Looking back on the tragedy of April 12, 1978

in Contributors/Scott Graber/Voices by

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series of three essays on the State v. Plath and Arnold trial that happened in 1979.

By SCOTT GRABER

In April 1978, John Plath, John Arnold, a teen-aged female and an 11-year-old wandered into Beaufort County. They were young, disconnected and sleep-deprived having driven from Pennsylvania to visit a friend at Parris Island.

In 1978, Beaufort County was an isolated, mostly bypassed farming and fishing community midway between Charleston and Savannah. It was a collection of low-lying, well-watered islands separated by tidal creeks and mud flats.

It was tomato fields, packing sheds, shrimp boats and simple white-painted church buildings. It was not yet an unbroken landscape of golf courses, resort hotels and beach-hugging enclaves.

The tragedy that took place on April 12, 1978, began when this wandering, white foursome spotted Betty Gardner trying to hitchhike from Warsaw Island to St Helena Island, where her father had a farm.

Trial testimony would later establish that the teenagers took Gardner to a remote part of St Helena, not her father’s farm, where they made her undress and engage in oral sex. Then after the sex, they began to beat her.

According to the testimony there was strangulation with a belt and a garden hose. Then she was stomped upon and stabbed. Eventually, grudgingly, Betty Gardner died.

By 1978, Beaufort County was beginning to take notice of murder, manslaughter and burglary on St. Helena Island. Twenty years earlier, St. Helena crime was not of much interest to Beaufort County’s law officers.

In those days, murder — especially black-on-black murder — went unresolved.

Punishment for St Helena crime was often left to the Deacons of Brick Baptist Church. But now there was a bridge, and a paved highway that ran the length of the island. And now there was an angry island community wanting to know what had happened to Betty Gardner.

For several months, Gardner was deemed a missing person. She would have stayed in that category if John Arnold had not been arrested or said, to another inmate, that he knew where Betty Gardner’s body was located.

Eventually this remark made its way out of the old cinder block jail to a deputy sheriff. Eventually John Arnold was asked, by this deputy, to help with the on-going search.

John Arnold could not produce a corpse. Apparently the deputies got within a mile of the body, but in the course of these frustrating searches, John Arnold became a suspect. John Plath’s teen-aged girlfriend had a better memory and was able to lead the deputies directly to Gardner’s body. And for her efforts she got immunity from prosecution.

But the State of South Carolina would prosecute the two boys. And the state — in the person of Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh — would seek the death penalty.

“Buster” Murdaugh — then the Solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit — was a short, powerfully built man who had once played football for the University of South Carolina. He had a round face and spoke out of the side of his mouth because that mouth was usually full of Red Man chewing tobacco.

Every courtroom in the 14th Circuit had a brass spittoon next to the Solicitor’s table — a wooden table where Murdaugh stacked-up his indictments. The defense lawyers had no clue which indictment that Murdaugh would select — which defendant would called to trial — but if there was any criticism it came from the Clerk of Court who routinely replaced the spit-stained carpet around each spittoon.

Murdaugh’s power was absolute when it came to who got prosecuted in the 14th Circuit, or what lesser charge the state would consider if the accused admitted his or her guilt. There was no question about who was in charge and the presiding judge, Clyde Eltzroth, was not entirely happy with this arrangement.

Eltzroth was tall, florid, more comfortable hunting birds with his 12-gauge shotgun and his Labrador Retriever, Spook. The red-faced judge often brought Spook to the courtroom, where he remained hidden under the bench while Murdaugh and the lawyers exchanged opening salvos in front of a standing-room-only crowd anxious to see what justice really looked like in Beaufort County.

Eltzroth had not gone to law school, rather he had “read” the law with another lawyer — over in Hampton County — and then passed the bar exam.

But nobody questioned Elzroth’s legal ability. He was smart, decisive and efficiently processed those accused of crime through his courtroom.

But when Eltzroth got mad, well that was another matter. The old judge was not to be reckoned or reasoned with. One got out of his courtroom or — if a dash to the door was not possible — out of his line of sight.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.