DARLINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (Queen City News) — “It feels slimy. I didn’t want to do this,” Jessica Peavy said, explaining why she decided to record conversations with the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office.

Peavy said she did so because she doesn’t trust the sheriff.

“He’s lied the whole time,” Peavy said in July during an interview with Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr.

The sheriff’s office became intertwined with Jessica and Brandon Peavy in May 2021 when a 911 call reporting a gunshot wound brought investigators to White Sands Circle in Hartsville. When deputies arrived, they found 18-year-old Caleb James lying on his girlfriend’s bedroom floor.

Jessica and Brandon Peavy hold a picture of their son, Caleb James, during a February 2022 interview inside their home. James was shot and killed on May 13, 2021 in a case the sheriff’s office initially handled as an accidental shooting but a coroner’s investigation revealed James was shot by his girlfriend. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

An autopsy showed a single bullet ripped through James’ cheek and lodged near the base of his brain. He was dead on arrival. James’ girlfriend, Cassandra Escobar, was inside the room with him when the shot was fired.

Escobar told investigators at the scene that James was “…playing with his gun and accidentally shot himself,” the May 13, 2021 incident report showed. The incident report shows that the sheriff’s office appeared to close the investigation on June 23, 2021, marking “No” in the box asking whether a follow-up investigation was needed.

Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee told QCN that his office suspected that James did not shoot himself.

“This young man had a bullet hole in his head, and we have to figure out how it got there. And it can only get there one of two ways: either he put it there or another person put it there,” Hardee told QCN in February.

“A couple hours after the incident occurred is when I decided we would take a closer look at it, that things didn’t add up, to me that it didn’t look like he had taken his own life; that he had actually pulled the trigger. I didn’t think he did,” Hardee said.

The coroner sent James’ body for an autopsy. Hardee later ruled the death a homicide, but that ruling did not result in the sheriff’s office filing a charge against Escobar. Hardee waited a few weeks, then asked Escobar if she would go to the headquarters of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division in Columbia to take a polygraph examination.

Investigation records show that on June 2, 2021, the SLED polygrapher asked two questions of Escobar: “Did you shoot Caleb?” and “Did you shoot Caleb in May 2021?” Escobar answered “No,” to both questions, according to the SLED report.

The polygraph result showed “Deception Indicated.” Typically, a suspect is interviewed following a polygraph, which is what the SLED records show happened in this case.

“The examinee confessed that she and the victim have a history of playing with the firearm when empty and acting like they are shooting each other,” the SLED report shows. “The examinee stated that at the time of the incident the victim cocked the pistol, pointed it at her and pulled the trigger. There was an audible click as usual, and a few seconds later the victim handed the pistol to her. The examinee stated that she questioned the victim about the gun being loaded, but he said it was not. The victim [sic] stated that she pulled the trigger and the pistol fired striking the victim.”

Sgt. Brian Travis, SLED Polygraph Examiner

Escobar told the polygraph examiner that James was “depressed and threatened suicide numerous times,” and Escobar appeared to acknowledge changing her original story about what happened, “The examinee stated that she wanted to be honest from the beginning, but she was scared,” the report shows.

The Darlington County Sheriff’s Office lead investigator in the case, Heather Mays, and an investigator with the Darlington County Coroner’s Office attended the polygraph. Both watched Escobar give the confession through a video feed in a room near the polygraph room.

Cassandra Escobar listens as the judge questions her bail bondsman during a Feb. 18, 2022, bond hearing after the Darlington County grand jury indicted Escobar in the murder of her boyfriend, Caleb James. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

The coroner’s investigator called Hardee following the confession to tell him what Escobar said. Hardee said the sheriff’s office had no plans to charge Escobar at the time but that Hardee called the office and demanded Escobar be charged.

Mays served Escobar with a warrant on June 3, charging her with involuntary manslaughter. Escobar was freed on a $25,000 bond the same day and remained free until Feb. 17, 2022.

