DARLINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – From her recliner, Kathy Hoover spent the past five years researching every word, picture, text, and Facebook post – everything her son ever did with his cell phone.
She was searching for any clue that might help investigators solve the mysteries surrounding her son’s 2017 death on Franklin Street in Hartsville. Hoover admits, she might’ve entertained a few conspiracy theories along the way.
“He had a total of 15,366 CCs in, not one drop of urine,” Hoover said in May as she held a large three-ring binder marked “July 3, 2017.” Inside was hundreds of pages of medical charts created by the two separate hospitals that attended to her son that night.
Medics had rushed Hoover to a hospital in Hartsville around 2 a.m. after his girlfriend called 911 reporting that he’d hung himself from a ceiling fan with an iPhone charging cable. Hoover was unresponsive when medics arrived, but once a pulse was confirmed, he was taken to the hospital in an attempt to save his life.
Kathy Hoover, who lived more than an hour away near Columbia, said she got a call hours later that her son was taken to the hospital. Hoover found out her son was in the intensive care unit of a Florence hospital and sped to the McLeod Regional Medical Center.
Hoover, who worked as a traveling trauma nurse for 30 years, said she knew within seconds that the cell phone charging cord had little – possibly nothing — to do with the injuries that were about to take her 38-year-old son’s life.
“He’s got a Foley catheter in and there’s not a drop, not a drop of urine nowhere to be seen. There’s nothing in the Foley, there’s nothing in the tubing, there’s nothing in the meter that they dump over every hour, there’s nothing in the bag, there’s no residual – nothing. That tells me he’s in renal failure,” Hoover told Queen City News Chief Investigative Reporter Jody Barr.
“I feel his belly, it’s as hard as a brick,” Hoover said, describing how she immediately started examining her son as she had the thousands of patients she’d treated before him.
“You’re watching his vitals; you’re seeing the fluids leaving his body,” Barr asked as Hoover interrupted, “Not leaving his body. When they’re not leaving your body, they’re not being filtered and they’re being built up inside, either vascular or if that triple lumen catheter is it in like it should be in his belly. That belly is hard as a brick,” Hoover said. “What does that tell you,” Barr asked, “That something’s wrong here, there’s a swollen-up liver and it’s an injury,” Hoover said.
Jason Hoover survived about 14 hours after his girlfriend and mother of their daughter, Nikki Braddock, made the 911 call that night telling dispatchers she’d found her boyfriend with a cord tied around his neck – one end tied to the ceiling fan in their bedroom.
Hoover was pronounced dead just past 4 p.m. on July 3, 2017.
Meanwhile, Darlington County Sheriff’s Investigator Freddie Davis was busy working to figure out whether Jason Hoover really hung himself or whether someone else might’ve had a hand in his death.
MANNER OF DEATH: Suicide v. Homicide
South Carolina law grants elected county coroners the exclusive authority to determine the circumstances of a death. The categories coroners use to describe the manner of death typically follow these categorizations: undetermined, natural, accidental, suicide, and homicide.
When Investigator Freddie Davis got the call in the middle of the night to respond to Franklin Street to open an investigation, he assumed – because of the information the first deputies on the scene gave him – he was dealing with a suicide.
But he wasn’t certain that’s what he had.
“There was a cord tied to the ceiling fan,” Davis told Kathy Hoover in a phone call she recorded one week after her son’s death. “And it was dangling down touching the floor, it was about 10’ long. He was rushed on to the hospital, she(Braddock) was there, no emotions,” Davis told Hoover.
“What,” Hoover shouted into the phone, “Yeah, she didn’t have any emotions,” Davis told her. Hoover said that Braddock was “showing out” in the hospital when Hoover got there.
“Oh my God, she was trying to crawl in the bed with him. McLeod had to kick her out and it was only in front of me,” Hoover told the investigator. “She was more worried about having to buy another cord at that time than anything else,” Davis told Hoover.
“Oh, and she had to pee, that was her biggest thing,” Davis said in the recorded call.
Hoover told Davis she didn’t believe her son tied the charging cord around his neck in an attempt to commit suicide. Hoover also said in the call that she purchased the cell phone and paid for the phone line for the phone that Jason Hoover and Nikki Braddock shared. She also told the investigator that she monitored the phone over the iCloud account attached to it.
Hoover said she found out through the iCloud account that Davis never seized the phone as evidence that night and urged him to do so in the call.
“And I know you’ve got to prove it. If there’s any, any kind of evidence, you really do need to go get that phone and hook it up to a computer because Sprint says you can pull everything off that iCloud and he was saving everything,” Hoover told Freddie Davis.
“I’m pretty sure she’s gotten rid of all of that stuff by now,” Davis responded. “Nah, ah, once it’s in iCloud it stays there. Just go get the phone, hook it up and get in there and see what you can find,” Hoover ordered Davis.
