DARLINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — In the two years since her son was shot to death inside his girlfriend’s bedroom, Jessica Peavy’s continued looking for ways to accept her son’s death.
She also hasn’t stopped working to hold the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office accountable for what she described as a “nothing investigation” of her son’s shooting death on White Sands Circle in Hartsville on May 13, 2021.
Peavy’s latest accountability attempt: suing Sheriff James Hudson.
On May 9, Peavy’s attorney, Patrick McLaughlin, filed an 11-page lawsuit accusing Hudson of negligent supervision and reckless and intentional infliction of emotional distress stemming from the sheriff’s office’s handling of James’ death investigation.
The lawsuit alleges Hudson didn’t “properly supervise” former DCSO Investigator Heather Mays in her handling of the shooting investigation. Mays was the lead investigator in the case and has since left the sheriff’s office.
Mays was dispatched to the White Sands Circle crime scene after James’ girlfriend’s mother called 911, telling dispatchers he’d shot himself inside the bedroom of her mobile home in the northern part of Darlington County. Dispatch recordings show deputies described the shooting as “self-inflicted” in the dispatch recordings.
Dispatch records show Mays was on scene a little under 90 minutes.
The sheriff’s office incident report shows Cassie Escobar, James’ girlfriend, told deputies “that her boyfriend Caleb James was playing with his gun and accidentally shot himself,” Deputy Joshua Fix’s report shows. The report shows Mays listed as the investigator.
The incident report is also marked as no follow-up investigation.
Escobar was not arrested that night. The sheriff’s office confirmed to Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr that gun shot residue testing was performed on both Escobar and James the night of the shooting.
Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee sent James’ body to the pathologist for an autopsy, which Hardee said he rarely does in suicide cases. This case, Hardee said, wasn’t a suicide, although he said the sheriff’s office believed it was.
The night of the shooting, Hardee’s deputy coroner went to the shooting scene, and the coroner’s office opened its own investigation. Neither Hardee nor his deputy coroner believed Caleb James shot himself.
“It came to us that perhaps that this young man had done this to himself. And after we were told that, the evidence didn’t point me in that direction,” Hardee told QCN during an interview in February 2022. “So that’s why I decided I would look otherwise. That’s what caused me to, to kind of take a second look into it.”
“A couple hours after the incident occurred is when I decided we would take a closer look at it; things didn’t add up to me. It didn’t look like he had taken his own life, that he had actually pulled the trigger. I didn’t think he did,” Hardee said.
The coroner’s office continued investigating in the days following the shooting. When the autopsy report came back, Hardee said everything changed.
“I wanted the pathologists to kind of take a look at it. To say, either you’re right, Todd, or you’re wrong… it led us to the fact that that he didn’t shoot himself. But that lends back to the accidental or the non-accidental; it’s either an accident or it’s not,” Hardee said.
Hardee then asked Escobar if she’d take a polygraph at the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division headquarters office in Columbia. Escobar agreed.
“Sometimes, law enforcement investigators may go in one direction, and our investigation may go in another. But just because it goes one way with them doesn’t mean we follow. That means that we’re an entity in and of ourselves, that we have to determine how this person died. And in this case, the only way we could find out was a polygraph, and the only way we could get the polygraph was for me to order it. I’m certainly within my boundaries to do so. I can order a polygraph. I can do a lot of things. I normally don’t, but I did because I can,” Hardee told Barr.
The polygraph was set for June 2, 2022. While there, Hardee said Escobar changed her story about what happened that night after the polygraph results showed “Deception Indicated,” according to the SLED polygraph report.
“The examinee was advised of the results of the test. The examinee confessed that she and the victim have a history of playing with the firearm when empty and acting like they are shooting each other,” the polygraph examiner wrote in a report. Escobar “stated that at the time of the incident the victim cocked the pistol, pointed it at her and pulled the trigger. There was an audible click as usual, and a few seconds later the victim handed the pistol to her.”
Escobar told law enforcement James told her to shoot him and she asked James if the gun was empty. James confirmed it wasn’t loaded, according to SLED. When she pulled the trigger, the gun fired sending a round into James’ cheek.
The bullet would become lodged into James’ brain, Hardee said.
Escobar told SLED that James “was depressed and has threatened suicide numerous times.” Escobar said she “wanted to be honest” with investigators from the start, but was “scared.”
Mays and another coroner’s office employee both attended the polygraph examination. Hardee said he got a call from his employee immediately after the polygraph where he learned Escobar had changed her story and confessed to shooting Caleb James.
Hardee said he ordered the sheriff’s office charge Escobar that day. Escobar was charged with involuntary manslaughter, spent the night in jail, and bonded out under a $25,000 bond the next day.