Fourth Circuit Assistant Solicitor Kernard Redmond got the Caleb James case file from the sheriff’s office sometime around January 2021 and started to review the evidence. Redmond also started reviewing the evidence Jessica Peavy found on her son’s cell phone.

On Feb. 17, 2022, the solicitor’s office presented evidence to the Darlington County Grand Jury, asking the panel to indict Escobar on a murder charge. The grand jury returned a murder indictment that day and two deputies arrested Cassie Escobar at her job at Miriam’s Kitchen, a country diner in Darlington County.

Escobar was taken to the Darlington County Detention Center and booked on the murder charge.

‘MISHANDLED’ EVIDENCE

A few days after Caleb James’ death, his body was returned to a Darlington County funeral home. Peavy said Escobar rode with her to the funeral home to view the body and to deliver his cap and gown.

James was set to graduate from McBee High School in a few weeks. Peavy had her son dressed in his cap and gown for a viewing.

The funeral director handed Peavy a bag, which she described as a “hazard bag.” Inside were the clothes her son died in. “I rode home with the clothes in my lap, and whenever I got home, I started scrubbing the clothes to preserve them, and inside the bag was his clothes and the cell phone. So, I got the cell phone out, and it was dead, and it had been in his pocket when she killed him,” Peavy said.

Jessica Peavy unfolds the shirt her son was murdered in on May 13, 2021. Peavy also found her son’s cell phone in his pants pocket. Instead of Caleb James’ clothes and phone being returned to the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office’s evidence room, the clothes were given to the funeral home and given to her. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Peavy charged her son’s phone and started to go through the text messages between her son and Escobar. Those text messages became critical evidence in the homicide investigation; however, the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office hadn’t logged the phone or James’ bloody clothes into evidence.

It took the sheriff’s investigator weeks to log the phone into evidence, according to Peavy, who had earlier delivered a USB drive to the sheriff with copies of all the text messages she found between her son and Escobar.

Peavy said she didn’t believe the sheriff’s office was telling her the truth about the case from the start. Nearly nine months passed between the time Escobar was originally arrested and when she was indicted on the murder charge. Peavy said the sheriff’s office told her things that weren’t true about her son’s case in the beginning. Peavy claimed that during one meeting with Sheriff James Hudson weeks after Escobar’s confession, she asked the sheriff to call SLED in to take over the investigation. The sheriff, Peavy said, promised her that he would charge Escobar with murder if she left SLED out of it.

The sheriff acknowledged that statement in a phone call Peavy recorded with him on Feb. 22, 2022.

A SLED agent met with the sheriff’s office and the solicitor in the weeks following Escobar’s initial charge, but SLED would not take over the investigation, according to the coroner. SLED confirmed to QCN that it was in an assisting role with the sheriff’s office in the James homicide investigation.

“And I come in there and I showed you the cell phone messages, and I gave you a thumb drive,” Peavy told Sheriff Hudson in the Feb. 22 phone call. “And we turned everything over to SLED just like you asked us to,” Hudson responded. “But I tried giving Heather the cell phone for weeks and she wouldn’t take it, she said she had to get a warrant,” Peavy told Hudson.

“That’s something else I’ve been hearing about, too, and I’m trying to figure out why didn’t she take the cell phone and why Mrs. Peavy get [sic] the cell phone back after it came back from autopsy,” Hudson responded. “Yeah, because I should’ve never got it back, but I think my biggest thing ” — “No, ma’am…you shouldn’t have never got that back. I’m glad you opened the door on that Mrs. Peavy because that’s another thing I got hammered on. You should have never got that phone back. That phone should have went straight to evidence,” the sheriff told Peavy.

A Darlington County Sheriff’s deputy leads Cassandra Escobar into the booking area of the county jail on Feb. 17, 2022 hours after the grand jury indicted Escobar in the May 2021 shooting death of her boyfriend, Caleb James. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Peavy also told the sheriff she was angry that the investigator knew the results of her son’s autopsy, showing it was a homicide, but encouraged the Peavy family to continue their friendship with Escobar.

