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The murder of a migrant worker.

Beaufort country had many farms and therefore had many migrant workers in the summer months. These workers would live on the farms where they were working. That is if you could call what they did living. They were housed in run down shabby shacks on most farms. Some were better than others, but none of them were very good.

The camps as they were called would house anywhere from about 20 to 50 workers, depending on the size of the farm. Many of the camps had long buildings which were cut up into rooms, somewhat in the design of a motel, but no where as nice. Some rooms had bathrooms and others did not.

These people worked hard during the day and most of them had no transportation. So they would spend their days and nights in the camps. Usually one person (the leader or foreman) would have a beat up car that he could use to go into town and buy supplies. The alcohol use in these camps was very high. They survived by working hard and drinking hard. Most of the people in each camp were related somehow to someone else in the camp. Many whole families, including uncles and aunts.

One night I got a report of a shooting in one of the camps. This was not too unusual, because of the alcohol use, it was pretty common for someone to get cut or shot at times. Most of the time the wounds were minor and we never even heard about the incident, but if the person needed medical assistance then we were notified.

I arrived on the scene before the EMS personnel and found a man dead from a gun shot wound. I tried to find out what had happened, but no one spoke English. Or at least no one would admit to speaking English in the camp. None of the officers working that night spoke Spanish, but a dispatcher did, so I had another officer pick him up and bring him to the scene.

I had him translate for me and I asked the people what had happened. At first I got a very sketchy story. The dead man was about 20 years old. He had gotten drunk and gone over to another building where there was a girl of about 17 years of age.

The girl lived with her uncle and a couple of other younger kids. The uncle did not like this man and forbid him to talk to his niece. This evening the girl was in the bathroom which had a window. The man came over and was talking to her, trying to get her to climb out of the window and go somewhere with him. The uncle who was in the other room heard voices and walked outside to see what was going on. He saw the man and told him to leave but the man cursed at him and said he would not leave.

The uncle went inside and got his machete and came back outside. The man still refused to leave so the uncle too a couple of swings at him, cutting him on the upper right arm and on the right side. The man ran off saying that he was going to get his gun.

That much of the story seemed to be the same from everyone we spoke to, but at that point on it depended who you spoke to. The dead man was found outside on the ground with a bullet hole to the chest.

The uncle claimed that the man had come back to his room with a gun and that he met him outside and a shootout occurred during which he shot and killed the man in self defense. The girl claimed that this was true, but something about the way she was acting made me feel that she was not telling the truth.

Several other people who it was obvious did not want to get involved and who had not heard the uncle's story related that after the man went to his room to get his gun (supposedly) that the uncle had gone to the man's room and then they had heard shots and then saw the man dead in the driveway.

The Coroner was notified and came to the scene and pronounced the victim dead on the scene. I called the dispatcher and requested a detective be sent out to the scene, however, I was informed that the case was mine, since they were over extended. I took all the crime scene photos and sketched out the crime scene, etc... Then I got permission from the owner of the property to look in the victim's room.

We entered and looked for a weapon, but could not find one. As we were looking around, the brother of the victim came in. He claimed that his brother had come running back to the room claiming that the uncle was going to kill him. Moments later the uncle came busting into the room and shot at his brother two or three times.

We asked if he brother had a gun and the brother said he did but that he had not had it when the uncle killed him. I asked for the gun and the brother produced it. It had not been fired. I took it as evidence and looked around the room. I had the brother act out what had happened and then I looked for bullet holes in the room. The brother claimed that the uncle had fired at least two or even three times. The victim had only one gunshot wound to the chest, so if there were other shots there should be evidence of it in the room. I could not find any holes or bullets anywhere in the room.

I asked the brother how the victim got outside if he was shot in the room. He said that after he was shot his brother ran out of the room and soon collapsed in the drive outside. I looked for blood in the room but again found none. I had noticed that the wound had very little blood around it and the victim's shirt had very little blood on it too.