EVIDENCE OF A ‘NOTHING INVESTIGATION’
“DCSO did not assist in Coroner Hardee’s investigation, instead failing to follow even the most basic of investigative protocols, such as basic evidence control. For example, after the autopsy, Caleb’s bloody clothing and mobile phone were returned to the Plaintiff,” the Peavy lawsuit alleges.
After the autopsy, James’ body was taken back to a funeral home in Hartsville. A plastic bag was also returned with his body and the funeral home gave the bag to Jessica Peavy.
Inside the bag was a blood stained T-shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and what was likely a crucial piece of evidence the sheriff’s office did not collect.
“I rode home with the clothes in my lap and whenever I got home, I started scrubbing the clothes to preserve them, and inside the bag was his clothes and the cellphone,” Peavy told QCN last year. She charged her son’s cellphone and started reading messages between her son and Escobar in the days and hours leading up to his death.
The lawsuit accused Hudson and his department of negligence in how it handled the clothes and cellphone evidence. Not collecting any of it was ignoring “basic evidence control,” McLaughlin wrote in the lawsuit.
Peavy said Mays refused to take the phone and place it into evidence in the days after Peavy found it in her son’s bloody clothes bag.
“DCSO’s assigned investigator, Heather Mays, knew basic evidence control was not followed, as the Plaintiff told her she had Caleb’s mobile phone and that there were relevant messages on the phone that revealed jealous and violent threats made by Escobar against Caleb. Despite the potential importance of the evidence on Caleb’s mobile phone, Mays refused to accept the phone from the Plaintiff,” the lawsuit alleges.
Peavy also told QCN that Mays never took a formal statement from her or any of her other family members. Instead, Peavy said Mays left “a stack” of witness statements for her and her family to fill out and return to Mays some time later.
“I would say the moment that turned me off from the investigator assigned is: one, I think it was the same day, we tried to give her the cellphone and she said that she couldn’t take it because she needed a search warrant from Chesterfield County because we live in Chesterfield County and that just didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. But then she handed us a stack of voluntary statement forms and asked us to hand them out and get people to fill them out and then send them back to her when they got finished with them. And I’m like, ‘Who does that? Nobody does that.’ You got to be a witness to their statement,” Brandon Peavy told QCN.
Brandon was a homicide investigator with the DCSO, but left years ago to work in the private sector. Peavy was not with the sheriff’s office at the time of the shooting and worked under a prior sheriff.
The Peavys said they asked Mays several times to take James’ cellphone and to take the time to read the messages. When she wouldn’t take the phone, the Peavys went up Mays’ chain of command.
“We printed off all the messages, put them on several USBs. I gave some of the messages and the USB to the investigator. I took some, gave them to Todd Hardee and we had a meeting with him. And then I went to the sheriff’s office, I was calling every day, I went down there until I spoke with someone to tell them something is going on. And they just brushed it off,” Jessica said.
The Peavys still have the stack of witness statements they said Mays left with them. Jessica filled her statement out, but her copy shows Mays didn’t witness it as the signature line is empty.
Sheriff James Hudson initially agreed to an interview with QCN on Feb. 9, 2022. Hudson, though, would not allow us to bring cameras into the sheriff’s office once we arrived, instead asking to meet in a conference room with him, Chief Deputy Chad McInville, and Major David Young.
All three admitted providing witness statements to crime victims is not complying with DCSO policy. The sheriff said he’d question Mays about the Peavys allegations following our meeting.
There is no evidence in Mays’ personnel file showing the sheriff discussed anything with Mays about the James death investigation.
Mays would resign from the sheriff’s office.
SOLICITOR TAKES INVESTIGATION OVER
In the months following Cassie Escobar’s arrest, Peavy continued working to get someone in law enforcement to pursue an investigation into the text messages she found on her son’s phone. The messages contained evidence of a volatile, dangerous relationship between her son and Escobar.
The Fourth Circuit Solicitor’s Office Deputy Solicitor Kernard Redmond met with Jessica Peavy and decided to investigate the messages and to verify whether Peavy’s allegations regarding Escobar held merit.
On Jan. 14, 2022, Redmond sought a search warrant for Escobar’s cellphone and the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office seized the phone the same day. The DCSO never seized Escobar’s cellphone, Redmond confirmed to QCN.
One month later, Redmond presented his case to the Darlington County Grand Jury where the grand jury returned a murder indictment against Escobar on Feb. 17, 2022.
Like the involuntary manslaughter charge, the murder indictment came – not as a result of an investigation by the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office – after Deputy Solicitor Kernard Redmond took over the investigation and prosecution.