“All right,” Davis said as they ended the call.
But the Jason Hoover case file we obtained through the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act shows Davis didn’t collect the phone that night. The Darlington County Sheriff’s Office evidence log shows the only thing Davis collected was the 10-foot-long charging cable. The log also shows another deputy collected Hoover’s clothes from the hospital.
Davis didn’t get a search warrant for the cell phone until August 29, 2017. The fax cover sheet shows Davis faxed the search warrant to Sprint, looking for any electronic files contained in Hoover’s cell phone, including “deleted files, internet searches, websites visited.” The warrant also included the line, “ANYTHING [sic] STORED IN THE CLOUD.”
Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee said he got the call from the hospital’s emergency department to notify him of Hoover’s death just past 4 p.m. on July 3, 2017. The notification was routine and required when a death occurs less than 24 hours after arrival. Hardee said he was immediately suspicious of the story he got about how Jason Hoover got there – and why.
“They called and told me a little bit about it, and a couple of things that they described that caught my eye,” Hardee told Queen City News during an interview in April. Hardee said he ordered an autopsy and sent Hoover’s body to the west side of Columbia to one of the state’s top pathologists.
Hardee told QCN he doesn’t order autopsies in suspected suicide cases unless his review of the body and the evidence from the scene “doesn’t add up,” the 22-year coroner of Darlington County said.
It didn’t take long for the pathologist to confirm Hardee’s suspicions.
“That’s when she said that the injuries on the body were not indicative of that of a suicide. So together, we examined the evidence and I decided it best be ruled as a homicide,” Hardee said.
That finding would soon lead to a standoff with the sheriff’s office – specifically Investigator Freddie Davis. Davis was convinced the evidence he found inside the house showed Hoover killed himself.
The coroner was about to rule the manner of Jason Hoover’s death a homicide, but the standoff with the sheriff’s office led Hardee to ask for a second opinion.
SECOND OPINION: Hoover’s injuries ‘Not those of a suicidal hanging’
Kathy Hoover maintained from the beginning that she didn’t believe her son was the victim of a hanging. She believed the injuries to her son’s body showed he was beaten, then strangled.
Hoover believed the hanging was “staged” to provide a distraction from the injuries to her son’s body. She said she spent the past five years trying to get law enforcement to listen to her. Hoover said she never got an explanation of what happened to him.
Other than her son’s death was a homicide.
“I decided that for the first time ever in my career, I decided that I was going to get a second opinion. I struggled with it a little while because I deeply trust the folks that we use for doing our autopsies,” Hardee told Barr.
The coroner called Dr. Janice Ross and nervously asked if she could have another forensic pathologist review the Hoover autopsy.
“I was a little hesitant, but I asked her, I said, ‘Dr. Ross, would it hurt your feelings, or would you get upset if I sought a second opinion?’ She said, ‘Absolutely not.’ As a matter of fact, she encouraged me to get a second opinion and I did,” Hardee said.
“It was very uncomfortable because I trust these people immensely. They are brilliant people. “I’m very trusting of their opinions. And to go back, I struggle with it, Jody, I’m going to be honest with you, I struggled with it a couple of days and finally, I just said the best way to do is just tell her. So, I did and that was the first time I’d ever asked for a second opinion, and I’ve never done it since,” Hardee told QCN.
Ross sent her autopsy report and photographs to Dr. Kimberly Collins, another forensic pathologist who – at the time – was performing autopsies at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
Collins issued her findings on Sept. 5, 2017.
“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,” Collins wrote.
“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.
The letter also included mention of Hoover’s previous suicide attempts and his drug addictions and that history “…can be taken into account when analyzing the fatality of the case. However, the final autopsy findings are confirmatory of blunt force trauma,” the opinion showed.
“The only way I could see this being a suicidal hanging as [sic] if he suffered the aforementioned blunt force trauma and probable strangulation before hanging himself. Based on my education and experience that is highly unlikely,” Collins wrote.
Collins’ letter underpinned Hardee’s decision to rule Hoover’s death as a homicide.
“I think, Jody, what caught my eye most is when Dr. Ross told me, she said, ‘Todd, I’ll stake my forensic career on this ruling.’ That was strong for me. That was strong because she’s had quite a nice forensic career and she’s known all over the country…and for her to stake her forensic career that means she knows something I don’t know. And I decided that I’m going to put my eggs in that basket,” Hardee told Barr.
The coroner told Investigator Davis about the letter and that the sheriff’s office was dealing with a possible murder on Franklin Street.
“We let the folks know that we’re doing the investigation and that that was our official ruling. And it was a homicide, then it’s been a homicide ever since. And it’s a homicide now,” Hardee said.