Video of James’ funeral shows Escobar escort the Peavy family into the chapel and sat beside the family during the service.  

“That day, Cassandra Escobar was helping me plan my son’s funeral,” Peavy told the sheriff in the call. “That part I can’t speak on because, like I told you from the start of this conversation, I was not directly involved in this case. So, what they did, I’m just like you, Mrs. Peavy, I’m hearing things about the case that I didn’t hear anything about. Because that’s – I’m going to tell you right now – and I know Peavy (Jessica Peavy’s husband, Brandon) pretty well, and he could tell you, I was a pretty good investigator. And some of the things that I’m hearing about, I’d have never done that,” the sheriff admitted.

“No phone, number one – coroner or no coroner – that phone should have went into evidence,” Hudson told Peavy, “It should have – and his clothes,” Peavy responded.

“That phone should have never went back to you. Because now, as the sheriff, and me and Kernard, we got to worry about, would the senator ask for a depression (suppression) on the phone because, oh, the phone might be tainted. It didn’t go back to the proper channels, so we’ve got to worry about all that stuff now. All this stuff that I’m hearing about, Mrs. Peavy, whether you can believe me or not, but I’m with you. I’m with you all the way, but I’m hearing stuff that I don’t like…that’s not how we supposed to do things,” Hudson said in the Feb. 22 call.

Hudson told Peavy an investigator asking a victim’s family to maintain a friendship with a suspect isn’t “unusual.”

“Because we worked a case from years ago with a homicide that happened on Second Street in the City of Hartsville. And actually, it was my cousin who got killed, and this young lady did the same thing this lady did to you. She went to my family’s house and, well, we call it a setting up, and she went to the setting up for three whole days before we figured out she’s the one that killed my cousin. She was there with the family, sitting there with the family,” Hudson explained.

“So we had to send an undercover officer in there to do some recon and figure out that this woman was the one who shot my cousin on Second Street, and she pretended to be his friend, to be the family friend and coming to the setting up,” the sheriff said.

Darlington County Sheriff James Hudson would not agree to be interviewed for our ‘The Confession’ investigation. We found him at the sheriff’s office on Feb. 16, 2022, and attempted to question him about his office’s handling of the Caleb James investigation. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

We also uncovered during our ‘The Confession’ investigation that Escobar’s cell phone was not taken into evidence until Jan. 14, 2022 – eight months after James’ death. The Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office, not the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office, executed a search warrant on Escobar’s phone, according to a warrant return filed with the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office.

The sheriff assured Peavy his office was in full support of the solicitor’s decision to pursue the murder charge against Escobar despite the solicitor’s decision to obtain the indictment independent of the sheriff’s office.

“But I want you to know, and I don’t know what else I can say, I’m with you all the way. I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to serve everybody. I can’t pick and choose who I want to serve, I’ve got to serve everybody, and I’m with you all the way, and I don’t know what else I can say or do to make you believe,” Hudson told Peavy in the recorded call.

In a Feb. 9 closed-door meeting between Barr, the sheriff, Chief Deputy Chad McInville, and Major David Young, the men insinuated Redmond only sought the murder indictment after Peavy went public on social media and QCN’s questioning of the sheriff’s office’s handling of the death investigation.

The men referred to Peavy as a “grieving mother,” indicating she was driven solely by her emotions over her son’s death and not rational thoughts about the facts of the case.

“She should have been charged with murder earlier, and to not until now it seems like, well, since the media got involved, all of a sudden she’s charged with murder. See, now that’s going to hurt us, too, but we just got to figure out how to get past that,” the sheriff said.

“I just don’t want people fighting me because they’re making the comments that I’m a grieving mother,” Peavy told Hudson. “I’m not going to fight you, Mrs. Peavy; anytime you want to talk to me, you’ve got my number. You can call me, you can come by the office, and I’ll try to help you any way I can, but you know I’ve got people on me about this case, too, and ask me why y’all doing this, why y’all doing that and – it’s the law. This is what the law says the law can do,” the sheriff responded.