We could not find another witness who would admit to seeing what happened. We did talk to everyone in the rooms around the victims building and they did say that they heard several gun shots, not just one. They also told us that the shots sounded like they were right in or near this building. This contradicted what the uncle had said, which was that the shooting occurred right outside of his room.

The original call had come in about 1:00 a.m. and it was now about 5:00 a.m. I was informed by the Coroner that the autopsy would be held at 10:00 a.m. if I wanted to document it. If this turned out to be a murder, I would need pictures of the autopsy for court. I had the dispatcher/interpreter inform everyone involved that I might be back to speak to them again later.

I took the dispatcher home and grabbed a quick bit to eat and then headed to the hospital morgue. The autopsy started a little after 10:00 a.m. and lasted about four hours. The victim had been shot once in the chest. The .22 caliber bullet had entered the left side of the chest passed through the left lung, completely through the heart and right lung and was found in the chest cavity. The chest cavity was full of blood. The man had died from loss of blood internally. That was why there was so little blood at the scene.

There were no other gunshot wounds. There were two lacerations on the victim, one on the right arm and one on the lower right side of the chest under the right arm. This was consistent with the machete wounds the uncle claimed to have given the victim.

By the time I got out of the hospital it was after 3:00 p.m. and I had still not written the first word on my report of the incident. I headed for the Sheriff's Department offices. I had to tag and log in all my evidence, turn in the film of the crime scene and the autopsy and write my preliminary report. I finished up around 7:00 p.m and headed for home.

I had been at work since 11:00 p.m. the evening before. Luckily this was my night off so I did not have to come back on duty this evening. I was just about a block from my home when the dispatcher called me. She had received a call from the farmer stating that the brother of the victim was requesting to speak to me at the migrant camp. I asked the dispatcher to call the off duty dispatcher that had helped me the night before and see if he would accompany me to translate for me. He was contacted and said he would go with me. I picked him up and we headed back to the camp.

When we arrived the brother of the victim as very excited. He had us come into his room and then he handed me a hand held hair dryer. He was speaking very rapidly to the dispatcher who was just nodding his head. Then the dispatcher turned to me and said, shake the hair dryer. When I did I heard something rattling around inside of it. The dispatcher related that the brother had been about to use the blow dryer when he heard something inside of it. He looked through the back and thought he saw a bullet.

I looked at the dryer very carefully. It was white and the back of it was round and the front had the cone where the hot air came out. In the middle of the round back part was a seam where the plastic came together. I slowly turned the dryer around in my hand and I saw a small indentation right at the seam where the two pieces came together. Then I saw a very fine black mark running from the direction of the cone towards the back and disappearing at the seam.

I wrote down where the brother told me the dryer had been before he picked it up. It was behind and to the side of where he had told me his brother had been shot. I took it into evidence and took it to the office, where I was able to get it open. Sure enough there inside of the dryer was a spent .22 caliber slug. It appeared that it had hit the dryer at just the right angle to force itself through the seam without breaking the plastic.

This piece of evident collaborated the brother's story of what had occurred. It showed that the uncle had lied about where the shooting had happened. I felt that I now had a strong enough case to obtain a warrant. I wrote up a supplemental report to document the new evidence. And finally went home to bed 24 hours after having started my shift the night before.

The next afternoon, I took my evidence and report and went before the local Magistrate to obtain an arrest warrant for murder. I was able to obtain the warrant and two other officers and I went and arrested the uncle.

Since I did not have a Detective assigned to the case, I had to go back and get further statements from the other people at the camp. I had to do this on my own time because I had other calls to answer while on duty.

I had several more interviews with the uncle and he finally told us that he had run to the victim's room and shot him there, but he still claimed it was in self defense. I took my evidence before the grand jury and they returned an indictment for murder.

The case came to court at the next General Sessions Court which was about two months later. The case went to a jury trial, with public defenders defending the uncle. The prosecutions case lasted about a day and a half, as I recounted my investigation of the incident and we called the brother as a witness. The brother testified that the victim had run into the room saying that the defendant was going to kill him and that moments later the defendant did run into the room and started shooting. The brother stated that his brother never touched his gun that evening. The medical evidence was also presented. Including a test of the victim's hands which proved that he had not fired a gun the night he was murdered.

