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The Domino Effect: Justice Falls

WPDE

When you think about the decisions you have made, what comes next? It’s a series of moments impacted by just one that create the rest of your life. It’s the domino effect. The idea that one event causes a chain reaction.

Domino 1:

In 2016 four Horry County Police officers were indicted on charges of misconduct in office. Luke Green, Todd Cox, Darryl Williams, and Troy Allen Large faced serious accusations. They’re not the only ones facing misconduct allegations. A report by the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy showed Deputy Chief Maurice Jones had ordered employees to close 53 cases without investigating them. According to the department’s spokesperson, all 53 cases were connected to those four officers.

Troy Allen Large died in January of 2018. His charges will not be prosecuted, according to the South Carolina Attorney General’s office, however the civil lawsuits will continue through the system. Some have been settled out of court, others are still pending. Luke Green was offered a plea deal. Todd Cox and Darryl Williams could still see a trial because their cases are still pending, according to the AG’s office.

Many of the officers involved had been with the department for decades. Troy Allen Large, for instance, started his career with HCPD in 1989. Maurice Jones was with the department for 33 years before he retired in 2017. Two weeks after retiring the department changed his personnel status report to show his resignation involved misconduct. Though the indictments came down in 2016 and the accusations just became public, our team wondered what this meant for decades worth of cases. What kind of domino effect did the actions, or inactions, of those officers have?

Domino 2:

For Samantha Downer the domino effect started on February 1, 2002. They didn’t know it yet, but for many others the domino effect started that day, too, though it would take more than a decade for some to find that out.

"Supposed to grow old and, you know, have grandchildren, and old enough to move in with the kids and annoy them,” Samantha Downer said with a pained smile.

She and her husband, John Paul Downer Jr., had normal goals in life. They had known each other since high school. Samantha admits she had always thought Paul, as he was more commonly known, was cute. They married other people, though.

After each divorced, the pieces all fell into place and life brought them back together. The two married in 1996 and had a spontaneous life together.

"April Fool’s day was always really big for us. The kids all got little squirt guns and got Paul when he came home from work,” she recalled. “The kids come flying in the house and hiding behind the furniture and Paul is at the front door with the hose."

Samantha and Paul each had children from their previous marriages. She said there was always something unexpected at the house. Friends and family members often stayed for extended periods of time, too. Soon after the two married Paul’s brother moved in with the newlyweds.

"Paul was just a very, very generous guy to a downfalling. We had somebody with us all the time. There was always somebody living with us,” she explained.

Paul owned a paint company. If his workers needed a place to stay, Samantha said he would offer them a room in the house.

Soon, though, Samantha said she noticed Paul wasn’t coming home when he was supposed to and was staying out late with his brother.

"You have a choice. It's, you know, that life or me and the kids and he chose us,” she said.

After their talk Paul was coming home every night. She said his brother often worked for him at the paint company and things were back to normal.

Domino 3:

On the morning of February 1, 2002 she remembered him waking up to head to a job. It was especially memorable, she said, because he kept coming back to tell her he loved her. He did it several times before leaving for good.

That night Paul never came, but an unexpected phone call did.

"The coroner was there and he told me, he goes, Mrs. Downer I think you need to sit down I've got something to tell you and I just started telling him like no, I don't want to talk to you because nothing you have to say to me is the truth,” she said.

The pain on her face matched the memory she was describing. She said she crumpled down as the coroner told her that her husband had been shot and killed.

Domino 4:

According to a police report from that night, Horry County officers were called to a home invasion and shooting in Longs at 8:26 p.m. off Highway 905. Paul’s brother was outside the house crying, according to the first officer on scene. The officer went into the living room where he found Paul Downer lying in a pool of blood, according to the report.

Witnesses told police four men had come into the house yelling for everyone to get down and pointing guns. They said one of them had something over his head and told Paul to give him money, so Paul reached in to his pocket and handed over his wallet and some cash then the man hit him in the head with the pistol. Paul’s brother told police the man then screamed at Paul to “reach deeper.” Paul said he had no more money. The report states that’s when the man shot Paul.

The officer on scene then writes that the investigation would be handed over to Detective Troy Allen Large who had arrived on scene.

Domino 5:

"Didn't have to kill him,” Samantha said.

That morning after he repeatedly told her he loved her, Samantha said her husband went to finish a paint job. The next day, on February 2, 2002, he was scheduled to be paid $10,000 for that job. She believes that was the motive.

"Whoever found that out and whoever told other people apparently got the date wrong because the home invasion was early. It wasn't on that date and Paul was murdered for $200."

The officer wrote in his report that he found John Paul Downer Jr. with his wallet under his head and change and business cards on the floor next to his pocket.

Samantha said she has been told that after work Paul had dropped off some of his employees at the home on Highway 905 and they invited him in for a beer. Those are the only details Samantha said she really knows of her husband’s murder case.

"You know a lot more about this case than I do because we were never allowed to see the case file,” she said.

It’s a file our news team has since pulled through the Freedom of Information Act. We have stacks of papers documenting the investigation. It’s information Samantha had waited sixteen years to find out.