“If I felt like this girl was innocent, I would not be sitting here pushing for this because I would not send an innocent person to prison over an accident. This was not an accident,” Peavy said in the recorded call. “I completely understand, Mrs. Peavy, I really do, but like I said, I’m with you all the way, and I told Kernard that,” the sheriff said.

GAG ORDER SOUGHT

Just before Jessica Peavy’s call with Sheriff James Hudson, Peavy said she spoke with Darlington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chad McInville by phone. McInville, she said, informed her the sheriff was seeking a gag order in the case.

The gag order would likely have banned anyone involved in the case from talking about it with anyone else. Including reporters.

This screenshot from the Feb. 18, 2022 Jessica Peavy cell phone recording shows Darlington County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Chad McInville talking with the Peavy family in the lobby of the sheriff’s office. McInville warned the Peavys that the prosecution of Cassandra Escobar would be harmed if the details of ‘The Confession’ is broadcast. (Source: Jessica Peavy)

“I contacted Chad McInville, and I told him I wanted to talk to the sheriff that day. And he’s like, ‘Well, in case you don’t know, there’s going to be a gag order put on this case.’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘It’s a high-profile case, and to protect it, we need a gag order.’ Well, come to find out the reason the sheriff wanted a gag order on it so it couldn’t be released to the public of their incompetence in this murder case.” “And you believe 100% that’s why they the sheriff’s office did not want this story told?” Barr asked Peavy in an interview in July.

“I believe that 100%, that’s why. He didn’t want it told,” Peavy said.

We also confirmed the sheriff’s attempts to impose a gag order in the case. However, the gag order was never formally sought and was never imposed.

Peavy recorded a conversation with Chief Deputy McInville a few days before inside the public lobby of the sheriff’s office. That recording happened right after Cassie Escobar’s bond hearing on Feb. 18, where Judge Michael Nettles set Escobar’s bond on the murder charge at $25,000, the same bond amount and bond conditions given to Escobar on the involuntary manslaughter charge in June 2021.

As soon as the bond hearing ended, Jessica and Brandon Peavy got in their truck and drove straight to the sheriff’s office looking for Sheriff James Hudson. Peavy had her cell phone out, ready to record the conversation.

“The sheriff isn’t here; he rode with somebody to (inaudible) today, so if you want to set up a meeting, we can set it up,” McInville told her in the recording.

Peavy wanted to discuss several things with the men – grievances she had with how her son’s death investigation and evidence was handled, why it took nearly a year to file a murder charge, and statements the sheriff’s office made insinuating Peavy was an absentee mother who didn’t have a close relationship with her son.

“I have a lot of questions I need answered,” Peavy told the chief deputy. “Yeah, and I agree. And I think Jody getting involved will hurt the thing more than it will help, so I’m just saying. I just, I don’t want that by no means,” McInville told Peavy.

“Like I say, I wish we could – probably could have talked about it before Jody does anything to hurt the case. Because I was – just me and you talking – I really believe he’s going to do nothing but hurt the case. He’ll pick stuff apart, and he’s not – Jody’s not there for you, he’s not there for anybody but a story. And it could hurt the case. That’s the bottom line,” McInville said in the recording.

McInville also told Peavy the sheriff’s office regretted meeting with Barr on Feb. 9. The meeting happened after Sheriff Hudson agreed to be interviewed, and we drove to the sheriff’s office from Charlotte, unloaded the camera equipment, and showed up at the DCSO to set up for the interview.

Hudson stopped Barr in the lobby, saying he wanted to discuss the case before sitting for an interview.

After a more than two-hour-long meeting where QCN laid out what we knew about the Caleb James death investigation, Hudson broke his word and canceled the interview.

