Crime & Courts

Mourners describe mayhem during SC graveside attack

Memories of being mowed down during funeral scar family members

James Kester was denied a reduction in bond after victims spoke in court about the July incident where Kester drove into a crowd gathered for a funeral
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James Kester was denied a reduction in bond after victims spoke in court about the July incident where Kester drove into a crowd gathered for a funeral

A state judge Tuesday refused to lower the $5 million bond for the man accused of trying to run over and kill a dozen mourners, including several children, at a Columbia cemetery during a July funeral.

Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman told the packed courtroom that the defendant, James “Jimmy” Kester, 65, would be a danger to the community if he were released. Kester, charged with 12 counts of attempted murder, has been in jail since July 19, the date of the attack.

Newman rejected arguments by Kester’s attorneys, John Delgado and Bill Nettles, that their client had severe mental illness and required psychiatric treatment outside a cramped jail setting. The lawyers said Kester – who would be under supervision and wear an electronic monitor – would pose no danger.

Twelve people were injured, some seriously, when Kester – using his car as a terrorist weapon, according to prosecutor Vance Eaton – deliberately drove his Cadillac sedan into a crowd of mourners near the end of a graveside service at Greenlawn Memorial cemetery.

“I witnessed the whole thing from start to finish. It was a horrendous scene – bodies thrown like 10 pins in a bowling alley, my son flipped over the hood of a car, two granddaughters thrown back ... one man was carried on the hood of Mr. Kester’s car 30, 40 yards,” said John Montgomery, one of a half-dozen victims who spoke in court Tuesday, telling the judge about the mayhem.

“It was sheer panic, people crying out in pain and agony, bodies strewn everywhere, limbs in impossible positions,” said Montgomery, former dean of the University of South Carolina law school.

Like other victims, Montgomery urged the judge not to lower Kester’s bond, saying Kester lives only a mile from many of the victims’ homes. “I would be personally fearful to have him out, taking my dog for a walk. ... I have lost track of the number of flashbacks this incident brings back to me.”

Speaking from a wheelchair, Will Sohn, who suffered broken bones, told the judge that, since July 19, “I have been in pain every single day. Thirteen days in the hospital, six weeks in skilled care, home health and, now, I’m in outpatient therapy. ... I had seven grandchildren there. Fortunately, only one was hit. ... One grandchild in Charleston says he doesn’t want to come back to Columbia because Columbia is evil.”

Speaking directly to Kester, who was standing with his lawyers, Sohn challenged the accused. “Here I am. Do you know me?”

Prompted by his lawyers, Kester shook his head no.

Sohn said, “You’re a terrorist, man. If you get out ... you might try to hurt me again. I haven’t been afraid of anybody for a long time in my life. But I am afraid of you.”

Kelli Montgomery, John Montgomery’s daughter-in-law, told the judge her 11-year-old daughter had to have surgery for a broken arm and still can’t play sports.

Recalling the attack, Kelly Montgomery said: “I see my husband flying in the air. I see my 14-year-old flying in the air. I see my father on the ground. I see my cousins on the ground. I see my family screaming. ...

“Every morning I wake up, it comes back to me,” Montgomery said, her voice breaking. “I’m terrified of this man.”

The mourners were attending a graveside service for S.C. Department of Mental Health staffer Margaret “Peggy” Livingston.

Police said Kester was seeking revenge against the Mental Health department for the way the agency allegedly had treated his late daughter, who died last year.

“He had a long-standing, festering vendetta against the Department of Mental Health,” prosecutor Eaton told Judge Newman on Tuesday.

Kester did not know Livingston personally, but he had read her obituary and saw she had worked at Mental Health. The funeral notice triggered Kester’s idea to drive his car to the cemetery, Eaton said.

At the cemetery, some 40 mourners, including a dozen children, were gathered at graveside. They just had sung “Amazing Grace” and recited Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” when a nearby car gunned its engine and came flying at them.

After sending bodies flying, the attacker’s car came to rest about 50 yards away in the middle of some low-lying graves.

A woman drew a gun from her purse, went to the car and ensured the driver did not leave. The driver originally told mourners his foot had slipped off the car’s accelerator.

What Kester did was “part of a deadly trend” of terrorists weaponizing vehicles, prosecutor Eaton told Newman, citing incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, and New York. “He chose to use his vehicle to attack these innocent people who really had nothing to do whatsoever with the Department of Mental Health.”

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