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GUEST EDITORIAL: The day that change my life forever

Lake Murray, SC 09/18/2022 (Randall Smith) - What you are about to read is the complete story. I have never shared all of it publicly until now.


On a Friday night in July of 1997, my eleven-year-old son Drew and I went fishing on Lake Murray South Carolina. The fishing was not so good. We were in an area of the lake called Hollow Creek. It was about 1 a.m. and I had just idled out of a cove to the channel headed south towards Weed’s Landing on Hwy 378. At night, as always, I drove my boat only fast enough to safely operate or less than 20mph. Having grown up on Lake Murray, I was very familiar with that area. I was what you would call a very experienced boater with over 7,000 hours on the water. This was Drew’s first- and last-time night fishing with me. As I approached Weed’s Landing, the shoreline to my left was filled with homes and docks. To my right and behind me were only a few lake houses. I had just started when all of a sudden, I heard and felt a tremendous crash. My boat started sinking immediately. Water was up to my steering wheel. Just seconds later, I saw a large inboard-outboard boat behind me stopped in the water. We had just been hit. The boat that hit us was a 300HP 20ft Four Winns. The other boat’s speed at impact was fast enough to knock out most of the port side of my boat and break lose all but one ½ stainless steel bolt and tear 5/8-inch aircraft aluminum brackets holding my motor to the transom. In fact, the other boat went through, then over mine. I was told the crash was so loud that it could be heard a mile away.


As my boat settled, I reached out for Drew. We were both wearing life jackets. I felt his face, but I knew something was bad wrong. His eyes were wide open, but he was gone. The boat had struck him head-on. He never knew what happened. His little body was nearly cut in two. The next thing I remember is calling out to the boat that had just hit us and screaming, “You killed my son” as I held Drew. No response was given. I then remember two boats approaching us, but they were afraid to get too close. I tried swimming holding onto Drew but could not. So, I took the back of his life jacket and placed it in my mouth and held it with my teeth. I then placed him on my stomach so I could swim backwards. When we made it to the first boat, I asked for a towel so I could wrap it around him. As I sat on the boat with my son’s body, the people on the boat were playing music and drinking. I asked them if they would please turn off the music and they did. I sat there for the next hour waiting for DNR to arrive. No one ever spoke to me as I waited. When we made it to shore, I was asked if I wanted someone from DNR to go tell my wife. I said no, I would have to do that. So, I got a ride home and told my wife Karen. This was the hardest thing I had ever done. She wanted to go to him then, but he was transported to the hospital for an autopsy. I knew it was best that she did not see him until the funeral home had time to prepare his body, so I stalled her. We buried Drew two days later.


Early on in the course of the investigation, the investigators were about to charge me with the accident based on statements made by the occupants of the boat that hit us. You see, there were six of them and only one of me. I was interviewed by DNR on the second day after my son’s funeral. Before the interview, I was read my Myranda rights. Since I had nothing to hide, the interview lasted all day.


Some 30 days later, the investigators interviewed two couples from Aiken, passengers on the boat that hit us. That is when the truth finally started coming out. The two men were brothers and one worked for the owner of the boat. Their stories did not match. The investigators knew they were lying and threatened them with a cover-up if they did not tell the truth.


It came out that the couple that owned the boat, specifically the wife (the driver), said to her husband shortly after the crash and while I was still in the water with Drew “all the money is in my name”, you have to say you were driving the boat. The husband was supposed to have been driving since he was the only one sober, but he was not the driver. He passed a field sobriety test, but the true driver, the wife, was never tested. These people were also busy throwing beer cans in the lake before DNR arrived. It also came out that the boat that hit us had lost its stern light earlier in the day. The investigators learned that the occupants of the other boat had been drinking since about six that evening. They had just left one of the known watering holes in Hollow Creek because the place was closing. It was about 1 a.m. The investigation found that the three couples had perpetuated this lie for 30 days after the crash. The wife (driver of the boat) called the other two couples from Aiken several times to make sure they stuck to the story.

To strengthen their case, the investigators staged a complete reenactment of the crash using the repaired boat that hit us and another boat identical to mine but with the lights from my boat on it. The reenactment was filmed with both regular and night vision cameras with one or two helicopters. The reenactment found that the lights on my boat were visible from almost a mile away. During the reenactment, the person driving what would have been my boat never saw the other boat. He was called off at the last second to avoid being hit. I never saw the boat approaching that night either because of the shoreline houses and lights behind it. However, the lights on my boat were very visible because behind me was nothing but darkness.


The night of the crash, some 30 persons were interviewed that had witnessed the crash. The investigators told me that only two of them were not drunk.


