DARLINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Before I ever plopped the white envelope down on Jessica Hoover’s desk last week, she’d already grabbed a hand full of tissues. I knew how this interview was going to go.
Tucked inside the envelope was the result of the second investigation the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office conducted into her brother’s July 2017 death.
The 90-minute ride from Charlotte to Hoover’s home in Columbia, South Carolina, felt twice as long this time. We were delivering her family the news they’d waited six years to hear, but they really didn’t want to know.
“‘Sorry I’m late responding but I’m out of the office until Monday and I can tell you that the reinvestigation to your – Mr. Hoover’s death was concluded with no charges being brought,'” Hoover read from an email inside that white envelope. The email was from Fourth Circuit Solicitor Kernard Redmond to me, dated March 31, 2023.
Redmond sent the email in response to a question seeking an update on Darlington County’s second investigation into Hoover’s death. Hoover’s girlfriend and the mother of their daughter, Nikki Braddock, found him lying on the bedroom floor of the home they shared on Franklin Street in Hartsville on July 5, 2017.
Braddock told investigators Hoover had a cellphone charging cable tied around his neck and the other end tied to the ceiling fan. The sheriff’s incident report shows Braddock told investigators she “cut” him down from the fan.
Hoover “did not have any apparent signs of life” when deputies got to the bedroom, according to the incident report. The report listed the call as “Suicide” and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office ultimately concluded Darlington County Sheriff’s Office investigators mishandled the investigation from the start.
“And obviously, I’m sure you guys know that better than anyone is, that when Darlington County came to work the case from the beginning, they worked it was a suicide rather than a homicide. There was a lot of evidence that probably wasn’t gathered,” Assistant Attorney General Joel Kosack told Hoover’s mother, Kathy Hoover, in an August 2020 phone call. Hoover recorded the call and provided it to Queen City News during our “Manner of Death” investigation.
The Hoover death and SLED’s follow-up investigation happened during former Sheriff Tony Chavis’ four-year term after Chavis and Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee asked SLED to review the evidence to “… assist in determining if the facts and evidence gathered supports a homicide or suicide ruling.”
Hardee ruled the death a homicide and marked Hoover’s death certificate as homicide.
Chavis lost re-election in June 2020, losing to current Darlington County Sheriff James Hudson in the Democratic primary, ending Chavis’ one and only term as sheriff.
“It was a homicide, then it’s been a homicide ever since, and it’s a homicide now,” Hardee told QCN during an April 2022 interview on the Hoover death. The sheriff’s office incident report still lists the case as “suicide.”
The only suspect identified in any of the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) records was Hoover’s girlfriend, Nikki Braddock, who was the last person known to have seen Jason Hoover alive that night. Investigators provided two separate video recordings of interviews with Braddock as part of their case file. Queen City News obtained the Hoover case file through S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests.
Our ‘Manner of Death’ investigation also uncovered two pathologists’ conclusions detailing the injuries found inside and outside of Hoover’s body were consistent with Hoover being beaten before his death, then strangled. Dr. Janice Ross performed the autopsy on Hoover within hours of his death in 2017. Ross determined Hoover’s injuries were a result of homicide rather than self-inflicted.
Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee was already in a battle with the sheriff’s office at the time. Hardee’s office was conducting its own investigation into Hoover’s death and was suspicious the injuries to Hoover’s body were not the result of a suicidal hanging. Hardee said he could not convince the sheriff’s office that Jason Hoover was a homicide victim.
Hardee asked Dr. Kimberly Collins, another pathologist in Charleston, for a second opinion on Ross’ findings.
“The findings of Dr. Ross which are described in the autopsy report as well as depicted in the photographs are not those of a suicidal hanging,” Collins wrote in her two-page opinion. “Mr. Hoover sustained blunt force trauma to the head, neck, chest, and torso. The blunt force trauma is premortem and consistent with having been caused around the time of death. The neck trauma is that of strangulation with incomplete occlusion of the vasculature resulting in ocular petechiae and hemorrhages of the strap muscles, and fracture of the hyoid bone. I have never seen the inferior surface of the tongue contused in a case of suicidal hanging nor have I ever read documented reports or research sighting this.”
“In my opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical and scientific certainty, the traumatic findings on Jason Hoover are not those of suicidal hanging. Jason Hoover was the victim of head, neck, chest, torso blunt force trauma with an element of neck compression or chest compression creating ocular petechiae,” Collins opined.
Braddock denied having anything to with Hoover’s death. She told investigators when she left Hoover on the couch that night to walk across the street to a neighbor’s home, Hoover was watching television and the two were in good spirits and enjoying the night together.