Escobar was released on bond the day following her indictment. Although her charge was upgraded to murder, her $25,000 bond remained unchanged.
Jessica Peavy left the courtroom that day and went straight to the sheriff’s office to find Sheriff Hudson. Peavy went armed with her cellphone camera’s video recorder rolling.
Hudson was not available, but Chief Deputy Chad McInville stepped into the lobby to talk with Jessica and her husband, Brandon.
“I have a lot of questions I need answered,” Peavy told DCSO Chief Deputy Chad McInville. “Yeah and I agree. And I think Jody getting involved will hurt the thing more than it will help, so I’m just saying. I just, I don’t want that by no means,” the chief told her.
McInville expressed concern over our ‘The Confession’ report of his office’s handling of the investigation and how it could jeopardize Escobar’s prosecution by “doing the defense’s job.”
“I just have questions I need answered,” Peavy told McInville, “That’s fine. Like I say, I wish we could – probably could have talked about it before Jody does anything to hurt the case. Because I was – just me and you talking – I really believe he’s going to do nothing but hurt the case. He’ll pick stuff apart and he’s not – Jody’s not there for you, he’s not there for anybody but a story. And it could hurt the case. That’s the bottom line,” McInville replied.
JESSICA PEAVY: “Chad, this office has pushed me (unintelligible) for months.”
MCINVILLE: “I could imagine.”
JESSICA PEAVY: “I’m the one that found the cellphone and the coroner even told me something wasn’t right about this…”
MCINVILLE: “Well, nobody thought this – nothing wasn’t right that night, but his cellphone I wish it would have went – most of the time with autopsies, you might remember, remember we picked up autopsy we take everything straight to SLED.”
BRANDON PEAVY: “That’s part of it, you know, there’s so much s–t that wasn’t done right.”
JESSICA PEAVY: “I shouldn’t have got his clothes and cellphone.”
MCINVILLE: “You shouldn’t. It should have went straight to SLED like we used to do it, used to.”
JESSICA PEAVY: “I had to find all those messages and I had to clean his bloody clothes and I brought that phone here with the messages and I begged somebody to look at it.”
On Feb. 21, Peavy texted Sheriff Hudson to ask for a meeting. Hudson agreed, Peavy said, but when she asked Hudson to invite Coroner Todd Hardee, Peavy said Hudson never responded.
The following day, Peavy recorded a phone call with the sheriff where Hudson admitted what his office did with the evidence in her son’s death investigation is “…not how we supposed to do things.”
Hudson claimed in the call he didn’t know “a staff officer go on a homicide and then he left the scene,” the recording shows. Peavy was referring to Major David Young who she said she saw on scene the night of the shooting. “I’m definitely going to check that out,” Hudson told Peavy.
Peavy also complained to Hudson about his investigator not taking her son’s cellphone into evidence on scene that night.
HUDSON: “That’s something else I’ve been hearing about, too, and I’m trying to figure out why didn’t she take the cellphone and why Mrs. Peavy get the cellphone back after it came back from autopsy.”
PEAVY: “Yeah, because I should’ve never got it back, but I think my biggest thing –”.
HUDSON: “No, ma’am, you shouldn’t have never got that back. I’m glad you opened the door on that Mrs. Peavy because that’s another thing I got hammered on. You should have never got that phone back. That phone should have went straight to evidence.”
Hudson ended the call by giving Peavy his assurances the DCSO will cooperate with the solicitor’s office in the prosecution, “I’m with you all the way Mrs. Peavy and I told Kernard that. I even told Jody Barr that, I’m with Mrs. Peavy all the way and I don’t know what else I can say to prove that to you, but I’m with you.”
Peavy turned her recordings over to her attorney. Those recordings are now a part of the lawsuit between Peavy and the sheriff’s office.
“Those criminal charges were brought in spite of DCSO’s gross negligence in this matter. Gross negligence so apparent that both DCSO’s Chief Deputy, Chad McInville, and Sheriff HUDSON personally admitted to the Plaintiff the obvious failures to follow basic investigative/evidence protocols. Specifically, but not limited to both having admitted that Caleb’s phone should have never been returned and should have instead been collected as evidence,” McLaughlin wrote in the May 9 civil complaint.
Neither Hudson nor Investigator Heather Mays would agree to be interviewed for any of our ‘The Confession’ reports.
THE SHERIFF ‘LIED’
Our ‘The Confession’ investigation aired on March 4, 2022. On March 31, 2022, Investigator Heather Mays resigned from the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office.
Mays gave no reason for her resignation; she wrote that her last day was set for April 14.