"It's like, what can you tell me about my life? Instead of what I can tell you about my life,” Samantha said.

The only other information Samantha was told about her husband’s case is that something went wrong with the investigation.

Domino 6:

On February 3, 2002, two days after Paul was murdered, two warrants were issued for 19-year-old Jeremy Williams for murder and armed robbery. According to the warrants, Williams was identified as a suspect. They state that Downer had no weapons and cooperated with Williams’ demands, but was shot point blank in the back of his head.

Two days later, on February 5, 2002, Williams was questioned at the police department. According to audio recordings the interview lasts more than three hours. Two detectives come in and out of the room taking turns questioning Williams.

“The best thing you can do is come clean now and get this cleared up,” an officer who sounds like Troy Allen Large, can be heard saying to Williams less than a minute in to the tape. “We’re talking about murder, armed robbery, burglary first, you probably could be facing the death penalty or you’d never get out of jail.”

We’ve interviewed Large in person. We also know his voice from his March 2016 deposition video. From the audio, only three voices can be heard. Detective Allen Large, another officer, and Jeremy Williams.

A minute and a half in to the interview Jeremy Williams can be heard asking for an attorney.

“All right. Okay. Well. If you mean to tell me you want an attorney you might as well talk to him then,” Large said.

Some spots of the interview are inaudible, but Williams can be heard asking for an attorney more than five times throughout the tape. At times, the detectives seem to taunt Williams about his request.

“You asked for an attorney, you better get you a good one, because you’re facing murder and armed robbery,” Large later said.

Finally, three hours later, the interview ends with Williams saying again, “I want to talk to my lawyer, man.” Hand cuffs can be heard spinning onto his wrists and the questioning ends.

Domino 7:

On February 14, 2002 just nine days later, a letter of suspension is sent to the lead detective on the case, Troy Allen Large. According to reports from that year, four officers in total were suspended for one week because of the Williams interrogation. Large’s suspension letter states that he failed to recognize or acknowledge the fact that the suspect had invoked his Miranda right to an attorney.

In Large’s suspension letter it states, “failure to ensure the application of these rights has severely jeopardized the potential success of a homicide investigation and has compromised the professionalism and integrity of the police department.”

In the audio recording, Williams gives a moment by moment account of his day on February 1 and detectives create a timeline for the day of the murder. He talks about his access to guns, his clothing, a car he sometimes uses, and his relationship to a slew of other people. At one point, detectives press him on an hour and a half gap in his day for which he cannot account. It coincides with the time of the murder, but from what we can hear Williams never confesses to being there or to shooting Downer.

Domino 8:

Samantha Downer said she remembers the solicitor at the time telling her something had happened in the interrogation and it would have to be thrown out and not used in court.

"When they were interviewing things went wrong,” she said that’s all she really knew.

At the time of the murder Senator Greg Hembree was the 15th Circuit Solicitor and his department prosecuted the case.

“That’s a big mistake. When someone asks for a lawyer, I mean, that’s really, investigator training 101,” Senator Hembree said.

Hembree said he did not remember the case. We showed him the documents we had on Downer’s murder and he still said he couldn’t remember it or anything about the officers who were suspended. In a 2002 Associated Press report he is cited as the source for an article titled, “Four Horry Police Officers Suspended.” He said he likely saw 10,000 cases pass through his office each year.

We also told Hembree that Samantha Downer was learning new information about her husband’s case from us. To that, he had a message for the widow.

“That may be somewhat my fault. We have a responsibility as prosecutors when we get the case to communicate with the victims of crime and let them know what’s going on, so I’m sorry,” he said.

According to Senator Hembree, the failure of the police in that interrogation could throw a murder case.

Domino 9:

In March of 2002, Jeremy Williams sued the Horry County Administrator at the time, the police department, Troy Allen Large, and another officer named Nathan Johnson. He claims the two detectives “grossly violated” his constitutional rights. In his lawsuit he seeks five million dollars in retribution from the police department, five million dollars from the county, and one million dollars from each officer. He argues the questions asked during the interrogation or obtained within the interrogation are inadmissible and null.

The lawsuit was quickly dismissed. Court records state, “although the plaintiff can seek to have his statements excluded from criminal proceedings against him, he cannot recover money damages because he made the statements without a lawyer present.”

Over the next four years, Williams is accused of dozens of crimes while out on bond waiting for trial in the Downer case, according to his South Carolina Law Enforcement Division background report. The Public Index shows he was convicted of resisting arrest and drug charges during that time.

“There is no question that there will be things that would not have happened, but for those failures,” Senator Hembree said.

Detective Nathan Johnson resigned from the department in 2004 citing other financial opportunities. Troy Allen Large spent the next 13 years with HCPD until he was fired in 2015. According to Large’s annual review, his supervisor in the early 2000’s was Maurice Jones, the man accused of ordering detectives to close cases without investigating.

Domino 10:

On November 22, 2006, nearly five years after Downer’s murder, Williams accepted a plea deal. His original charges of murder and armed robbery were replaced with voluntary manslaughter. The indictment states Williams killed John Paul Downer Jr. “in the sudden heat of passion.” He was sentenced to 13 years in prison with credit for time served.

