Crime & Courts

Lexington High student’s killer to go free

Brandon Vinson with his mother, Donna, on Christmas Day 1994, six months before he was found stabbed to death in an old chicken coop at an abandoned farm off U.S. 1 near Gilbert.
Brandon Vinson with his mother, Donna, on Christmas Day 1994, six months before he was found stabbed to death in an old chicken coop at an abandoned farm off U.S. 1 near Gilbert.

Sometime Monday, the man convicted of the 1995 horrific knife killing of Lexington High School 10th grader Brandon Vinson will walk out of prison.

The soon-to-be ex-prisoner Calen John Radwill, now 37, has no specific plans but, “I think his inclination would be to leave the state,” said one of Radwill’s lawyers, Jack Duncan of Lexington.

In 2005, Radwill pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and kidnapping in the Vinson’s death. Vinson was 15 and had disappeared while working as a bagger at a Red Bank Winn Dixie on a Saturday afternoon in June 1995. Three days later, Vinson’s body was found in an abandoned rural chicken coop near Gilbert. His hands were bound with hay-baling twine, he had been bludgeoned in the head and had been stabbed more than 70 times.

It was a case that shook Lexington County and reverberated for years because of its randomness, the victim’s youth, the violence of the crime and the delayed prosecution. Vinson is not believed to have known Radwill.

Vinson’s mother, Donna Ebert, 56, says she still feels the grief and wishes Radwill would serve more time.

“He’ll be released on Monday,” she said. “We knew we would face this day one day. He’s a free man, and I don’t have a son.”

Radwill, originally from Arizona and now in a state prison in Kershaw County, was arrested just months after the killing and stayed in the Lexington County jail for 10 years until pleading guilty in what is called an Alford plea in November 2005.

Under such a plea, a defendant doesn’t admit to the crime, but agrees that prosecutors likely have enough evidence for a conviction. A plea agreement between prosecutors and Radwill’s defense attorneys at the time specified his release date as Aug. 31, 2015. Had Radwill gone to trial and been convicted of murder, he could have been sentenced to life in prison. As it was, he was locked up for 20 years.

Ebert knows she can’t bring her son back. But she believes the circumstances of the case should have resulted in a far more lengthy stay in prison for Radwill.

“If the case had been prosecuted properly, he would have never walked,” she said.

Ebert is still upset that when she called the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department just an hour or so after her son went missing, a deputy didn’t take her seriously.

Her son was the kind of youth who was conscientious and would never have walked off his job at the grocery store toward the end of a shift, which is what law officers first speculated when contacted, she said.

“This cop told me, ‘Ma’am, he’s just a typical runaway. He’s at the beach.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. This child would never go anywhere without letting me know where he was going.’ I was hysterical,” she said. “He was not one to go off and go party. We contacted each other.”

More than 100 people came to Vinson’s funeral, remembering him as a friendly, sports-loving kid who included younger children in neighborhood pickup games.

Police never did gather that much evidence in the case. According to news reports at the time, the best evidence was statements police had from two of Radwill’s acquaintances, who said Radwill had told them he killed Vinson. And Radwill described to the acquaintances where the stab wounds were on Vinson’s body – facts known only to law enforcement.

Some aspects of the case were never fully explained. For example, Radwill spent 10 years in the Lexington County jail awaiting trial before he pleaded guilty. The judge who took Radwill’s plea, William Keesley, called the delay “a disgrace.”

From 1995 on, 11th Circuit solicitor Donnie Myers handled the case for years but gave it to 7th Circuit solicitor Trey Gowdy, now a Republican member of Congress, just months before Radwill pleaded guilty. Myers has offered no detailed explanation of why he transferred the case except to say in court papers that he had an unspecified “conflict of interest.”

And no motive was ever offered by police or prosecutors.

Duncan said Radwill “has paid his obligations to the state of South Carolina.” And Radwill has been a good inmate, with no disciplinary infractions on his record, he said.

“He converted to Islam while he was in there, and he reads Arabic,” Duncan said. “He is apprehensive about getting out. He’s like Rip Van Winkle, that fictional guy who went to sleep for 20 years. He doesn’t know what a smart phone is, for example. He went into jail as a teenager.

“But I think he will do extremely well,” said Duncan, who last saw Radwill several months ago. “I would say he will never be back in the criminal justice system. He’s very intelligent, has great insight, and whatever he does, he’s eager to learn.”

Ebert doesn’t see it that way.

“I just hope and pray, when he gets out, this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Ebert said. “Justice was not done. Radwill walks free, and I have to go visit my son and blow kisses at his grave every morning (while) taking my other son to school.”