In the five years since her son’s death, Hoover never knew about the second opinion. She also never knew about the two forensic pathologists’ opinions showing what happened to her son is exactly what Kathy Hoover said she saw in the hospital room on July 3, 2017.
We read the second opinion to Hoover during our April 11, 2022 interview inside her home near Columbia.
“I thought, what more could I possibly tell them? What more could I give them? They have exactly what I saw, and I didn’t even have to talk to these two to say that. They had exactly what I saw. What more do you need,” Hoover said in response to learning what was in the pathologist’s letter.
“They kept telling me I was crazy, and I kept proving that I wasn’t, and I was validating what I thought was right.”
Despite the coroner’s ruling and the pathologists’ opinions, none of that caused the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office to change the direction of the sheriff’s office investigation.
INVESTIGATOR: ‘It was deemed a suicide’
“It appeared to me, from what I seen the night I went to the scene, that it was a suicide. Was it accidental? That’s very possible. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill himself, but he did,” Freddie Davis said as he looked through his crime scene photographs inside a case file he’d stored on a thumb drive.
Davis showed how the believed Hoover tied the phone charging cord to the ceiling fan, then tied it around his neck before sliding down the wall, slowly choking himself to death.
“I think he was scooting down the wall – he was easing down the wall and once he got so far and it finally tightened around his neck and he was sitting up against the wall, that’s when he passed out. His feet kind of slid out from under him and you could see where the marks were in the carpet where his feet slid, where it looks like his feet slid out from under him,” Davis said as he reenacted his theory from his couch during an interview with QCN in August.
Davis said convincing his fellow deputies of his theory wasn’t easy, “And people go, yeah but it was a phone cord,” Davis said, “Those cords are a lot more heavy duty than what people think they are. Would it hold up a 200-pound man? For a couple seconds, maybe…or shoot, a couple days. I don’t know, I didn’t test it to that extent,” Davis explained.
The investigator did test a similar cord by tying it to the back of his lawnmower and dragging two cinder blocks around his yard. Davis said that experiment didn’t break the cord. He also said the way he believed Hoover slowly killed himself by sliding down the wall with the cord tied around his neck would have never put Hoover’s 170-pound weight load onto the ceiling fan or the cord.
“We’re talking half or a third of that body weight,” Davis said.
Davis was at an evidentiary disadvantage when he walked into the home Hoover and Braddock shared on Franklin Street. Hoover wasn’t inside because medics had rushed him to the hospital. Davis was left with the ceiling fan, the phone cord, marks on the carpet, and the last person known to see Hoover alive: Nikki Braddock.
After the coroner informed Davis of the homicide ruling, the investigator met with his boss, Sheriff Tony Chavis. Chavis was sheriff from 2014 until current Sheriff James Hudson defeated Chavis in 2018.
“I had to go in and explain it to the sheriff exactly what I seen that night. And I showed him, and he looked at the pictures and he agreed with me that he thought it was a suicide,” Davis said of his conversation with Chavis.
Davis said he believed the pathologist didn’t have all the information, including his theory about how Hoover used the phone cord. Hardee said he helped schedule a meeting between Davis and Dr. Ross at Ross’s pathology laboratory in Newberry, SC so that Ross could discuss the case with Davis directly. Hardee said Ross informed him that Davis did not show up for the meeting.
Davis told QCN he doesn’t remember being invited to a meeting with Ross. Davis, though, still disputes the pathologists’ findings.
“I understand that and understand her point from there. If it was a usual hanging if he was standing in a chair and dropped out of a chair, yes. I understand that. If his whole body weight was pulled down, yes, I could understand what she’s saying. But that’s not the case here. The case here is he lowered himself down a wall with this phone cord, let’s iterate that, it was a little phone cord, braided phone cord. He lowered himself down the wall with this phone cord around his neck until it tightened up and he passed out. And then he dropped and hit the floor,” Davis told Barr.
That’s the same theory Davis laid out to his sheriff in 2017.
The coroner decided he’d ask SLED in to conduct an investigation to end the standoff. The SLED case file contains a copy of the letter, submitted by Hardee’s Chief Deputy Coroner at the time, John McLeod. McLeod, who died in December 2021, spent 25 years as the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office’s Captain over the Criminal Investigations Division up until his retirement before joining the coroner’s office.
McLeod, with decades of investigative experience, also believed the evidence showed Hoover was murdered, according to Hardee.
The SLED file shows Sheriff Tony Chavis sent SLED a letter on August 17, 2017, titled, ‘Re-Investigation of a Suicide,’ asking SLED to “reexamine evidence to determine the cause of death,” in the Hoover case. “This will assist in determining if the facts and evidence gathered supports a homicide or suicide ruling,” Chavis wrote.
By the time Chavis’ letter reached SLED, 45 days had passed.
Hoover’s family would later learn that passage of time would further jeopardize the homicide investigation SLED agents and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office attempted to pursue over the next three years.
