Police chief on mayor's accident: 'These matters take time'

Deborah Rubens
Deborah Rubens

COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC) - COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - In a press conference Friday morning, Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter addressed media about the ongoing investigation into a car accident involving the city's mayor-elect Steve Benjamin.

The accident left one woman -- a well-known server at the Clarion Hotel -- fighting for her life in the hospital. The 40-year-old Benjamin was not hurt in the wreck, which happened hours after be was elected as Columbia's first black mayor.

Wednesday morning, an hour before daybreak, Benjamin was on the way to a TV interview. His black Mercedes SUV heading eastbound when it slammed into Rubens' Toyota at the intersection of Gervais and Pickens streets in downtown Columbia.

She was only a few dozen yards from her workplace, Carolina's restuarant inside the Clarion Hotel. For more than a decade, Deborah Rubens has waited tables at Carolina's. Her customers included some of the city's best known political and business figures. Coincidentally, Benjamin has been one of her customers.

Since the crash, the 61-year-old victim has been hospitalized with head trauma, a shattered pelvis and other injuries.

The press conference started with a wistful Carter offering condolences and prayers to the accident's severely injured victim, Deborah Rubens, but transitioned quickly into him touting the experience and confidence in his lead investigative team.

Carter said the primary and secondary investigators have a combined 23 years of experience and look into nearly 150 serious accidents per year. However, he reiterated throughout the press conference that the investigation will take time.

"It's driven by facts, not a time clock," said Carter. "We have to look at all the contributing factors in the accident to determine who is at fault. Newer cars have black box. We're in the process of verifying that specific information."

He did reveal that police had identified three eye witnesses to the accident and they are being questioned. Carter also said police are looking at cameras in the area to determine what happened, but that process is taking some time because subpoenas have to be acquired and served in several cases.

Carter said there was one camera in particular police were going to subpoena because it had a direct line of sight on Wednesday's accident.

The investigation was shaken Thursday after rumors stating Benjamin's lights were off at the time of the accident were leaked to the press. Carter did not confirm or deny the rumor, only saying it was one of several possible contributing factors investigators were examining.

The Highway Patrol was called in to assist in the investigation and confirm that Benjamin was not impaired at the time of the accident. The state agency concurred with the city's police, said Carter.

Some people have called for the city's police to recuse themselves and allow a different agency to take over the investigation, citing bias as a reason to step away from the role of lead investigative team. Carter said he had no plans to do that, but was calling on outside agencies to assist and confirm some conclusions his officers had reached.

"There is no room to fudge," he said.

Carter said police have already talked to Benjamin, calling him "cooperative" with the effort to find fault in the case. He said investigators also wanted to talk to Rubens before closing the investigation, although her current critical state in the hospital is making that impossible.

Officers have not said who had the right of way at the intersection where the wreck occurred. There are no skid marks leading to the point of impact, an indication Benjamin was not braking.

"We're not investigating Mr. Benjamin, we're investigating an accident," said Carter.

Copyright 2010 WCSC. All rights reserved. The Associated Press and WIS-TV contributed to this report.