Now the criminal trial. The female owner of the boat that hit us was charged with manslaughter because at that time there was no law addressing BUI. She was also charged with criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice and evidence tampering as well as a host of Coast Guard Rules. She was also charged with being intoxicated, but she was not tested the night of the crash. Her husband was charged with criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice and evidence tampering. In the pretrial arguments in the criminal trial, the judge ruled that if the state could not prove that the female operator of the boat was impaired, he would declare a mistrial. Remember she was never tested. The young inexperienced female prosecutor would not amend the charges. She was going for broke. Even though the criminal conspiracy carried a maximum penalty of 10 years, the penalty for manslaughter was only 5 years. If it had happened in a car, the maximum penalty at that time would have been 25 years. All the female prosecutor had to do was amend the charges and drop the intoxication charge, but she would not. Then as fast as the trial started, it ended with a plea. Both husband and wife agreed to plead guilty to all charges if no jail time was involved. Now the woman that killed my son would not spend a single day in jail. Both she and her husband were given six months house arrest and 5 years probation. The other two couples involved were never charged but could have faced criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice and evidence tampering.


I asked the prosecution if they went forward with the case and a mistrial resulted, how long would it take to retry the case. I was told there would be no retrial, the county was out of money. After the criminal trial and to this day that same female prosecutor in charge of the case has never spoken to us.


However, some good did come out of this. In what had to be the balancing act of the century, my wife and I lobbied the State House for stronger boating laws during the same time we were waiting for the criminal trial to start. We were successful and the Boating Safety and Reform Act of 1999 known as “Drew’s Law” was passed. Even more surprising, I wrote it. It passed on the last day of the session of the first year it was introduced. To this day, the law I wrote (Drew’s Law) is still the BUI law that all cases are tried under.


Now the civil trial. The civil trial was moved to Saluda County instead of Lexington County. The judge picked for the civil trial just so happened to be the same judge as in the criminal trial. A motion was made by the defense attorneys that the judge recuse himself, but the judge refused. The civil trial, like the criminal trial, ended almost as soon as it began. After the jury was picked, a few hours of testimony were given on the first day. The next day testimony began, but shortly afterward Karen began to cry. The judge called for a recess. After a short break, testimony began again and so did Karen. At that point, the judge stopped the trial. He stood up and called all of the attorneys into his chambers. There were eight or nine attorneys involved. I lost count. A short time later, my attorney came out and told us it was over. He told us that the judge said to all of the attorneys “Mrs. Smith has suffered enough”. One of the attorneys for the owners of the boat objected, stating that he could not agree to a settlement because the principal big-time attorney from Columbia was not in the courtroom. I was told the judge said that is fine, he would call the highway patrol and have him brought to Saluda immediately. We were asked if there was anything else we would like to say. I then told my attorney that I wanted all of the defendants to state on the record in court that I was not in any way whatsoever responsible for my son’s death. In addition, they would each have to state on the record in court their guilt and that they would publish this in the Greenwood Newspaper, the Aiken Newspaper and the State Newspaper. I was told by my attorney that in all of his years of practice, he had never seen a defendant admit guilt in court as part of a settlement. One of the women passengers from Aiken refused until one defense attorney told her if she did not do as instructed, the judge would find some way to put her in jail. She then begrudgingly cooperated.


Because of what happened that night and the fact that I was there, I have those images on a video playing in my head constantly. By the grace of God, I survived. The boat that hit us also went over me just barely missing my head. The woman that killed my son was a kindergarten teacher. When asked in court if she had anything to say, she said, “I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do.” The other two couples never apologized either.


Was justice served? HELL NO! Not only were we victimized in the death of Drew, we were also victimized in the criminal trial by the justice system. You may ask why anyone would subject himself or herself to what I have endured. I do it not for fame or notoriety. I truly wish no one knew my name, but my life was spared for a reason. Since the death of Drew and for years that followed, I have campaigned tirelessly for Boating Accident Victims. I have met and counseled far too many families to count. In 1999, I spent the entire year at the State House and continue today lobbying for stronger boating laws. If you follow my posts, you will notice there are only two pictures of me and none with politicians. That is because it’s not about me. I am not asking for your sympathy, only your understanding. I do this to honor my son. If my story causes people to think and one life is saved, then my work is worthwhile.


One out of three people will be affected by BUI or DUI in their lifetime. Stop the madness or your family may be next. Please join us by doing your part today and thank all of you that have supported my family.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Allen Trap, lead investigator with SCDNR, and Rick Hubbard with the 11th Circuit Court for their determined efforts in our case. I know how much it has affected both men. However, both were able to see the good things that came out of this tragedy. Karen and I have stayed in touch with both of them to this day.


Editor’s Note: Randall Smith is the founder of Boating Safety South Carolina. To this day, he works tirelessly within South Carolina’s political system so that others won’t have to experience the same pain that he and his wife have endured. You can find out more about Boating Safety South Carolina by going to their Facebook group page at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/469288324274212/permalink/822241838978857/


PHOTO CAPTION: Drew Smith

PHOTO CAPTION: The Smith's boat after it was struck

PHOTO CAPTION: The Smith's boat after it was struck


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