The Peavy family also complained to the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office about “a stack” of witness statements they said Investigator Heather Mays handed them to fill out and brought back to Mays. Sheriff James Hudson told Queen City News that’s not his department’s policy, but the sheriff did not counsel or discipline Mays for violating policy her personnel file shows. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

“Like I say, they gone pick apart the case, there’s no doubt, and like I say the news thing – that’s why we decided not to talk to Jody anymore and we wish we wouldn’t have talked to him from the beginning, wish we would have just kicked him out the door,” McInville told the Peavys.

The chief deputy did admit the office made an error by not collecting James’ cell phone from the pathologist, “But his cell phone; I wish it would have went – most of the time with autopsies, you might remember, remember we picked up autopsies we take everything straight to SLED,” McInville told Brandon Peavy, who worked as a homicide investigator with the DCSO until 2012.

“That’s part of it, you know, there’s so much s–t that wasn’t done right,” Brandon Peavy told McInville.

“I shouldn’t have got his clothes and cell phone,” Jessica Peavy told McInville in the recording, “You shouldn’t. It should have went straight to SLED like we used to do it, used to,” McInville responded.

“I had to find all those messages and I had to clean his bloody clothes and I brought that phone here with the messages and I begged somebody to look at it.”

THE LEAD INVESTIGATOR RESIGNS

On April 8, Jessica Peavy called Sheriff James Hudson about a Facebook post that Deputy Heather Mays, the lead investigator in the Caleb James homicide investigation, posted about her son’s death investigation and her resignation.

The sheriff, Peavy said, told her Mays was no longer employed with the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office and he couldn’t do anything about her Facebook post, “He lied. There was something he could do. You’re an elected official by the people. How does this look on you on you and your department?” Peavy told Barr in the July interview.

Peavy said she became concerned with the Mays’ post after seeing people reacting to it – people she said had personal ties to Cassie Escobar, the woman charged with the murder of her son.

Former DCSO Investigator Heather Mays filed a resignation letter on March 31, 2022 — three weeks after our ‘The Confession’ investigation aired. Mays did not explain the reason for her resignation in her letter to Sheriff James Hudson. (Source: Pepperoni Audits)

“Not just family members, roommates, people who live with her, work with her, her family,” Peavy said. “So you call the sheriff and the sheriff tells you as of that date, the date that the Facebook post was made, that investigator was no longer with the sheriff’s office,” Barr asked.

“Yes, that’s what he told me,” Peavy responded.

“But he told you she was no longer employed,” Barr asked, “He did. He told me she was no longer employed. He said, ‘Mrs. Peavy, she is no longer employed with the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office as of today,’ his exact words,” Peavy recalled from her April 8 call with the sheriff.

“Was that true,” Barr asked. “That was far from the truth,” Peavy said.

Mays tagged Jody Barr in the Facebook post after Barr private messaged Mays on April 6 asking to discuss the White Sands Circle case, and unverified information we attempted to confirm with her regarding her resignation.

“It seems to me that you are erroneously under the presumption that my resignation is due to bitterness with my employer,” Mays wrote. “Your belief and audacity that I’d be willing to become your “ally” and provide you with any information at all is repulsive,” Mays wrote.

Mays went on to criticize our report writing that it “wrongly portrayed me as incompetent, untrained, and all around unqualified to perform my duties as an investigator in this state. I am aware you (and a few others) have a fixation on destroying the reputation of the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office, as well as diminishing the citizen’s [sic] confidence in Sheriff James Hudson,” Mays continued.

Darlington County Sheriff’s Office investigator Heather Mays authored this Facebook post on April 8, 2022. The post was Mays’ response to a Queen City News Facebook message asking to speak with her about ‘The Confession’ and unverified information received concerning her resignation. (Source: Facebook)

Mays explained that she decided to publish a public post where “my words will remain my own, [sic] and not changed to fit your agenda.”

The only explanation Mays offered for her resignation was included in this line, “My resignation is solely to take back my Freedom of Speech and expose some of the people in Darlington County for who they really are. I refuse to allow the deficiencies and incompetence of other organizations in this area to use me as a scapegoat as Todd Hardee and your story “The Confession” did.”