Braddock told investigators that Hoover had threatened suicide in the past and weeks after Hoover’s death, provided investigators with notebooks containing writings described as suicide notes. State investigators later determined the handwriting in the notebook Braddock provided was Hoover’s.
In December 2017, Braddock agreed to take a polygraph examination at SLED’s headquarters in Columbia. The test results showed “Deception Indicated” on two questions the polygraph examiner posed to Braddock:
- Did you strangle that man?
- Did you strangle that man last July?
Braddock denied both questions.
She agreed to interview with SLED agents in February 2018 where Braddock attempted to explain why she believed she might have failed on those questions.
“The only thing that I can think of and I’m embarrassed to say this, but I thought about it, but when me and Jason sometimes when we did have sex, we did – I mean not choking each other out, but that we did do that from time to time,” Braddock told the agents. “And there have been arguments where he’s choked – I mean, like, when we were arguing because we both got a CDV (Criminal Domestic Violence), where he’s put his hands on my throat and I’ve put my hands on his throat. So, I don’t know if that could be it, but as far as she (polygraph examiner) – if she would have asked, ‘Did you kill Jason,’ she didn’t come out – and I said, ‘Did you kill Jason Hoover,’ my answer would have been no, and I know there would have been no deception because I know I didn’t.”
“That’s the only thing I can come up with. I mean, because she said my nerves and everything like that wouldn’t have anything to do with affecting the test,” Braddock said in the Feb. 27, 2018, interview.
Braddock also told investigators Hoover told her “numerous times” he wanted to commit suicide, the last letter written a week before his death, “he had written me a letter earlier that week, just telling me that, you know, me and (child’s name redacted from SLED file) deserve better, but he loved us but he couldn’t provide and give to us like, you know, he wants to and then that letter was it.”
On July 3, 2018 — one year after Hoover’s death, SLED delivered its case file to the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office where a prosecutor would make a decision on whether to bring charges. By October 2020, the AG’s office closed its review.
No one was ever charged with any crime related to Hoover’s death when the AG’s office closed its file in 2020.
THE FINAL INVESTIGATION
On March 2, 2022, Queen City News aired a news investigation titled, “The Confession,” digging into the May 2021 shooting death of Caleb James. We found the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office was called to a home on White Sands Circle in Hartsville after receiving a 911 call that the McBee High School student had shot himself.
James was lying on his girlfriend, Cassie Escobar’s, bedroom. James was pronounced dead at the scene.
James’ mother, Jessica Peavy, and the Darlington County Coroner’s Office both believed James had not shot himself. Peavy criticized the sheriff’s office’s handling of the case, saying the office treated James’ death as a suicide rather than a homicide.
The coroner’s office continued its investigation, ultimately asking Escobar to submit to a polygraph examination at SLED’s headquarters in Columbia. Escobar’s polygraph results showed deception in her answers. In a post-examination interview with the polygrapher, Escobar admitted to pulling the trigger, the SLED report shows.
Escobar “confessed” that she was the one who shot James in the face on May 13, the polygrapher wrote in his report. The report shows Escobar admitted she and James “have a history of playing with the firearm when empty and acting like they are shooting each other.”
The night of the shooting, Escobar said James “cocked” the pistol, pointed it at her, and pulled the trigger. James then handed Escobar the gun and assured Escobar it was unloaded, according to Escobar’s statement in the SLED report. When she pulled the trigger, the gun fired.
Escobar also told SLED James was “depressed” and threatened to kill himself before and that she wanted to tell this story from the start but was too “scared” to tell it.
Hardee said he ordered the sheriff’s office to charge Escobar that day. On June 2, 2021, deputies charged Escobar with involuntary manslaughter.
The coroner and Peavy continued investigating. Fourth Circuit Assistant Solicitor Kernard Redmond also joined the investigation. In January 2022, Redmond obtained a search warrant for Escobar’s cell phone, something the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office had not done in the eight months since James’ death. The following month, Redmond’s office presented its evidence to the county grand jury.
On Feb. 17, 2022, the Darlington County grand jury indicted Escobar on one murder count.
In August 2022, during our ‘Manner of Death’ investigation, Queen City News asked the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office for public records in the Jason Hoover investigation. The sheriff’s office denied our request, citing an exemption in the S.C. Freedom of Information Act allowing law enforcement agencies to block the release of public information if the agency assumed the release would jeopardize their investigation.
The SCFOIA denial was the first indication the sheriff’s office reopened the Hoover death investigation, “We cannot provide any information on this incident as it is currently and [sic] open case and under investigation by the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office and SLED,” county attorney Jim Cox wrote in an Aug. 18, 2022, letter to Queen City News Chief Investigative Reporter Jody Barr.
“Until I hear from SLED reference their investigation, there is no information that I can provide,” Cox wrote. Neither Cox nor Sheriff James Hudson’s office ever informed Queen City News when they closed the reinvestigation.