He was released in December of 2015.

Domino 11:

Eight months later, according to a police report, on August 11, 2016 Horry County police were called to a home on Pine Needle Drive in Longs around three o’clock in the morning for an armed robbery. The responding officer stated that on the way to the home he is told all the victims were being taken to the hospital and that a 16-year-old had possibly been raped.

The mother told police three children were home at the time, her 16-year-old daughter and two young boys. The woman said her children told her four men came into the home with a gun.

We spoke with the teen’s mother by phone. She requested to wait to do an interview until after the trial, but talked freely with us about the crime. She said the men had come into the house to rob them, but one of them raped her daughter. She said her daughter knew that man because he had just moved into the neighborhood recently after getting out of prison.

Domino 12:

On September 20, 2016, 34-year-old Jeremy Williams was charged with criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, and kidnapping, among several other charges in the case.

"What's happened recently might not have happened,” Samantha Downer said.

Williams is currently in jail. His new case has not gone to trial yet, but is scheduled for July 2018.

After her husband’s murder, Samantha knows the series of events that happened next was a direct result. She met us at her husband’s grave where she visits often.

"Because it is still an open wound. A lot of breezes flow through my heart and the edges are still tattered,” she explained.

Domino 13:

Sifting through old pictures seems to bring that pained smile back to her face. The photos show the couple happy and laughing. There are some with her baby son and Paul playing with him. But one photo brings tears. It shows Paul’s daughters. At the time of his death one of them was pregnant and the two were excited about becoming grandparents.

“She wound up committing suicide because of it,” she said through sobs. “And the unborn child she was carrying.”

That was in March 2002, one month after Paul’s death.

Domino 14:

The Horry County Police Department is now run by a new chief. Chief Joseph Hill came from out of town to mend the broken department. Samantha feels her husband’s case has gone cold and hopes investigators may reopen it someday.

"It's not just me. It's all of the families, you know, whose cases were mishandled. Pull them out. Make those the first ones you pull out,” Samantha said that is her message to the chief.

Senator Hembree said the Horry County Police Department has since audited cases, even re-opening some that weren’t properly investigated. We couldn’t confirm that with the police department, though. We tried to set up an interview with Chief Hill, but his Public Information Officer requested a list of our questions before granting the interview. It is standard practice in journalism never to supply questions to an interview subject to preserve the authenticity of the answers. We explained this and our emails and subsequent requests for interviews were ignored.

RELATED - New Horry County Police Chief says there was a "lack of accountability" in department

"I know it can be like another black eye to them because of what happened, but black eyes heal, Paul is never going to heal,” Samantha pleaded.

Domino 15:

The current 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said inmates will likely see this as a chance at freedom. His office received letters often from inmates claiming their cases were mishandled. The question is whether the inmates are just trying to get out or if their cases really were mishandled.

“They’ve got nothing but years on their hands, quite frankly, so I think there’s certainly a possibility that there could be some cases that get challenged,” Senator Hembree agreed.

Samantha said no other people were ever caught for the crime that killed her husband. Senator Hembree said the most likely effect those officers had was on the victims and the community.

“They were not doing work, you know that’s the thing, it’s not like they were going out and making stuff up and manufacturing evidence to try to catch people, they were going the other direction. They were trying not to catch people!”

Hembree said cases closed with no investigation could mean bad guys never saw the inside of a jail cell and remained free to commit violent crimes.

“It’s inevitable. I mean there’s no question. I mean if you had to pick what is the biggest problem in all of this,” he said.

According to documents provided by the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, 53 cases were forced closed under the hand of Maurice Jones. Other than those, Hembree said there is no telling how many cases were truly mishandled and how far back the detectives’ bad habits went.

Jones has not faced any criminal charges. We checked with state police to see if they are investigating Jones. The spokesperson said they had not received any requests to investigate Jones. We asked who requests investigations into police departments or officers. The spokesperson said anyone can request an investigation into a police department.

We attempted to locate Jones for comment, but were unsuccessful.

Domino 16:

After Paul’s death Samantha said she rarely left the house. It took her months to feel up to seeing friends, but one night, they finally dragged her out to play eight ball. It had been something she and Paul often did together.

She said when she got to the bar she wasn’t much into the game so she sat down. A man nearby started chatting with her. The two have been together ever since and Marty often accompanies Sam to visit Paul’s grave. She credits him with getting her through the grief. He said he feels connected to Paul now, too.

When she met us at Paul’s grave for this interview Marty came with her for support. Samantha was reluctant to speak with us. It took several months of thinking, contemplating, and chatting with us for her to realize the impact she could have by telling Paul’s story. She said she comes to his grave often to tell him about life. The day she met us for the interview she told Paul about that, too.

“Hey, Paul,” Samantha said looking down toward Paul’s grave. “You have no idea how much I hope this helps.”

At times it can take only a moment to see the impact our actions have, while other times it can take decades to feel the full effect.

"Sometimes things don't go as planned,” she said.

It’s just the way the dominoes fall.

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