Investigator Freddie Davis was able to speak with Nikki Braddock after he got to the Franklin Street scene. After the 911 call, Davis said Braddock spent some time performing CPR on Hoover.
Once the first officer responded, Braddock was removed from the home and crime scene tape was stretched across the front yard in an attempt to preserve the scene for Davis.
“I spoke with her and asked her what had happened. And she explained that she had been over to the neighbor’s house and that when she came home and walked into the house that she walked in there and seen him sitting on the floor with the telephone cord around his neck,” Davis recalled of his initial interview with Braddock.
Braddock would later tell investigators that she and Hoover were sitting on the couch when she spotted her neighbor’s father walking in the middle of Franklin Street sometime around midnight that night. Hoover and Braddock had been drinking and taking pills, according to Braddock, and she got up to help the elderly man back into his home.
The man, Braddock told investigators, suffered from Alzheimer’s and would occasionally “get out” of the home.
Davis got Braddock to write a statement that night but decided because of Braddock’s condition he wouldn’t conduct a formal interview at the time, “With someone being high or intoxicated it’s not in our best interest to interview them because they may incriminate themselves, they may, I mean, there’s a lot of things that could happen or we could take their statement and then go to court and try to put them in jail for the rest of their life and they said, oh…they were high. I mean, they were talking off their head. They don’t know what they were talking about, you know.”
Davis said Braddock could “hardly stand up” when he was talking to her. “I waited until she sobered up and that’s when I went and actually really spoke to her,” Davis told QCN.
The investigator attempted to interview Braddock on July 5, but Davis said she didn’t show up to the sheriff’s office. That’s because Braddock attempted suicide after a deputy responding to a 911 call at the Franklin Street home found her “lying on the front porch with a pool of fresh blood around her right wrist area,” according to a sheriff’s office incident report contained in the documents we received through an open records request.
Davis was eventually able to interview Braddock on July 14 when she told deputies she went to help get her neighbor’s father back inside his home and when she returned Hoover was unresponsive, hanging from the ceiling fan.
SLED opened its investigation on August 18 and picked up Davis’ case file on August 21. The SLED investigative notes show agents first met with Coroner Todd Hardee at his office the same day. The report doesn’t show whether agents met with Chavis.
“Likewise, Sheriff Chavis asked that the case be review [sic] by SLED to determine if any irregularities were committed by his staff,” Special Agent Randall Truss wrote in his final investigative report about his contact with Chavis.
The investigation records provided to Queen City News by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office included two video-recorded interviews. Both recordings are of two different interviews with Nikki Braddock. One recording happened in February 2018, six months after Hoover’s death.
The other recording happened sometime after March 2022 when Braddock met with two Darlington County Sheriff’s investigators inside an interview room at the sheriff’s office. One of the deputies in the recording is Captain Neal Cusack, who leads Sheriff James Hudson’s Criminal Investigations division. We don’t know when that recording happened because Darlington County Sheriff James Hudson would not tell us, stating he couldn’t because the case is currently under investigation.
Although we already had the video recording depicting the contents of the interview.
The attorney general’s office also did not have records showing when the 2022 recording was made, how the AG’s office received it, or who provided the recording to the AG’s office, According to Attorney General Alan Wilson’s spokesman, Robert Kittle.
Kittle wouldn’t provide any of those details although the AG’s office pulled the video from its internal case file, copied the recording, and provided the recording to us under the SCFOIA.
Those recordings tell Nikki Braddock’s story of what happened that night on Franklin Street.
The Hoover investigation records provided to Queen City News show Nikki Braddock – aside from one attempt by the AG’s office to question a Marlboro County man in an undated witness statement form – was the only person investigators focused on throughout the more than three-year investigation.
Braddock was the last known person to see Hoover alive.
SLED agents interviewed Braddock for the first time on Nov. 15, 2017, four months after the death. Braddock told investigators that Hoover had threatened suicide before and that in the days leading up to his death, he was afraid of going to jail over unpaid child support.
On Nov. 22, 2017, the SLED case file shows Braddock went to the SLED office in Florence and gave agents a written statement. The SLED file doesn’t show whether agents recorded that interview, and no recording was turned over to us in response to our records request.
Braddock wrote that she left Hoover on the couch around midnight when she spotted her elderly neighbor walking in the middle of Franklin Street. Hoover was sitting on the couch arguing with his mother in texts when Braddock left, according to her statement.
Hoover had only been home from a rehabilitation stint for a week, Braddock said, and he was not using drugs or drinking that week, until that night. Braddock said she and Hoover started drinking that evening and taking Hoover’s prescription pills – a Benzodiazepine known as Klonopin.