The Defense started by calling witnesses who testified that the victim had come over to the uncle's room and had been drunk. That he would not leave although he was asked to do so repeatedly. They testified that they heard him scream when the uncle cut him with the machete and that he said something about a gun. The defendant took the stand and claimed that after he cut the victim with the machete he had said he was going to get his gun and that he (the defendant) had feared for his life so he got his gun and ran to the man's room and a shootout occurred there.

The Defense then called a Catholic Nun to the stand. She worked in Charleston, S.C. which is about 70 miles north of Beaufort. She worked with migrant workers and their families. She testified about how bad a life the migrant workers lived. Then she testified about how Police Officer felt about the migrant workers. I could hardly believe what I was hearing.

Here was a person who had never been a Police Officer testifying in a murder case as to how I felt about the victim and the defendant. She told the jury that Police Officers had no use for migrants, that we viewed them as drunks and trouble makers. That we would not spend time dealing with their problems, we just rushed through investigates concerning them because no one cared. She said that we did not care if they fought between themselves as long as we did not have to do any paper work on it. She said that we did not even really care if they killed each other except that it caused us paper work and therefore someone had to be held accountable.

It was all I could do to remain silent through all of this. This woman had no idea how many of my own off duty hours I had spent trying to solve this case. Trying to get to the truth and to make sure that justice was done. She had no idea how I felt about these people. I hated the living conditions that they had to endure, but I could not do anything about it. I could at least try to bring to justice the person who had taken a life.

In the end the jury acquitted the defendant of the charge of murder. I knew it was a good case. I knew that this man had shot and killed the victim in his own home (room) after breaking in. But it didn't matter what I knew it mattered what the jury said.

After all those hours of investigation, the jury believed that the Police did not really care about these people and therefore could not be trusted to bring legitimate charges against them. All they proved to me was that they (the jury) did not care enough about these people to give a fair and impartial hearing to the case.

After the verdict the brother of the victim came up to me. The dispatcher was standing by me to he again interpreted what the man said. The brother held out his hand and his eyes filled with tears as he thanked me for helping him and his brother.

I felt very empty as I accepted his thanks. I had done nothing for him or his brother. Maybe if I had been able to get a Detective assigned to the case, or maybe if I had been a better investigator, or maybe if I had conducted more interviews, or maybe if I had written my reports better, or maybe if .... we might have been able to get a conviction.

I have thought about this case often in the years since it happened. I believed when it happened and I still believe that it just shows how little the general public understand the Police who are sworn to protect them. They seem very quick to attribute ulterior motives to the things we do. Was it really so hard to believe that I (and the other officers involved) truly wanted justice done and did care about the death of a migrant worker? Was it really so hard to believe that most if not all of us did this job because we cared?

Here are some facts about the time in which I was a Police Officer in South Carolina. Some of these things have thankfully changed since then, but they were in effect when I was a Deputy Sheriff. We worked as salaried employees, meaning that no matter how much overtime we put in, we got the same pay check every two weeks. We did not get comp time for the extra hours we worked because we were too short handed. When I started we worked a permanent shift (either nights or days). I worked from 9:00 p.m until 8 a.m. The day shift was from 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. Half of the night shift came to work at 7:00 p.m. and worked until 6:00 a.m. and the rest of us came on duty at 9:00 p.m and worked until 8:00 a.m. Those of us who worked either of the two night shifts had to attend court on our own time, because it was only held during the day.

Two years after I started work we were able to hire a few more Deputies and made three shifts. The day shift (8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) The 4 to 12 shift (4:00 p.m. until midnight) and the graveyard shift (midnight to 8:00 a.m.).

Ralph L. Dettwiler
(Former) Sergeant
Beaufort County Sheriff's Department
Beaufort, South Carolina

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