On April 6, we asked Mays for an interview ahead of a follow-up report we were preparing to publish on James’ death investigation. Instead of responding, Mays posted a public response on her Facebook account, acknowledging she’d resigned from the sheriff’s office.
Mays criticized our report writing that it “wrongly portrayed me as incompetent, untrained, and all around unqualified to perform my duties as an investigator in this state. I am aware you (and a few others) have a fixation on destroying the reputation of the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office, as well as diminishing the citizen’s [sic] confidence in Sheriff James Hudson,” Mays continued.
“I chose to publicly respond to you on a platform where my words will remain my own, and not changed to fit your agenda. My resignation is solely to take by my Freedom of Speech and expose some of the people in Darlington County for who they really are. I refuse to allow the deficiencies and incompetence of other organizations in this are to use me as a scapegoat as Todd Hardee and your story “The Confession” did.”Heather Mays, former Darlington County Sheriff’s Office Investigator
Peavy saw Mays’ post and said she was shocked at some of the people who she saw had reacted to it, “Roommates, people who live with her, work with her, her family,” Peavy said in a July 2022 interview with QCN.
“He said, ‘I can’t comment on Caleb’s death.’ I said this isn’t about Caleb’s death; I said this is about your investigator on social media posting about my son’s case and ‘The Confession’ and my son’s murderer’s family’s the first people to like it. I was like, that’s very unprofessional,” Peavy told Barr. “‘Well, Mrs. Peavy, she’s no longer employed with the sheriff’s office, so there’s nothing I can do about it,'” Peavy said Hudson told her in the April 8 call.
“I said, ‘So, she’s no longer employed with you?’ He said no, he said, ‘As of today, she’s no longer employed with me,'” Peavy recalled Hudson telling her.
Mays’ Facebook post is included in the lawsuit Peavy filed against the sheriff’s office on May 9, 2023.
“It was extremely upsetting to the Plaintiff, salt in the wound if you will, to see Mays, a DCSO employee, defend an investigation that DCSO’s McInville and HUDSON had admitted was fundamentally flawed and which, if it had been the lone investigation, would have never resulted in Escobar’s confession or the criminal charges pending against Escobar for Caleb’s death, and then to see friends/family of Escobar supporting that post,” the lawsuit stated.
Peavy said on April 11, three days after her call with the sheriff, a tipster sent her video of Mays working a funeral escort wearing a sheriff’s department uniform and driving a county patrol SUV, “I found out that was a lie; I was tipped off. People sent me messages and told me that they seen the investigator working in the county vehicle,” Peavy said.
The following day, Peavy said she saw Mays in the DCSO patrol SUV, “I was on my way to town, and I passed her myself – in the county vehicle. So, I turned around, went by her home; she lives not far from me, and there she was: standing on her porch in the county uniform with the county vehicle in her yard.”
Peavy took a picture of Mays on the porch and the SUV in the driveway. Peavy said the prosecutor informed her Mays filed a police report over the April 12 drive-by. Peavy was not charged with any crime related to that.
“It was just another notch in the belt. It was another lie,” Peavy told QCN.
We asked Hudson multiple times if he wanted to comment on the statements Peavy made about their conversations following the April 2022 calls concerning Mays’ Facebook comment. Hudson never responded to our offers to have his comments included in our reporting.
Peavy’s attorney wrote that Hudson intentionally “lied” about Mays’ employment status after finding out about the Facebook post because “… the conduct of their agent/employee commenting on social media was wrong, atrocious and intolerable to the point they lied about the individual being employed by DCSO at the time of the comments.”
“HUDSON made those comments knowing them to be untrue and knowing, or should have known, that if the Plaintiff found out that individual was still employed by DCSO, it would cause further unnecessary emotional harm to a grieving mother. “… Defendants’ conduct was so extreme and outrageous as to exceed all possible bounds of decency and must be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the lawsuit continued.
The emotional toll this all had on Peavy “… was severe so that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it,” McLaughlin wrote in the civil complaint.
“… the Defendants’ failure to properly supervise Mays led to prolonged and exacerbated emotional suffering by the Plaintiff. Specifically, but not limited to Mays and other DCSO agents/employees unwillingness to treat the death of the Plaintiff’s son as a crime and properly investigate the matter, as well as allowing Mays to publicly comment and defend admitted failures by DCSO in the investigation of the Plaintiff’s son, in an effort to deflect from DCSO’s failures in investigating the crime,” the lawsuit stated.
Hudson initially agreed to send a statement to respond to the “four corners” of the Peavy lawsuit, but a few days later, Hudson emailed Barr to decline comment, explaining his attorney advised him to not say anything about the case.
Hudson’s formal response to the lawsuit is due to the court within the next three weeks.