Braddock said she was at the neighbor’s home for “20 or so minutes” and when she came back to the house, she found Hoover unresponsive in their bedroom, “Jason was sitting on the bedroom floor with his legs stretched out in front of him, his head down to his chest. There was a phone cord tied around the ceiling fan and wrapped around Jason’s neck,” Braddock wrote.
On Dec. 7, Braddock went to SLED’s Polygraph Section in Columbia to take what’s commonly known as a lie detector test. The results, which are not admissible in South Carolina courtrooms, showed “Deception Indicated” on two specific questions posed to Braddock:
“Did you strangle that man?”
“Did you strangle that man last July?
The polygraph result shows Braddock answered “No” to both questions, but the polygraph examiner found indication of deception in the answers. “The examinee was advised of the results of the test. The examinee did not many any admissions,” Polygraph Examiner Caitlin McPherson-Bryant wrote in the post-test interview section of the SLED record.
SLED records show Special Agent Randy Truss and SLED Lt. Roxanne Love met with Braddock again on Feb. 27, 2018, and video recorded their interview with her. Braddock explained why she believed the polygraph result showed deception.
“I guess what we’re trying to do is trying to get a clarification on to why there was deception shown,” Truss explained to Braddock in the recording. “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 explained to the agents.
“And there have been arguments where he’s choked – I mean, like, when we were arguing because we both got a CDV, 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,” Braddock said in the recording.
Braddock denied having any physical confrontation with Hoover in the seven days he was back home in Hartsville leading up to his death.
“When was the last time you, I guess, had a situation where you choked each other,” Truss asked, “Maybe, because we didn’t argue that week, I mean, it could have been when had sex sometime during that week he was home. But as far as – we didn’t have any physical altercations, because he was only back home from Columbia for a week before he passed away. But as far as any physical altercations, or, you know, anything like that, that didn’t occur the week before he passed away,” Braddock answered.
“I had never done that until I got with Jason and that was something he kind of introduced me to, but it was never where either one of us would pass out. And it wasn’t every time when we had intercourse…nobody was turning blue or anything like that. But I mean, we would be like, right on the neck, and just kind of putting pressure. I would – I hate to say choke, but I guess essentially, that’s what you’re doing, but it’s just more like pressure,” Braddock explained.
Agents also questioned Braddock about the apparent suicide notes she delivered to the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office on August 28, 2017 – nearly two months after Hoover’s death. The sheriff’s office’s evidence log does not show the investigator collected any notebooks while inside the home during the July 3 investigation.
The notes were inside multiple spiral-bound notebooks. Braddock said her family found the notebooks inside her home. The notes detailed Hoover’s thoughts of suicide with one titled ‘Last Will and Testament.’ Most of the notes are undated.
Braddock told SLED that Hoover had threatened suicide “at least 10 different times,” during their relationship, but that he never carried an attempt out during their three years together.
Braddock urged SLED agents several times during the February 2018 interview to find those notebooks she delivered to the sheriff’s office weeks after Hoover’s death.
SLED got the notebooks from the sheriff’s office and performed a handwriting analysis, comparing the handwriting in the apparent suicide notes to handwriting samples from both Hoover and Braddock. “It is probable” (meaning a high degree of likelihood) that Nikki Braddock “did not write the hand printed portions,” the SLED forensic scientist John “Jack” Jamison wrote in a Jan. 13, 2020 report on the results of his analysis.
ATTORNEY GENERAL: ‘Bad police work’
The Hoover family waited three years and one month to find out the results of the state’s investigation into Jason Hoover’s death. On August 11, 2020, Kathy Hoover got the call she describes as “Outside of Jason’s death, it was the worst news I could have received.”
“Unfortunately, that SLED report came back and at this time we don’t think we could prosecute this case,” Assistant Attorney General Joel Kozak told Hoover in the call Hoover recorded. “The circumstances of this case, the way it was handled at the beginning, and some of the evidence that came back, and now that some of the witnesses have died, we would just be unable to prove that case,” Kozak said.
One of the key pieces of evidence was whether Jason Hoover authored the handwritten notes.
“Are you telling me that the handwriting came back, and it was his,” Hoover asked, “Yes, the handwriting came back to match his. That was the last piece of evidence we were waiting on. We were hoping that would come back not to match his handwriting. Obviously, that would give us a lot more to go on,” Kozak said.
The AG’s office explained to Hoover that the decision to close the case without recommending a charge wasn’t Kozak’s exclusive decision. His superiors – other prosecuting attorneys in the office – collaborated on the decision and agreed that with the evidence collected in the case, they “couldn’t get past a directed verdict” if they charged anyone based on what they had at the time.
Kozak went on to criticize the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office’s handling of the death investigation. Hoover said she always wondered if the way the sheriff’s office conducted the investigation was intentional, “In my mind, it doesn’t appear to me to look like a cover-up more so than just bad police work,” Kozak told Hoover.
