to law enforcement. SLED has not responded to a request for comment from the City Paper.
Bamberg thanked the news media for their attention to the case. Charleston city and county officials have reportedly taken action since NBC News first reported on questions raised around the incident.
“I found out that the city sent this to SLED reading the news,” Bamberg said. “And I think that that says everything.”
In an email sent to Charleston County Deputy Coroner Kimberly Rhoton on Sept. 26, 2018, Charleston Police Sgt. Clifton B. Wilson said that two videos from the Rhodes incident were “lost due to software issues with our camera system.” Two separate videos were labeled as “routine collision” videos and were deleted, Wilson added.
On Monday, lawyers played footage from Charleston police headquarters that showed Rhodes appearing to have difficulty breathing.
“Standing here watching this video, we’ve come a long way and we’ve got a long way to go,” said S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard of Charleston, who sponsored a bill to equip South Carolina police officers with body cameras in 2015 after Walter Scott was gunned down by a North Charleston police officer. The legislation was passed into law and signed by Gov. Nikki Haley on June 10 of that year.
Bamberg said that the legal team is in the process of gathering more information and are not yet planning on bringing a lawsuit against the city or the police department.
“I don’t understand how video gets deleted, and the timing of the deletion is very, very, very questionable,” Bamberg told CP. “If a motor vehicle accident resulting in the death of someone is routine, then we’re all in trouble.”
According to Bamberg’s firm, video from inside police headquarters shows one EMT “doing a dance and commenting how he (the EMT) ‘looked good on camera.'”
Johnson, one of Rhodes’ three children, said she just wants answers.
“My sister and I, we’re both medical professionals, and we look at this, aside from being frustrated because it’s our family, we can’t understand being on the other side of that as a professional,” she said. “Watching a patient suffer and having the time of our lives. Those things don’t resonate, we don’t understand.”
On Monday, Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey said that, after speaking with Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and county staff, he learned that “irregularities may have occurred regarding the handling of a traffic accident.”
“Due to these unusual circumstances and after consultation with Mayor Tecklenburg, I believe an investigation is warranted by the Sheriff’s Office and SLED into these matters,” Summey said in a statement. “I have sent the request to Sheriff Al Cannon as this is a matter of great importance to the citizens of Charleston County.”