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'People thrown everywhere': Police say suspect in S.C. cemetery crash wanted revenge

COLUMBIA, S.C. - James Kester was so angry at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health for its alleged treatment of his daughter that he plowed his Cadillac sedan into the graveside service of a formal mental health employee as a form of revenge, a police investigator said Thursday.

Judge Overture Walker set a $5 million bond for Kester, 64, who is facing 12 counts of attempted murder. He is accused of driving through a graveside service at Greenlawn Memorial Park off Leesburg Road in Columbia on Wednesday around 1:30 p.m.

During the bond hearing Thursday, a Columbia police investigator said Kester crashed his vehicle into the service as a form of protest against the S.C. Department of Mental Health, which he said had mistreated his daughter. The woman being laid to rest, Margaret Livingston, worked at the agency.

Investigator William Hilton said in court that Kester showed up at the burial and asked family members in attendance if the service was for Livingston. When a family member said yes, Kester got back in his car and drove through the seating area.

Tammy Altman, Livingston's cousin, said Kester's question seemed strange because he referred to her cousin as Margaret Livingston, whom most people knew as Peg or Peggy.

"He gunned it," Altman said during a bond Thursday hearing for Kester. "After that, it was mass chaos. There were just people thrown everywhere. There were people bleeding everywhere."

One family friend was carried 100 feet from the site on the hood of Kester's Cadillac sedan, Altman said. He had two broken legs.

Six people were still in the hospital and expected to undergo surgery Thursday, Altman said. One of them was in the ICU with a head injury.

Family members said the service for Livingston had just concluded, and that 30 to 40 people were still mingling in the area when the attack unfolded.

The ages of those who were injured range between 11 and 78 years old, police officials have said.

Kester had a vendetta against Livingston's former employer, the Department of Mental Health, which had treated his daughter, Columbia police investigator William Hilton said in court, only after the judge instructed him to divulge Kester's motive.

"He had an opportunity to exact revenge against the S.C. Department of Mental Health," Hilton said, adding that Kester did not personally know Livingston or her family. But her affiliation with the agency was made public in her obituary, which stated she retired after more than 30 years as an administrative assistant at the agency.

"The Department of Mental Health wouldn't let me see my daughter for 600 days," Kester said in court. "I said, 'Well, I need to see her.'"

Kester's father is buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park, according to an obituary published in The State newspaper in August 2002 after the death of Grier Kester Jr. The suspect's daughter, Joy Elizabeth Kester, also is buried in Greenlawn, according to an obituary published in The State newspaper in July 2016.

Joy Kester died at the burn unit in Augusta, Ga., from injuries suffered in a house fire in Richland County on July 5, 2016, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. Her death was ruled an accident.

That fire happened at a home in the Rosewood area, according to Capt. Brick Lewis of the Columbia Fire Department. An electrical issue was determined to be the cause of the blaze.

Livingston was well liked at the Department of Mental Health, where she worked from 1976 to 2011 as an administrative assistant, mostly in the inpatient services division, according to Deputy Director Mark Binkley.

"She had a special love for people struggling with a serious mental illness," said Delores Monteith, Livingston's former supervisor. "She also loved to dance and to feed all the neighborhood cats."

The obituary for Livingston, who died of cancer, asked that memorials be made to the American Cancer Society or an animal shelter. Altman said her cousin took many cats into her home and "was definitely a cat person."

"That's an understatement," another family member chimed in while Altman spoke with reporters Thursday morning.

Several current and former Department of Mental Health employees had attended Livingston's funeral, said Binkley, who added that none of them appeared to be among the injured.

Binkley could not comment on Kester's allegations about the agency, citing state and federal privacy laws.

Kester was arrested in 1972 by the Columbia Police Department on rape charges, according to State Law Enforcement Division records. The records do not reflect how that charge was resolved.

In 1990, Kester was arrested several times by Columbia police on charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and disturbing a school, and served about a month in jail, according to SLED. He was charged in 1992 by the Richland County Sheriff's Department with unlawful use of the telephone, but charges were dropped.

Those were the last charges until this week, when he was slammed with 12 charges of attempted murder. Kester faces up to 30 years in prison for each attempted murder charge.

The Greenlawn cemetery was the scene of another crime earlier this month, when a man vandalized nearly 200 graves during the Fourth of July weekend, many of them around the same area of the park in which Wednesday's collision happened.

Teddy Kulmala / The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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