“You know more about the inner workings of Darlington than I do. But I mean, unfortunately, in smaller and smaller areas where resources are more limited, this tends to happen. Which is very unfortunate…Unfortunately for you guys and for this case, this isn’t the only time this has happened in Darlington with us,” Kozak said in the recorded call.
“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,” Kozak continued. The assistant attorney general reminded Hoover the AG’s office didn’t get the case until more than a year after it happened.
“At that point, I mean, we can only work with what exists, right? We can only work with the evidence that was collected before we were on it. We can’t go back in time really and go like, look at that and go back and gather that evidence. So, just the way it was handled originally, there was probably a lot of stuff that wasn’t gathered, “Kozak said.
Investigator Freddie Davis disagreed with Kozak’s analysis of the sheriff’s office’s handling of the Hoover death investigation, “You think in this case you did everything you could do to get the best answer possible,” Barr asked Davis. “I did, yeah. From what I had at the crime scene, what I got from talking to people, what I got from talking to the neighbors, what I got talking to her (Braddock) – everything that I got that I made a conclusion, I did what I could with what I had,” Davis told QCN.
Kozak also informed Hoover another hurdle in the investigation was the death of two key witnesses: the elderly man and his son who lived across the street – the men Braddock said she was with when she returned home to find Hoover hanging from the ceiling fan.
The men died during the state’s investigation.
The attorney general’s file also shows neither the sheriff’s office nor SLED agents checked into another potential key piece of evidence: whether Hoover had a life insurance policy and whether someone cashed it in.
“This case was reinvestigated and one aspect that was not examined previously is whether or not there existed any life insurance for Jason Hoover and who the beneficiaries may be if such a policy did exist,” the AG’s office’s Special Investigator Valerie Williams wrote in a June 13, 2019 letter seeking information on claims made for any Hoover life insurance policy.
The AG’s office also criticized the sheriff’s office’s failure to collect another piece of evidence during its investigation: the suicide letters.
“The thing is that Freddie Davis didn’t find this, Nikki Braddock brought it to them,” Hoover told Kozak in the August 2020 call. “There was no investigator that found that book at that scene and he was there, but it was Nikki Braddock that brought that book into Freddie Davis,” Hoover said. “That kind of goes full circle to the poor investigation, right,” Kozak asked, “So, I mean, but the bottom line is, is that we have a suicide letter written by him. Whether she found it or not, it’s still in his handwriting,” Kozak explained.
“Now, what we had hoped was that the handwriting was going to match hers or not match his, and then we would have had something to go with…But when you have a suicide note written by a victim, it’s going to be tough to convince 12 people to not see it as a suicide. Do you understand,” Kozak asked Hoover in the call.
Hoover apologized to Kozak for “yelling” in the call as he broke the news to her.
“Well, now it sounds like if somebody needs to be murdered, take their asses on up to damn Hartsville,” Caroline Laster, Kathy Hoover’s niece said in the recording. Laster was on the line with Kozak and Hoover in a group call.
“I wish I could disagree with you. The Darlington, Hartsville, Marlboro County, Dillon circuit, we get a lot of cases out of there and they’re not always the best, unfortunately,” Kozak told the women.
‘I COULD KILL HIM’
On July 5, two days after Jason Hoover’s death, Darlington County Investigator Freddie Davis got a call from Sara Sparks. Sparks was Hoover’s second wife from a marriage that lasted nearly a decade and created two children before they divorced around 2012.
Davis’s supplemental report contained in the SLED case file shows he took a call from Sparks on July 5, “Sara Sparks called and stated that Nikki would call her when she was drunk or messed up and tell her she (Nikki) could kill him (Jason) and get away with it. Mrs. Sparks stated she has text messages between her and Nikki and that she would get me a copy of them as soon as possible,” Davis wrote in the report.
Sparks told SLED the same story in October 2017 when a SLED agent traveled to Spartanburg, SC to interview her about the call with Braddock, “I could kill him and people would think it’s a suicide,” Sparks quoted Braddock as saying in the call.
Sparks wrote that quote in the Oct. 10, 2017, voluntary statement contained in the SLED case file.
“I was appalled. I actually asked her to repeat what she said. She then said, ‘Nobody would miss his ass. I could kill him, make it look like a suicide, and go on with my life,’ Sparks wrote in her formal written statement.
QCN’s Jody Barr read Sparks’ statement to Davis during an August 2022 sit-down interview at his home. Davis denied ever hearing that story from Sparks during his investigation.
“What’s her name,” Davis asked Barr. “Sara Sparks,” Barr replied.
“I talked to Sara Sparks. Sara Sparks never told me that,” Davis said. “Never talked to me about that. Never. I talked to his mom, I talked to her. She never said that to me. So why would you – she’s going to tell SLED why wouldn’t she tell me that,” Davis asked rhetorically.
