CPD: Man who ran over 12 mourners at funeral had grudge against state agency

Published: Jul. 20, 2017 at 12:33 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2017 at 7:54 PM EDT
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The Greenlawn Memorial Park crime scene. (Source: Columbia Police Department)
The Greenlawn Memorial Park crime scene. (Source: Columbia Police Department)
James Kester, 64, is accused of intentionally driving into a crowd of mourners Wednesday...
James Kester, 64, is accused of intentionally driving into a crowd of mourners Wednesday afternoon at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Columbia. (Source: Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Columbia Police Department investigators say the motive was revenge when a 64-year-old man plowed into a group of three dozen mourners at a Columbia cemetery during a funeral for a longtime state Department of Mental Health employee on Wednesday afternoon.

Police say James Kester, 64, hit 12 mourners as a grudge against the state Department of Mental Health. The motive was revealed during a bond hearing Thursday morning where bond was set at $5 million.

RELATED: See more photos from the scene.

According to Kester, he had a long standing "dislike" against DMH due to troubles with his daughter. Kester claimed at the hearing DMH would not let him see his daughter for several hundred days.

Kester, according to investigators, targeted the graveside service at Greenlawn Memorial Park because the woman being buried at the cemetery, identified as Margaret Livingston, was a DMH employee for more than 30 years. Police do not believe Kester knew Livingston or her family members. "He had the opportunity to exact revenge," a CPD investigator told the judge.

The family of the victims asked the judge to deny bond.

Family members who spoke in court said Kester drove his Cadillac sedan up to the graveside service and asked whose funeral it was. He then rolled up his window and drove right into them.

"My cousin was over to the side talking to some people, and a gentleman in the car pulled up and stopped her and asked if this was my cousin's funeral and stated her name, which was not the name that we all know her by," Tammy Altman said. "And, of course, she said, 'Yes.' And she turned her back to go and finish talking to her family members, and the next thing we know is this car turned sharp right and just plowed – hit the gas and plowed – into the middle of where everyone was standing under the two awnings you have when you have a funeral. And just gunned it."

Family members said they even felt Kester was preparing to turn around and run through the crowd again.

"Everything that ensued after that was just mass chaos," Altman said. "He went 100 or more feet, and his car looked like it was going to turn and head back, but fortunately, thank God, he hit a tombstone or either got bogged in into the dirt – I'm not sure how he ended up stopping. Then, after that, it was just mass chaos. People, you know, calling 911, running to check on their family members. It just looks like something in a TV movies or something. It's just so surreal and unreal. Nothing you think ever's going to happen – especially, you know, you're already there mourning a loved one – and then just this random act of violence just hits your family."

Despite the family's pleas, bond was set. Kester himself told the judge that the $5 million figure was "kinda steep." Kester argued that he "blanked out." However, the judge threatened a higher bond and Kester seated himself immediately.

A DMH spokeswoman said in a statement that Livingston was a well-respected staff person. There were DMH employees at the funeral to pay their respects. None were injured. The full statement says:

The leadership and staff of the Department of Mental Health (SCDMH) are shocked and saddened by the appalling assault on those attending Margaret Livingston's graveside service in Columbia yesterday. Several current and former employees attended; however, at this time the Department does not believe any of them are among the injured. As a result, DMH is reaching out to staff to ensure those who may be in need of emotional support receive it immediately.

Margaret Livingston, known to her family, friends, and former DMH colleagues as Peggy, worked for SCDMH from 1976 until her retirement in April 2011. Peggy worked as an administrative assistant, primarily in the Department's Inpatient Services division, and was a conscientious, dependable and well-liked employee. The family and friends of Peggy Livingston remain in our thoughts, and SCDMH's Leadership and staff express their sincere condolences on her passing and concern for those who were injured as they paid their respects.

The Department will not issue a statement regarding the alleged perpetrator of the assault or comment on his alleged motives. Per state and federal privacy laws, SCDMH does not comment on individuals who may or may not have received mental health services from the Agency.

Here is Chad Mills' Facebook Live report shortly after Thursday morning's bond hearing:

Should Kester bond out of jail, he has been ordered not to have contact with Margaret Livingston's family. He will not be able to drive and will have to wear a GPS monitor.

Kester has been charged with 12 counts of attempted murder in connection with the Wednesday afternoon incident on at Greenlawn Memorial Park on Leesburg Road. Police were called to the scene just before 1:30 p.m.

Deputy Columbia Police Chief Melron Kelly said several of the injured people were treated at the scene before being transported to local hospitals for further treatment.

Five patients taken to Palmetto Health Richland were admitted with one is in serious condition and four others are in fair condition. The seven other victims were taken to the Palmetto Health Baptist and all have been discharged. All victims were aged between 11 and 78 years old.

A spokesperson for Greenlawn Memorial Park released a statement on Thursday morning.

"We are deeply saddened by yesterday's incident at our property," the statement read. "We are working diligently to assist the families impacted and our thoughts and prayers are with those recovering.  Additionally, we continue to work with local authorities to assist in any way we can."

A fundraiser has been established for the victims of this incident. If you wish to contribute, click here.

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