COLUMBIA, SC — The supervisor of the S.C. Governor’s Mansion was killed in a three-car collision in downtown Columbia that was caused by a driver fleeing from police in a stolen car containing a pistol and drugs, officials say.
Gov. Nikki Haley and previous South Carolina first families mourned the death of Chamberlain Branch, 48, who worked at the mansion for 10 years, coordinating events and supervising mansion staff.
The incident began at 12:30 a.m. Friday when the driver of a 2011 Hyundai disregarded a traffic stop near Knox Abbott Drive and State Street in Cayce and headed toward downtown Columbia, according to the statement.
Ignoring a patrol car’s blue lights and sirens, the driver reached speeds of 70 miles per hour and crossed the Knox Abbott Drive bridge onto Blossom Street. The officer pursued him.
The driver drove through the red light at Huger and Blossom streets and struck a Ford minivan that was traveling out of the city on Blossom.
Branch, who was driving the minivan, died at the scene, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.
The driver of the stolen car, identified as Shyborn Belton, 23, of Columbia, also died at the scene. Belton was driving with a suspended license, according to the Cayce Department of Public Safety. Officers found drugs and a stolen pistol in the car.
The Hyundai hit a second car, a 2007 minivan taxi that also was traveling out of Columbia, Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. Sonny Collins said. The driver of the taxi was uninjured. Three passengers in the Hyundai were taken to Palmetto Health Richland in serious condition, Watts said.
Cayce police asked the S.C. Highway Patrol to investigate the accident but said an initial review showed that officers involved followed the department’s policies.
A Kind and Gentle Soul
Branch worked as a supervisor at the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion during the administrations of Govs. Jim Hodges, Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley. He supervised mansion staff and helped arrange events.
“We are heartbroken and feel an incredible loss with Chamberlain’s passing,” Haley said in a statement. “Everyone who knew him loved him. His smile and laugh were contagious. He was a very special part of our family, and his gentle soul, good humor and care will always be treasured memories for each of us.”
Former first lady Jenny Sanford came to Columbia from her home in Sullivan’s Island on Friday to console Branch’s wife, Cherisse, and their three children, Cheyenne, 14, Chamberlain, 9, and Chaniya, 7.
“He was a kind and gentle soul,” Sanford said. “He was prayerful and loved the Lord. He never said an unkind word to or about anyone. He was part of our family.”
Sanford recounted Friday how much her four sons – who were ages 4 through 10 when they first moved to the Governor’s Mansion – loved Branch.
“They would have wheelbarrow races down that marble hall,” she said. “But he was always calm. Nothing ever ruffled him.”
In fact, when Blake Sanford became stuck in the mansion elevator, it was Branch who monitored him on the mansion’s security system while Sanford kept tabs on the 4-year-old through the elevator’s speaker.
Not only was Branch close to her sons, Sanford said she considered him to be a close personal friend.
“We were very close,” she said. “He would often text me a Bible verse or text me just to see how I was doing,” she said. The two had just recently exchanged messages about her move into a new house on Sullivan’s Island.
“It’s a shock to everybody,” she said. “Everybody is upset. We loved him.”
State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican who was Mark Sanford’s first chief of staff, said Branch was well respected as “the guy you went to for everything.”
“He was almost a third parent to the Sanford boys,” Davis said. “He helped make sure they did their homework and got to sporting events. … He loved people. It wasn’t just a job to him. It was a vocation. He took great pride with that.”
Branch, an A.C. Flora High School graduate, succeeded longtime head butler Willie Brown in the mansion administration a decade ago, Hodges said.
“He handled everything from Easter egg hunts to presidential visits,” Hodges said. “He had the unique personality and special skills to do all that. Whether it was the Hodges or the Sanfords or the Haleys, he had the confidence of the first family.”
Scott English, who worked in the Sanford administration including as chief of staff, said Branch was known for his graciousness and positive spirit.
“He never met a total stranger,” English said. “Five minutes after people took off their coats, they were close friends with Chamberlain. There was never a bridge too far for him. He gave so much of himself to the Mansion and the state. It’s devastating for him to be taken from us so quickly.”
The Rev. Anthony McCallum, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, said Branch was a family man and a leader within the church.
“He was the true model of the Christian servant,” he said. “He was just a genuine kind of guy. He drew people to him like a magnet.”
McCallum said Branch and his family were active in the church where Branch served as a trustee and the family participated in numerous activities like the church’s annual Christmas pageant and cantata.
His death has rocked the close knit church community.
“Everyone is unbelievably stunned,” McCallum said.
The cantata, he said, will continue tonight at 6 at the church’s family life center, across from the church at 1028 Eastman St., and will be held in Branch’s honor.