“The mother never, if the mother knew of that conversation, the mother never told me that. And his mother and I talked on the regular. She called me two or three times a week. “I kept telling her (Hoover) that I thought that he’d done it to himself, and we went over that, but that was never told – she, the mother or the daughter-in-law, never spoke of that to me,” Davis confirmed in the interview.
Sparks said she got a Facebook message from Nikki Braddock in February 2017, just five months before Jason Hoover’s death.
“Out of the blue, which we did not have a good communication relationship. We actually did not like each other and I found it odd because she was asking questions about how to get out of a relationship with Jason. And that’s how it started,” Sparks told QCN.
Sparks said she was suspicious of Braddock’s motivations for contacting her and started “playing her a little bit” in an effort to draw more information, “Because I didn’t trust her. Red flags were flying everywhere with her. I just didn’t feel like Jason was safe, even though me and him did not have a great relationship, I’m going to take care of my children on that. You know, that’s their father,” Sparks said in the interview with QCN in July.
After Hoover’s death, Sparks wrote posts and comments accusing Nikki Braddock of knowing more than she was saying about what happened that night. “I started working on a thing along with Jason’s mother to really kind of out her and make it known that we knew she knew something, that she was the last person with him,” Sparks said. Those comments led Braddock to message Sparks threatening to take legal action against Sparks over the comments, which Braddock maintained were untrue.
Despite the handwritten notes showing Hoover was – at least – contemplating suicide, Sparks still doubts Jason Hoover killed himself.
“He would never, never kill himself,” Sparks argued. Suicidal threats, she said, were part of a relationship with Hoover.
“He would always, like if something didn’t go his way or especially during the times when our marriage was ending, he would come to me and say, you know, I’m going to off myself, I’m going to take some pills, and I’m just done. He would literally just take like, enough, like five pills to make him sick to the point he would go to the hospital,” Sparks said.
“I always told him he was a coward or described him as a coward. He was more talk than actual doing,” she told QCN. “He would never leave his kids on this earth, to have to be raised by one parent. And because he knew they loved him and adored him. And he would just never do that to them.”
On March 2, we aired a news investigation titled ‘The Confession,’ where we dug into the Darlington County Sheriff’s Office’s handling of the shooting death of Caleb James in May 2021. That report exposed problems with evidence collection and allegations those problems could jeopardize the criminal prosecution stemming from the shooting.
On March 21, 2022 – just 20 days after our ‘The Confession’ report aired, the Fourth Circuit Solicitor’s Office asked SLED to reopen and reinvestigate the Hoover death investigation.
The reinvestigation included another video-recorded interview with Nikki Braddock and two Darlington County Sheriff’s investigators. Neither investigator stated the date of the interview in the recording and the camera they used does not contain any identifying information showing the date.
Sheriff James Hudson would not tell QCN when the recording was made or whether his office knows when the recording was made. From information Braddock gave investigators, the interview appears to have been recorded sometime after SLED reopened the case on March 22, 2022.
“Nikki, um, what we’re doing here, and I hate to put you through this again. I know this is a rough time for you, okay? But we’re going to go back through – it’s been a while and it’s still an open case – not necessarily an open case, but there’s still some unanswered questions maybe if you can’t answer, but on Jason’s case,” the unidentified investigator tells Braddock at the start of the interview.
Braddock told investigators the same story she’s told from the start about what happened the night she left Jason Hoover on the couch and returned to find him unresponsive and hanging from the ceiling fan.
Text records provided to QCN by Kathy Hoover show an argument between her and her son that started around 12:10 a.m. – an hour and ten minutes before the 911 call to Franklin Street. “Are u [sic] going [sic] to [sic] pay on child support tomorrow?” a text from Jason Hoover’s number to Kathy Hoover’s number shows.
“I don’t think so. I spent a lot last month on tickets and food, the cable will be turned off. It would be a drop in the bucket if I do,” Kathy Hoover responded. Hoover said she’d given her son thousands of dollars over the previous months to help him pay car payments, utilities, child support, and other expenses. Kathy Hoover was living on a fixed income, relying on monthly disability payments, and she told QCN she went some months with no money trying to help her son.
Text records Kathy Hoover provided show over the next 22 minutes, the text argument continued. In one text, Hoover accused his mother of Medicaid fraud and said that Nikki Braddock was going to report her, “Nikki has the proof of the Medicaid. We will prosecute full force [sic]! Good luck…end of communication [sic],” Jason Hoover wrote in the text.
“Nikki does not have anything because I have not done anything. And I have had enough of this stupidity. Have a nice life Jason [sic]. I am done. Completely done. I am blocking you now. The only reason you have that phone is to talk to the kids. They will face to face you when they get here. I am done. Period. “At least when you go to jail you will be off drugs then. And I know for a fact, there’s no Klonopin [sic] in jail. 6 months. Maybe instead of playing games, getting f—ed up, staying there under nobody knows you are there, and sleeping all day you should be getting a job,” Kathy Hoover wrote to her son.
