The team didn’t have much to go on.
Some little pieces of plastic left at the scene. A tip about a dark-colored vehicle. That was about it.
The South Carolina Highway Patrol Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team unit investigating the crash about a year ago had examined the moped that carried the person who’d died in the fatal hit-and-run. The moped, MAIT commander Capt. Michael Dangerfield said, looked like it had been struck by a “higher-riding vehicle” – a sport-utility vehicle.
But the unit didn’t have enough evidence to identify it. For the moment, the crime was unsolvable.
MAIT units investigate the most complex car crashes and all fatal hit-and-runs on South Carolina roads.
In 2015, there were 23 fatal hit-and-runs, according to data provided by the highway patrol. MAIT units were able to identify the make, model and year of the vehicle in 80 percent of those cases, Dangerfield said. Troopers were then able to locate 12 suspect vehicles and make 12 arrests.
The highway patrol has made about 1,200 arrests in all types of hit-and-run cases – ranging from property damage to fatal – each year from 2013 to 2015, according to South Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesperson Lt. Kelley Hughes.
After a fatal hit-and-run, the highway patrol will reach out the public for help. Tips from community members are vital, Dangerfield said. His team combines old-fashioned detective work with modern technology to reconstruct accidents and chase down leads.
Sometimes there’s enough evidence at the scene to identify a vehicle. But other times there isn’t much, if anything, to go on. That’s when the team has to be patient, persistent and maybe even a little lucky.
“It can be as small at paint flecks,” Dangerfield said, referring to useful evidence at the scene. “It’s really helpful when larger pieces are left.”
The statewide team of 31 MAIT officers has “a lot of vehicular knowledge,” he said. The officers, who’ve received an average of 1,500 training hours by the time they’ve reached their fifth year, can often look at a piece of an air dam from a front bumper and trace it to a particular make and model.
Dangerfield’s colleague, Sgt. Tommy Sturdivan, who leads Team A of the Georgia State Patrol’s Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team, once used 500 shards of glass from a shattered headlight to identify a vehicle that fled the scene of a fatality.
Sturdivan’s team was able to able to piece together the glass well enough to read the headlight’s Society of Automotive Engineers identification number. The number allowed the team to narrow its search to two makes and models of cars. The SCRT then canvassed body shops in a 25-mile radius of the hit-and-run and found a potential match – the right kind of car with the right kind of damage. Its owner had paid $1,800 in cash for the repairs.
The SCRT surveilled the car owner and discovered his 4 a.m. work commute took him right by the scene of the hit-and-run. The suspect was eventually charged, Sturdivan said, but only after an investigation of four to six months.
“You never know what type of evidence you’re going to get,” Sturdivan said. “It’s dictated by the type of hit-and-run.”
The toughest cases, he said, occur at night and leave little or no evidence.
While evidence is often physical – gouge marks, paint scrapes, tire tracks – it can also be electronic.
During the course of his 12-plus-year tenure with MAIT, Dangerfield has seen an increasing number of vehicles with event data recorders. The recorders grew in number as airbags became more prevalent, he said, estimating 90 percent of the cars on the road today have them. EDRs can provide critical data – speed, braking characteristics, seat-belt usage – that aid investigators in their work.
MAIT investigates hit-and-run crashes in much the same way that it does other accidents, Dangerfield said. The big difference is the time it takes to identify a missing vehicle.
About a year ago, as the MAIT unit looked for the “higher-riding vehicle” that had struck and killed the moped rider – Billie Ann Waylon, who died June 11, 2015, in Surfside Beach – the unit got a call from the Florida Highway Patrol. A colleague in the Sunshine State, with whom MAIT officers had connected at a training conference, provided a tip: A car rental company reported one of its SUVs had been damaged in such a way that might interest the MAIT unit.
The Florida investigators examined the vehicle and determined some repairs had been attempted. There were “telltale signs,” Dangerfield said. Bolts that looked newer, and some places where holes between parts didn’t line up.
The SUV was transported to South Carolina, where MAIT officers were able to match the small pieces of plastic found at the scene with the vehicle. The plastic came from inside the grille and bumper, Dangerfield said.
MAIT then contacted the rental car agency and obtained the rental history. The rental history pointed to to a North Carolina man, Dangerfield said. Dylan Pete Walker-Shook was arrested Sept. 10, 2015, about three months after the fatal hit-and-run.
“Every tip that comes in with a hit-and-run has to be looked into,” Dangerfield said. “If it wasn’t for the tips, many of the cases wouldn’t be solved.”