Mays did not contest any of the facts reported in our initial investigation, aside from her training record showing no specialized training courses related to crime scenes, evidence, or homicide investigations, according to her South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy training log.

Chief Deputy McInville acknowledged in the Feb. 18 recording with the Peavys that Mays was attempting to be trained in those areas, “I wish Jody would have never got involved because I think all he’s going to do, he’s going to bring out stuff, he’s going to make it look like she’s underqualified and she hadn’t had basic instructor training, okay? She hadn’t, I mean she’s been in law enforcement for 15 years, but nothing says you got to have it. She tried to get it, because of COVID they wasn’t doing no classes,” McInville told Brandon Peavy in the recording.

“But some of the s–t that she did it makes me question, you know what I mean,” Peavy told McInville, “I get it, I get it and I get – but the bad thing is, he’s (Barr) going to bring all that out. And when he brings that out to the public, don’t you think it’s going to hurt the case? It’s gone kill it,” McInville said.

The sheriff ignored an April 8 email from QCN asking questions about Mays’ resignation – including the reason for her stepping down. We had no other option than to file a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to have our questions answered. The records we requested would’ve included resignation letters.

Darlington County paid a Columbia law firm $1,215 to handle an open records request filed by Queen City News seeking to inspect personnel files for six current and former employees of the sheriff’s office. (Source: Darlington County Human Resources Office)

Instead of redacting personal information from the records and turning them over, the county hired Columbia law firm Gignilliat, Savitz, and Bettis, LLP, to handle the request. Darlington County records show the county paid labor attorney Fred A. Williams $270 an hour to field phone calls, hold an office conference with his law clerk, field emails, and review an SCFOIA case file we sent the attorney disputing the county’s charge to review the files.

County Human Resources Manager Ginger Winburn demanded payment of $475 before the county allowed us to inspect the records, which we asked for in our SCFOIA request – not copies. The county claimed it took an employee 16 hours to gather the records and redact their personal information. The county wanted QCN to pay $320 to cover that cost.

Instead of using an internet-based file transfer service, like Google Drive, Winburn charged QCN $15 to pay for a compact disc the county would use to transfer the files onto.

We filed another SCFOIA request to see Williams’ invoice for handling the request. The invoice the county provided shows the law firm spent 5.25 hours on the request and charged county taxpayers $1,215.

We paid the county $81 for Mays’ personnel file.

Mays’ resignation letter is dated March 31, which was three weeks after our investigation into the Caleb James death investigation aired. Mays’ letter shows her last day with the sheriff’s office was April 14, but she did not give any explanation for her decision to resign.

Peavy said on April 11, three days after her call with the sheriff, a tipster sent her video of Mays working a funeral escort wearing a sheriff’s department uniform and driving a county patrol SUV, “I found out that was a lie, I was tipped off. People sent me messages and told me that they seen the investigator working in the county vehicle,” Peavy said.

The following day, Peavy said she saw Mays in the DCSO patrol SUV, “I was on my way to town, and I passed her myself – in the county vehicle. So, I turned around, went by her home; she lives not far from me, and there she was: standing on her porch in the county uniform with the county vehicle in her yard.”

Peavy took a picture of Mays on the porch and the SUV in the driveway. Peavy said the prosecutor informed her Mays filed a police report over the April 12 drive-by. Peavy was not charged with any crime related to that.

“It was just another notch in the belt. It was another lie,” Peavy told QCN.

We sent Sheriff James Hudson an email on August 9 listing the points we planned to report and Peavy’s allegations concerning him. Hudson never responded to that email. We sent Hudson another follow-up email on August 15 informing Hudson of Peavy’s claims that he “lied” to her and to give Hudson the chance to interview to defend himself.

The sheriff never responded to any of our attempts to gather his side.

There is no court date set in the murder prosecution of Cassie Escobar. Her attorney, Gerald Malloy, has not filed any motions in the case since the Feb. 18, 2022, bond set.