“But like I said, it’s time Jason [sic]. Maybe we will cross paths on the other side. But then again I’m not going to hell. Maybe I should buy a gun instead of helping you with anything. That way I will be gone for good,” Hoover wrote her son in the final texts she would ever send him.
“Then she, obviously, you know…you did it. I said, ‘Kathy if anybody did it you pushed him to do it.’ That’s just in my heart. That’s, that’s what I felt that – last thing, you know, when I see you on the other side or then again, I’m going to hell or something. I think that just, I’ve been in the point on pills and being depressed and drinking where I can see first, it could – and I know how fragile Jason was at different times. But like I said, he talked about, but I never – he never actually went through it with me,” Braddock told the pair of Darlington County Sheriff’s investigators in the 2022 interview video.
Hoover later told QCN that she always doubted that was her son on the other end of the phone that night, “I just can’t tell you who did it, I can’t tell you who’s involved, who are the people,” Hoover said in the May 2022 interview.
Toward the end of the 2022 interview with Braddock, the investigators started pressing Braddock about whether she had anything to do with Hoover’s death. Here’s the verbatim of that exchange captured on the law enforcement recording of the interview:
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “Was there anybody else in the house the night this happened?”
BRADDOCK: “No, sir. When I left it was just Jason.”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “Just him in the house?”
BRADDOCK: “Just sitting, like he was propped up on the couch, yes sir.”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “Did you do this to him?”
BRADDOCK: “No, sir.”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “Okay. Did you ever have thoughts of doing this to him?”
BRADDOCK: “No, I would rather be dead.”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “I have to ask it.”
BRADDOCK: “I’ve lost everything since he died. Because you know I told you I never – I got hooked on drugs, I lost about everything, my mom has lost everything. I’d have rather killed myself than to ever hurt Jason.”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “Don’t let this, don’t let this – what we’re talking about now dredge up some old thoughts, okay?”
BRADDOCK: “I’m not where I need to be right now, but I’m better than I was last year this time.”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “I agree.”
CAPTAIN NEAL CUSACK: “This is what we have to go through, okay?”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “Did you know anybody who wanted to do this to him?”
BRADDOCK: “Like I said, he was dealing with people that I didn’t know about. Like I said, I didn’t know about the cocaine and a lot of the pills, there was just some of that stuff I didn’t know about.”
UNIDENTIFIED DEPUTY: “Do you think he done this to himself?”
BRADDOCK: “Absolutely. In my heart, I know.”
We made multiple attempts to reach Nikki Braddock to offer her the chance to participate in this report. Calls and Facebook messages were never returned. We made contact with Braddock’s sister two weeks ago to ask her to pass along a message to Braddock that we wanted to interview her. Braddock’s sister said she’d inform their mother of our request to see if their mother would pass it along.
Nikki Braddock never responded.
KATHY HOOVER’S SEARCH IS OVER
Kathy Hoover’s search for evidence to show what happened to her son came to an end on June 18, 2022, just a little more than a month after her interview with Queen City News. Sometime overnight, Hoover died in her sleep.
Her daughter, Jessica Hoover, found her mother and called 911.
The Lexington County coroner’s office told Hoover the initial autopsy finding is that Hoover died of natural causes, but the final ruling won’t come until toxicology results come back, Hoover said.
“That’s me and that’s Jason and there’s mom,” Hoover said as she pointed out a picture on the mantle where her mother and brother’s ashes sit inside Hoover’s home. Jessica Hoover slid a blue cremation urn decorated with red hummingbirds as she held back tears.
“We got this because right after she died, a hummingbird came right up to me and was kissing me all over to let me know it’s going to be okay,” Hoover said as she held the urn in her hands.
Jessica had watched her mother become consumed by her brother’s death. Kathy Hoover would spend hours each day researching her brother’s medical records, and phone records, and trying to connect dots using social media accounts of people tied to Jason Hoover and Nikki Braddock.
This went on every day for the past five years. But, after we left Hoover’s home following our interview with Kathy Hoover on May 11, Jessica said her mother put her computer away and stopped the research, and started spending time with her family again.
“Oh, God she was happy. She was happy. After you left that day, she was happy that somebody finally listened to her, somebody finally believed in her and now that she’s gone, they know she knows the truth. She knows the truth now about what happened to my brother that night,” Hoover said through tears, “Does that make you feel any better,” Barr asked.
“Yes, because that’s all she really wanted to know was what happened to him that night. She worked so hard to find the truth.” Jessica Hoover admits there are questions about her brother’s death that no investigation will ever answer at this point.
“I don’t think I’ll ever know what really happened that night; who did it, why they did it, I don’t know.”