WIS Investigates: Cash, cell phone helped mental health patient escape

Source: Williamson County, TN, Sheriff's Office
Source: Williamson County, TN, Sheriff's Office

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A patient at a state mental health facility was able to save thousands of dollars and buy a cell phone, which led to his escape from a facility in a state vehicle in January, according to a State Law Enforcement Division investigation. 

A SLED report released to WIS following a Freedom of Information request showed Jason Carter's escape was plotted and included half a dozen contraband items, like a bank ATM card, to complete his escape.

Carter was charged in 2006 for the murder of his mother and stepfather in Oconee County. In 2009, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. That claim, Carter told SLED investigators, was his only hope of escaping a murder conviction.

Carter escaped state mental health custody for 24 hours and was found in Tennessee. He was later brought back to South Carolina. After Carter was read his rights, he agreed to talk to SLED investigators dating back to his commitment to Bryan Psychiatric Hospital in 2009.

Carter claimed his then-attorney said he couldn't win a murder trial in Oconee County, and he had a psychiatrist who would guarantee Carter a not guilty by reason of insanity result. While the Tenth Circuit has what Solicitor Chrissy Adams calls "an excellent conviction rate," she claims a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist evaluated Carter. Experts tell WIS typically more than one psychiatrist evaluates these cases.

"The statute does provide for the defendant to choose their own expert, but of course, the court can also choose other experts that would be court experts also," said Kenneth Gaines, a University of South Carolina law school professor. "They could choose more than one."

Carter denies taking the state Mental Health Department's van in his January escape, but the SLED report indicates he was familiar with where the vehicle was found – at the end of a large shopping plaza. Investigators think Carter took keys from the desk of a vacationing employee. Those keys were never reported missing and only replaced. However, they were located in the stolen van.

It was contraband items, administrators admit, that allowed Carter to escape and get to Tennessee.

"One thing they're not allowed to have, while they're in the hospital, is a bank card or a credit card for that matter, and it appeared that he had a current bank card and that he'd gotten that card through the mail," said Mark Binkley, a Mental Health Department deputy director. "We can't pre-inspect the mail, but it was our policy and still is our policy to standby while the patients open the mail to make sure no contraband items come into the hospital."

Carter called for a cab with a cell phone he purchased while in a state work program. He requested the cab take him from the Domino's Pizza branch on Main Street in Columbia to the 1200 block of State Street in Cayce. Carter then used a trader magazine to find a car for sale in Orangeburg and went to an ATM to get $2,000 to buy it. Phone records show Carter used the cell phone to call for another cab at the AMF Bowling Alley to take him to Orangeburg, which was an $80 ride that he paid for in cash.

"While the staff was shopping for supplies, [Carter] went and purchased a cell phone at one of the stores they were shopping at," Binkley said. "Again, cell phones are not allowed. They are contraband items."

Carter also had a Social Security card and a driver's license on him.

From Orangeburg, he drove more than 500 miles to Tennessee before SLED caught up with him the next morning at a motel.

WIS' investigation uncovered Carter had a lot of freedoms because employees described him as likable. They also didn't know he was acquitted of murder. Carter was able to stash two bags of personal items in the supply area, which employees assumed were trash.

Carter told SLED agents he was headed west, figuring they would not look for him so close to his release date. Carter's attorney said the mental health hospital was starting the process with the courts to have Carter released from state hospital custody.

"They have to have a hearing in front of a judge, and the judge is empowered to authorize their release from the hospital, but is also empowered to put conditions on that release," Binkley said.

The conditions are because of the severity of the crime, which is murder. Carter is subject to the court's jurisdiction as long as he would've been sentenced if found guilty.

"They have to report to Probation, Parole and Pardon services," Binkley said. "They have to attend treatment at the mental health center. They have to follow a number of other rules related to their behavior."

No hearing is scheduled as of this report for Carter's release from mental health custody.

Carter now faces a grand larceny charge for taking the state van in his January escape. His attorney is working with the Richland County Solicitor's Office, but they're early in the process.

As for policies at the state's mental health facility, the work program Carter was involved in was initially suspended, but has now resumed with changes. Patients are no longer allowed to travel on errands outside of hospital grounds and there are restrictions on how many hours a patient can work and how long they can work in one area.

The Mental Health Department also suspended a day program briefly, but now have it operating in a more secure building. Also, department officials are taking steps to ensure employees are watching when patients open their mail.

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