COLUMBIA, S.C. — A deputy killed during training on a South Carolina lake last summer was tangled by the boat propeller after going overboard and drowned inches under the surface while pleading for his life, according to a lawsuit filed by the officer's widow.
Anderson County deputy Devin Hodges, a second officer, and a U S. Army Corps of Engineers instructor driving the boat were all thrown into Lake Hartwell during a dangerous maneuver called an emergency stop.
Instructor Jess Fleming wasn't using a safety device that would have killed the boat's motor when the driver was no longer at the wheel, according to the lawsuit.
The unmanned vessel turned in a "circle of death" and its propeller struck Hodges as he desperately tried to swim away, the lawsuit said.
"As the boat beat the life out of him, Deputy Hodges life vest became entangled in the propeller," lawyers wrote in the suit. "While Deputy Hodges was being held under water, within inches of the surface, he slowly drowned."
Fleming and the other officer on the boat were not hurt.
The Corps of Engineers didn't return a message seeking comment.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources charged Fleming with reckless homicide by boat, but prosecutors dropped the case two months later after determining the law doesn't allow a federal law enforcement officer to be charged with state infractions.
Fleming first did the emergency stop at half speed, and then did it closer to full speed, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday by Hodges' widow, which simply names the United States of America as the defendant.
Fleming spent the day before discussing with the deputies the important of using the "kill switch," which is a lanyard that stops the boat motor when the driver is no longer at the wheel. But the day of Hodges death, Fleming didn't wear the lanyard and the kill switch was shut off, the lawsuit said.
Fleming "knew he was exposing his passengers to a potential circle of death, and yet he still attempted this improper, deadly maneuver. The consequence of his action were foreseeable and resulted in one of the exact outcomes kill switches are intended to prevent," according to the lawsuit.
Hodges' widow filed the suit after federal officials did not act on the official form she filed claiming wrongful death for more than six months.
Hodges, 30, was a father of four and had been working for the Anderson County Sheriff's Office for less than a year. New Sheriff Chad McBride had just assigned him to the marine patrol.
McBride personally pressed the uniform Hodges was buried in, saying it was the least he could do for an officer who showed such promise and dedication.