Crime & Courts

Sumter man to be charged in home fire that killed his grandparents

Law enforcement are awaiting the extradition of Joseph Manners from the state of Kentucky to face arson and murder charges in the deaths of his grandparents.

The 20-year-old is accused of killing the couple by setting fire to their home in Sumter before fleeing the state.

The death of Joann Topper was caused by smoke inhalation, said Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock, but a toxicology report on James Topper is being prepared by the crime lab of the State Law Enforcement Division because Bullock questioned whether he might have died prior to the fire. That report had not been completed by Thursday evening.

The June 1 incident that killed the Toppers, and the circumstances surrounding their seemingly troubled grandson, might be uniquely tragic, but a network of community services and programs exist to prevent other troubling or even dangerous home situations from going as far as theirs did.

While the motive for the fire remains under investigation, the suspect apparently had a drug problem, according to authorities.

Sheriff's deputies responded to the Topper home on May 23 on a report that Manners had assaulted his grandmother. He was reportedly found "in the backyard passed out because he had inhaled dust remover and took a bottle of Percocet," according to the incident report.

The suspect was apprehended Sunday after driving his grandparents' Honda into the Ohio River during a police chase that started in Kentucky. He had reportedly overdosed on unidentified drugs and had to be hospitalized.

Families can sometimes feel overwhelmed when a loved one is struggling with drugs and/or alcohol, but there are a number of services available in the Sumter area to deal with problems caused by substance abuse.

"We have an intense outpatient program, and we offer individual and family therapy," said Glenn Peagler, executive director of Sumter Behavioral Health Services.

Those dealing with drug addiction have a better chance of recovery in a supportive family environment, and Peagler said his organization, a division of the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, offers services focused on family involvement.

"When we treat those issues, they also often have family issues, financial issues, or employment issues," Peagler said. "What we try to do is get the whole family involved. One thing we see is if we just treat the client and send them back home or back to the neighborhood, we see that client coming back."

Instead, Behavioral Health offers to work with its clients alongside family members or significant others to work out how best to deal with their behavior.

"The recidivism rate is lower if they have more of a support system," Peagler said. "There is help. The sooner they get treatment, the better the chances of recovery."

If an individual proves resistant to treatment or may even pose a danger to others or himself, mental health professionals can offer an even stronger alternative to troubling behavior. If family members go through probate court and show their loved one may be suffering from mental illness, they can have an individual involuntarily committed.

"We can petition for an order of detention," said Richard Guess, the executive director of the Santee-Wateree Community Mental Health Center. "And law enforcement can pick them up, by force if necessary, and bring them in for emergency treatment."

But that kind of response is usually limited to patients who have either caused harm, are threatening to cause harm or admit to thinking of causing harm, or have previously been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and are refusing to be treated or take medication.

In most cases, Guess prefers patients to come in for a voluntary assessment and seek treatment or referral.

"They may work very well with Glenn (Peagler) if the primary issue is substance abuse, but if they have co-occurring disorders, we can provide treatment for those, and we coordinate closely with (Behavioral Health)."

In a grim twist of fate, the Toppers' deaths exemplifies a push this year by the Sumter Fire Department to prevent fire deaths among with the elderly. In 2012, there were 23 fire deaths of senior citizens in South Carolina, something Chief Johnnie Rose, the public safety officer of the Sumter Fire Department, characterizes as "a very high number."

"If you're over 65, you have a greater chance of being killed or injured in a fire," Rose said, "and if you're over 75, you have three times more chance of death."

Physical infirmities can prevent seniors from escaping a fire — they're unable to crawl on the floor under the smoke, for example — so Rose said it's important for them to be prepared.

Firefighters are holding public information seminars at community centers around Sumter County, and the department is collecting donations to provide seniors with special smoke detectors.

"Because a lot of older folks are hearing impaired, we have smoke detectors that are louder for the hard of hearing, and some also have a flashing light to indicate smoke in the house."

Rose recommends that seniors closely attend to cooking to prevent kitchen fires, and not take medication that will make them drowsy while cooking. Also, older people on walkers or in wheelchairs should keep hallways clear to make it easier to get out of a house quickly.

Older residents in need of smoke detectors for their homes can contact Rose at the Sumter Fire Department.

"I'll try to get it done as soon as we can," he said. "I can't go home and sleep at night if I know there's someone without a smoke detector in their house."

The fire department can be reached at (803) 436-2600; Behavioral Health Services can be reached at (803) 775-5080; Mental Health Center can be reached 24 hours at (803) 775-9364.

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