BENNETTSVILLE, S.C. In a small town not far from the N.C. border, questions surrounding the death of a 33-year-old nurse have lingered since last summer.
"Nobody will help us," a tearful Cornelia White told the Observer in February about the mystery surrounding her daughter. "If it weren't for our family, this would have been swept under the rug."
White wrote Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. Lindsey Graham, even Oprah Winfrey.
Finally last week, eight months after Brandy Simmons was buried, White got word that a judge had ordered her daughter's body exhumed.
An autopsy, she hopes, will answer a question that has troubled residents in the town of 9,400, where many people knew Brandy Simmons as a nurse and daughter of a longtime school bus driver:
Did she die of natural causes, as her death certificate says? Or did she die after a violent argument with her husband, as their two children told police?
The perfect couple
Brandy Simmons and her husband had been together since eighth grade. They were voted "Best Couple," her sisters said, at Marlboro County High School. Brandy Simmons became pregnant with their daughter in 1993 during her senior year, but they didn't marry until shortly before their son was born in 2001.
Brandy was a nurse by then; she graduated from Mercy School of Nursing in Charlotte in 1998, the first in her family to graduate from college. Her husband, her sisters said, worked at a carpet factory. They lived in atidy brick ranch house that stood out in their neighborhood because of the two playful cherry-red rocking chairs on the front porch.
"Everybody thought it was the perfect family," said Miranda White, Brandy's sister.
The last time her family saw Brandy alive was on July 26 at McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, S.C. Vickie White, who lives in Raleigh, said she kissed her sister's hands. "I loved her hands. Those hands were helping people. She was learning to deliver babies, and she loved doing it."
White said they were told in the hospital that Brandy suffered an aneurysm and that they had no reason to suspect otherwise.
Police: Girl reported violence
But on Aug. 2, the day after the funeral, Brandy Simmons' 15-year-old daughter went to her grandmother with such unsettling news that Cornelia White said she took the girl to Bennettsville police that very afternoon.
White recalled her granddaughter's words: "I got to speak for my mama because she's dead. I'm her voice."
According to the police report, the girl said her parents argued about money July 25, and her mother took her and her 8-year-old brother to a hotel in Florence that night. The girl told police that her mother showed her marks on her neck where she said her husband had choked her.
Both the girl and her brother told police, according to the report, that when they returned home the next morning their father hit their mother in the side several times with a stick. The report said that when the girl demanded to know why, he threw the girl to the ground and hit her with the stick. She said her mother told her, "Let's go."
According to the report, the girl went to her bedroom, and when she returned her mother was lying on the floor and her father was getting up from off her body.
The girl said her father told her to call 911. Her brother, according to the police report, saw blood coming from their mother's mouth and said her stomach looked swollen. While medics tended to Brandy Simmons, the girl told police that her father told them to say: "She slipped and fell, you hear me!"
The girl said her father often hit her mother, according to the police report, but her mother asked them never to tell anyone.
The police report said the Department of Social Services made arrangements for the children to live with their grandmother.
The Observer left a note for the husband, Vander Simmons Jr., at his house two weeks ago and contacted his attorney in the child custody case. The attorney said the husband got the note, but they declined to comment.
'Nobody would listen'
It's uncertain why the investigation into the children's allegations took eight months.
Vickie White said at first she got conflicting information about who was handling the case. She said Bennettsville police told her in mid-August that it had referred the case to the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, but she said SLED told her Sept. 2 that it had never heard of the case.
A SLED spokesperson said the agency got the case "in the fall," and declined to comment further. Solicitor Will Rogers said he referred the case to SLED because Brandy Simmons' brother is a police officer in Bennettsville, and Rogers said he wanted to avoid any potential conflict. Police Chief Larry McNeil could not be reached for comment.
In February, six months after Brandy Simmons' death and still no word on the investigation, the husband went to court and won back custody of his children.
Members of his family said in affidavits that he would never do anything to harm anyone, that they believe Brandy Simmons' family is lying and that her mother wanted custody only so she could collect the children's Social Security payments.
The judge wrote in a court order that there was not enough evidence to show that the children were abused or neglected by their father. He took his son to live with him, Simmons' family said, but the daughter refused to go.
That's when Simmons' mother and sisters turned outside Bennettsville for help.
"I don't think they believed the kids," Vickie White said. "We had to know what happened to her."
Family wants closure
A letter from Cornelia White to S.C. politicians and media was forwarded to the Observer. "Marlboro County is not trying to help us," she wrote. "They are trying to hide this crime and they just want us to go away."
White said they were told that there was not enough money in the budget to exhume her daughter's body - "the same thing that was told years ago when the decision was made to cremate Michael Jordan's father's body."
The county attracted unfavorable national attention in 1993 when Coroner Tim Brown said he lacked the money and facilities to store an unidentified body that turned out to be James Jordan, father of the NBA star. His body was discovered in a creek near Bennettsville and was cremated a few days later. Two teenagers were charged with robbing and shooting him, and sentenced to life in prison.
Cornelia White said she was told if she wanted her daughter's body exhumed, she would have to pay up to $10,000. So family members began raising money.
After hearing their concerns, the Observer contacted Solicitor Rogers in February. He said then that the case was still under investigation and "if the evidence leads me to believe a crime was committed, the body will be exhumed."
Two recent developments have given the family hope that they will soon find out how Brandy Simmons died. According to Cornelia and Vickie White:
On March 26, SLED presented evidence, including medical imaging from a CAT scan, in a closed hearing before a family court judge. Based on that evidence, the judge awarded Cornelia White temporary custody again of her grandchildren.
Last week, based on the same evidence, a judge ordered Brandy Simmons' body exhumed so an autopsy can be performed. The state, the family said it was told, will pay the cost.
As much as anything, Cornelia White hopes the autopsy will give them closure.
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