On March 29, 2023, Queen City News asked Sheriff James Hudson and Fourth Circuit Solicitor Will Rogers for an update on the Hoover investigation. Neither responded to our request.
Assistant Solicitor Kernard Redmond, who was out of the office that week, responded on March 31, “I can tell you that the re-investigation into Mr. Hoover’s death has concluded with no charges being brought.”
That same day Queen City News filed another SCFOIA request with the sheriff’s office, seeking the contents of their investigative file.
The new records showed what the sheriff’s office did: they conducted a second interview with Braddock and had Braddock submit to a second polygraph. The records provided to QCN show no other investigative steps taken by the sheriff’s office during the second investigation.
The records also confirmed the date of the interview recording that Sheriff Hudson initially would not provide to us. That recording was created on March 14, 2022 — exactly 12 days after our ‘The Confession’ report aired. Other than our reporting on the James death investigation, the sheriff’s office offered no explanation as to why they decided to reopen the Hoover case.
Braddock’s second polygraph, dated March 29, 2022, showed ‘No Deception Indicated’ to two questions:
- Did you do anything to cause the death of that man at your residence?
- Did you do anything to cause the death of that man at your residence in 2017?
Braddock answered “No” to both questions. The polygraph result was included in the SCFOIA records the sheriff’s office provided to Queen City News in April 2023.
Queen City News has sent multiple requests to interview Braddock throughout our ‘Manner of Death’ investigation, offering her the chance to tell her side of this story. Braddock’s family confirmed she received the interview requests, but Braddock has never agreed to be interviewed.
“I went on my own accord Tues [sic] to Columbia and took a polygraph and I passed on anything to do with Jason’s passing,” Braddock wrote in a text message Jason Hoover’s mother, Kathy, provided us during our investigation in 2022.
Kathy Hoover spent nearly every day since her son’s death working to convince investigators that her son didn’t kill himself. Until Queen City News showed Hoover during our May 2022 interview with her, she did not know about the two pathologists’ reports detailing how her son’s death was an act of homicide.
The pathologists, she said, vindicated her five-year hunt for the truth.
Kathy Hoover died in June 2022, just weeks after our interview.
Although the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office’s re-investigation ended at least in March 2023, Jessica Hoover said she never received a call, text, or email from the sheriff’s office informing the family of the results of the re-investigation into her brother’s death.
Queen City News showed Jessica Hoover the case file, including the solicitor’s letter showing no charges filed, during a June 15 interview at her home in Columbia.
“It means that somebody got away with killing my brother,” Hoover told QCN. “And they can’t even tell me, they couldn’t even tell me.”
“Why wouldn’t the sheriff’s office at least give you a phone call, send you a letter, Facebook message,” Barr asked Hoover, “I don’t know. Because they don’t care. They don’t care. This is my brother, he deserves something better than this piece of paper,” Hoover said as she shook a copy of the March 31, 2023 solicitor’s email.
Hoover said the results of the sheriff’s office re-investigation do nothing to prove investigators’ original theory that her brother tied a charging cable around his neck and used it to hang himself from a ceiling fan.
“They told us from day one, the pathologist, that he did not commit suicide, that this was a homicide. From day one they told us this, but nobody’s doing nothing about it,” Hoover said, explaining the family still chooses to believe the medical professionals over the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office’s conclusion.
Hoover believes the sheriff’s office reopened her brother’s case in March 2022 because of our investigation into the sheriff’s office’s death investigations.
“Because they made a mistake, that’s why. They didn’t investigate my brother’s death as a homicide, they investigated it as a suicide and that’s where they messed up,” Hoover said.
The family has never received Hoover’s personal property taken off his body at the hospital; including his shoes, clothes, or wallet, Hoover said.
“They should have dug harder. They should have investigated more. But they didn’t. Why didn’t they get DNA tests? Why isn’t his clothes being DNA? He was wearing clothes that night, was it – what about the cord that was wrapped? There’s a difference between right-hand and left-hand person that ties. Why wasn’t that investigated? Why was there no DNA taken? That’s what I want to know,” Hoover told QCN.
None of the records the sheriff’s office released to Queen City News in April 2023 show any type of forensic analysis of Hoover’s clothing or anything taken from the Franklin Street home in May 2017.
Hoover, though, knows this re-investigation means her brother’s case will likely never get another look from an investigator and will never be solved.
“I can’t say it’s her (Braddock). Somebody did something,” Hoover told QCN last week, “This is the end of the investigations. I’ll never know what happened that night. His kids won’t know what happened that night. His family misses him. He was only 38 years old. And I want to know why somebody thought it was okay to kill my brother. And I wonder why Darlington County doesn’t care to know.”