Police recordings detail pursuit that led to Chamberlain Branch's death

The scene of the collision. (Source: South Carolina Highway Patrol)
The scene of the collision. (Source: South Carolina Highway Patrol)
Chamberlain Branch (Source: Facebook)
Chamberlain Branch (Source: Facebook)
Shyborn K. Belton (Source: Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center)
Shyborn K. Belton (Source: Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center)
The accident scene.
The accident scene.

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The South Carolina Highway Patrol has determined the deceased driver who slammed into a Governor's Mansion Complex supervisor's van while fleeing from police is solely responsible for his death and the events that led up to the collision.

Eight weeks after 48-year-old Chamberlain Branch's life was taken because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, investigators have released their report into the December 14 collision.

The Highway Patrol's Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team concluded a Cayce Department of Public Safety officer was not at fault when he made the decision to pursue 23-year-old Shyborn Belton after seeing him driving with no lights after midnight on Knox Abbott Drive.

The pursuit abruptly ended just minutes later in Columbia with a fiery three-vehicle crash that left two people dead and several others injured at the intersection of Blossom Street and Huger Street.

According to the MAIT report obtained by WIS through a Freedom of Information Act request, the pursuit started after Cpl. John Reese and his officer in training Luis Feliciano saw a blue 2011 Hyundai driving with its headlights off on Knox Abbott Drive.

Reese said in an interview with troopers that he turned on his patrol cruiser's blue lights and the driver didn't stop. At that point, the driver, later identified as Belton, did not speed up or slow down.

Once Belton didn't stop, Reese said he turned on his sirens and left them on. Belton then sped up on Knox Abbott Drive and across the bridge into Columbia. Reese told troopers he slowed down so there would be no accident, but he said the suspect driver never slowed down.

As they approached Blossom and Huger streets, Reese said one driver saw them coming and stopped. However, Branch began crossing over Blossom Street because he had a green light, and that's when the suspect car T-boned Branch's vehicle on the driver's side door.

The collision continued north into a Dodge mini-van taxi that was traveling south on Blossom Street. Branch's van then hit the Columbia Antique Mall and caught fire.

Reese said he immediately got out of his patrol car and went to Branch's vehicle because of the fire. He said Branch was unresponsive when he got to the vehicle and he could not get Branch to wake up. Reese told troopers he tried every door and could not get in the vehicle to get Branch.

Branch died at the scene.

Belton also died at the scene. Two females and one male in the Hyundai vehicle were taken to the hospital in critical condition. There current conditions are not known.

Reese said he didn't look at his speedometer during the pursuit because he was focused on the car they were chasing, but he estimated his speed at 60-70 mph.

MAIT investigators said the speedometer in Belton's vehicle was stuck at 95 mph, which was likely the speed he was traveling at the time of the impact.

Officers found a loaded .38-caliber gun and crack cocaine in Belton's car. They later determined the vehicle had been stolen from Columbia and that Belton was driving under suspension.

According to online court records, Belton was most recently arrested in Richland County for possession of crack. That charge came on Nov. 28. Belton was also charged with unlawful carrying of a weapon and possession of a stolen pistol in April. Since 2007, he had been convicted of various other charges including larceny, burglary, and resisting arrest.

At the time of the collision, Cayce police investigators said they determined departmental policy and procedures regarding vehicle pursuit were followed by the officers involved. Highway Patrol investigators agreed.

Cayce Department of Public Safety pursuit guidelines state while officers are obligated to make a reasonable attempt to pursue a suspicious suspect or vehicle, "officers should recognize that their focus during a pursuit should remain on the safe conclusion of a pursuit."

In this case, the pursuit was less than a mile in length. Cpl. Reese did not have much time to make many decisions. In fact, the pursuit lasted just over a minute and a half.

WIS also obtained video and audio from Cpl. Reese's patrol vehicle. The video portion of the recording was not working the night of the incident, but the audio was functioning.

At the 12:30:33 a.m. mark on the cruiser's camera system display, the officers notice the Hyundai Belton was driving near the intersection of Knox Abbott Drive and State Street.

"Look at this car," said Reese to his officer in training, Luis Feliciano. "Let's go get that car," continued Reese. "No lights?" asked Feliciano. "Yep," said Reese.

Seconds later, Reese reports to headquarters on his police radio that he has unsuccessfully attempted to stop the vehicle. "Alright, headquarters, be advised we got one that's not stopping," said Reese as he sped up to get behind the Hyundai on Knox Abbot Drive.

He then reports the pursuit is heading toward Columbia and gives dispatch the reason he tried to pull the vehicle over. "No headlights right now," said Reese.

A minute and a half after Reese decides to try to pull Belton over, he starts to realize the pursuit may be getting too dangerous.

Department policy affords officers the responsibility to cancel the pursuit for several reasons.

An officer should consider "the seriousness of the original offense" and its "relationship to community safety" when making the determination to continue chasing somebody, the manual states.

At 12:32:13 a.m., a partially inaudible transmission gives some evidence that Reese is shutting down the pursuit. In an interview with troopers, Reese said he slowed down so there would be no accident, but he said the suspect driver never slowed down.

Just four seconds later, Reese and his officer in training witness the horrific collision. "10-50! (a police code for 'accident') 10-50! 10-50! 10-50!" shouts Reese. He then reports to dispatch that the crash happened "right at the light."

"Be advised, I got a vehicle on fire," reports Reese to headquarters. "We're in Columbia. I got vehicle entrapment. Entrapment with a vehicle on fire."

Reese then runs to Chamberlain Branch's van and tries to get his attention.

"Sir, can you hear me?" Branch does not respond. Reese then calls emergency crews arriving on the scene to the van to try to help Branch.

At that point, Branch was likely already dead, the victim of a crash he never saw coming.

Kermit White, the driver of the Capital City Cab van that was also involved in the collision, said he believed Branch could not see the speeding vehicle that ultimately disregarded the red light and slammed into him.

Reese also discovered Belton also lay dead in the stolen vehicle he was driving. His ex-girlfriend reportedly admitted that some in the group had been doing drugs earlier that night.

Results of testing done on blood samples taken from Belton have not yet been made available to the Highway Patrol.

An attorney for the Cayce Department of Safety said Friday afternoon that the agency had not seen the report. As of this report, Cayce DPS still has no comment on the incident or the investigation.

Branch leaves a wife and three children. He served governors Jim Hodges, Mark Sanford, and Nikki Haley. He supervised the Governor's Mansion, seeing to whatever the first families or their guests requested.

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