COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The founder of the clothing company Southern Tide won't face charges for fatally shooting another man who trespassed on the South Carolina estate of the entrepreneur, authorities said Tuesday, drawing criticism from the dead man's family.
Prosecutor Walt Wilkins said at a news conference that businessman Allen Stephenson was justified in the early morning shooting outside his home March 19.
In 2006 Stephenson founded Southern Tide, a purveyor of high-end polo shirts, shorts and other classically styled apparel for men and women that bears a skipjack fish logo. Authorities say the 32-year-old businessman shot and killed Matthew Whitman as Whitman trespassed on Stephenson's estate, its home patterned after a German castle, several miles north of Greenville.
According to Sheriff Steve Loftis, Stephenson's girlfriend called 911 to report that someone was trespassing on the grounds and walking down a quarter-mile-long driveway leading from a locked gate to the home. When the man refused to stop, Stephenson stood on his porch and fired two warning shots in the air from a shotgun, according to Loftis.
Stephenson left the porch and approached the man, who then tried to stab him with a folding hunting knife, according to Loftis. At that point, the sheriff said, Stephenson fired five times, hitting Whitman three times —in the arm, face and chest.
Wilkins said Stephenson was legally standing his ground on his property, defending himself and his girlfriend, and therefore was immune from prosecution.
"He was justified in shooting the suspect under the circumstances and the facts that we have," Wilkins said of Stephenson. "He was in harm or fear of death or injury to his person."
Whitman lived a little more than a mile from Stephenson's home, but Wilkins said there is "zero evidence" the men knew each other or had ever had any prior communication. The prosecutor also said testing had not been completed on whether Whitman was under the influence of alcohol or drugs when he was shot.
In a statement, the Whitman family said it was "disappointed" in the decision not to charge Stephenson, according to what family attorneys had heard on the 911 call.
"The 911 operator and the witness both pleaded with Mr. Stephenson to return inside," the family statement said. "Matthew, at worst, was simply trespassing that morning."
In a statement, an attorney for Stephenson said his client "is deeply saddened" by the shooting but was left with "no alternative than to defend himself and his fiancee."
The attorney, Sloan Ellis, provided an incident report describing a February 2016 instance during which Whitman's family called 911 after he broke a vase at his grandmother's home and acted erratically, also noting that he had "spent most of his time locked in his bedroom" for several years prior.
Wilkins said Whitman was not charged as a result of that incident, and police reports indicate deputies referred his family to available mental health resources.
Wilkins declined Tuesday to discuss Whitman's mental health history.
Stephenson is white, as was Whitman.