Despite how the case had played out in the three years since she accused Bowen Turner of raping her outside a party in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, Chloe Bess held out hope for an outcome that would be just.
But sitting in the courtroom on April 8, she watched as Turner — a 19-year-old whose father has connections in the court system and whose lawyer is a prominent state senator — pleaded guilty to a single reduced charge of assault and battery against her. He was sentenced to five years of probation, during which he must complete sex offender counseling but won’t have to register as a sex offender unless he violates his probation.
“There’s no words for it,” Chloe, 19, told BuzzFeed News. “I just couldn't believe that he was getting charged with something that doesn't fit what he did to me.”
In less than two years, three women had accused Turner of raping them, including Chloe who he allegedly sexually assaulted while he was out on bond for the second alleged incident. Turner was charged with criminal sexual conduct in the first degree in connection with two of the incidents.
Authorities are still investigating the first rape allegation against him made by an unidentified teenager in April 2018. The second alleged victim, Dallas Stoller, who had also accused Turner of raping her outside a party in October 2018, died of a self-inflicted injury three years later, prompting the prosecutor to dismiss one of the counts of criminal sexual conduct against Turner because she wasn’t around to testify anymore.
The third victim, Chloe, was denied a chance to speak in court before the guilty plea, and she and her family moved out of the state amid fierce backlash from the small Orangeburg community for coming forward with the accusations against Turner.
And while the Bess and Stoller families awaited justice in a case that dragged on for three years — in part because of Turner’s lawyer’s legislative duties as a state senator — Turner violated his house arrest dozens of times, visiting malls, golf courses, restaurants, and the cemetery where Dallas Stoller was buried without any repercussions, court documents show.
The way these cases have played out in court shows how hard alleged victims in South Carolina must fight for the enforcement of their legal rights, as accused sexual assaulters evade accountability for violating court orders. It also exposes the unusual influence held by South Carolina state legislators over its judicial system.
“I think that we're seeing [that] folks with power and privilege are able to determine what justice looks like for them — at least that's the appearance of this,” Sarah Ford, an attorney with the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network who is representing the Stoller and Bess families, told BuzzFeed News.
“We have a law in South Carolina that victims’ rights are to be as zealously protected as defendants’,” Ford said. “And I guess my question is, Is that what happened here? Because these victims certainly don't feel that way.”
Dallas Stoller was an outgoing teenager. She was senior class president and yearbook editor, and she excelled at volleyball, her family told BuzzFeed News.
“We [were] at a very small school, very cliquey, but she was pretty good at blending with everybody,” her sister, Brette Tabatabai, said. “After this happened, that completely changed.”
Dallas, then 17, was hesitant about coming forward with the allegation that Turner had raped her outside a party in Bamberg County in October 2018. She and Turner were friends and she wanted him to get help, her dad, Karl Stoller, told BuzzFeed News. She was also worried about how students at their Orangeburg Preparatory School — where Turner’s dad was a board member, according to archived versions of the school website — would react, and by extension the wider Orangeburg community.
When she decided to file a report with the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division, her family steeled her for what was to come. “When things like this happen, people want to draw a line and take sides,” Karl said. “We kind of prepared her for that.”
But they did not anticipate exactly how bad the bullying would be. Turner’s friends expressed support for him on social media (Tabatabai shared screenshots of those posts but BuzzFeed News is declining to publish those because many were posted by minors at the time), and people called her an “attention whore” and accused her of lying about being raped, her family said.
During her senior year spring break trip, Turner’s friends watched Dallas to see if they could capture her “doing anything out of the way so they could use that against her,” Michelle Stoller, her mom, told BuzzFeed News.
Dallas’s family said she developed severe abdominal pains because of the anxiety and trauma. As time passed, they thought she seemed to be doing better.
Then, on Nov. 14, 2021, Dallas died unexpectedly after stabbing herself in the leg, her family said. They don’t believe she intended to kill herself.
“It was one of those situations where it was crying out for — ‘I'm at my breaking point.’ It was a cry for help,” her dad said.
Chloe Bess also struggled with the backlash. She had accused Turner of raping her outside a party in Orangeburg County in June 2019, eight months after Dallas’s accusation and while Turner was out on bond. After Chloe reported the alleged rape, the Besses were harassed and their house was egged, they told BuzzFeed News, adding that Chloe was iced out by people in the community.
“And as soon as this happened, she was nonexistent anymore. It was a complete turn,” Carol Bess, her mom, told BuzzFeed News.
A month after Chloe alleged that Turner raped her, his attorney, Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto, argued in court that Chloe had said she “felt ashamed” after her encounter with Turner, and that it was not rape because she didn’t say no, the Times and Democrat reported.
“You just had sex on the ground with a boy you didn’t really know and you got up and you feel ashamed, you feel regret, that’s not rape,” Hutto, a state senator since 1996 and South Carolina’s Senate minority leader, said during a hearing in July 2019. “She did not object, she did not scratch, she did not push, she did not call out. When asked point blank if she said, ‘No,’ she didn’t. When asked point blank if she said, ‘Stop,’ she didn’t.”
Chloe said she was not in the courtroom that day, but was stunned to hear what Hutto had said about her. “I could not believe that somebody in his position got up there and thought it was OK to say that about a 16-year-old girl — because I was 16 at the time,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I think that's just disgusting and speaks volumes about his character.”
A few months after the alleged incident, Chloe moved to Florida. “There was no way that I could have finished out high school with the way that people were treating me and my family up there,” Chloe said. Her parents later followed.
Though the Stollers and Besses said they had support among some people in Orangeburg, there was much fiercer support for Turner and his family because, they said, Turner’s father, Walt, was a prominent figure in the country club scene who had connections in the court system as a former employee.
“We’re coming from a really small town where everybody knows everybody,” Tabatabai said. “Everybody's in certain groups — it's like, the country club and all the little clubs and social scenes, they're all together, so they stick together.”
When Turner was sentenced in early April, a judge granted his three accusers and their families a restraining order against him. On April 21, Sarah Ford, the alleged victims’ attorney, filed a request to modify the restraining order to include his parents, Walt and Jennifer Turner, and his family, citing several calls that the Stollers received in recent weeks while they were speaking to local outlets and calling for the solicitor’s office to reopen Dallas’s case.
According to the filing, Michelle Stoller, Dallas’s mom, received a call from an unidentified number on April 13 from someone who claimed to be contacting her on Turner’s behalf. “The individual apologized on Bowen Turner’s behalf and indicated that he has a bright future that is being dampened by the Stoller family sharing their story with the media,” Ford wrote.
Karl, Dallas’s dad, also received two calls on April 16 from a number that caller ID listed as “Jennifer Turner,” the filing said, neither of which Karl picked up. The Stollers told BuzzFeed News that they ended up blocking that number on their phones “out of precaution.”
When reached for comment, Walt Turner told BuzzFeed News that “there is many things being said that are simply made up.” He later declined to comment further. Hutto also did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News on behalf of Turner and about his comments in court about Chloe.
In August 2019, Turner was placed on house arrest with a GPS monitor at his grandmother’s residence after being charged over Chloe’s allegation. In March 2020, Circuit Judge George M. McFaddin granted a request for Turner to be relocated to his parents’ house — less than a mile from the Besses’ home, though Chloe was already living out of state at the time.
Though Turner was released on bond in both Chloe and Dallas’s cases that limited his movement and required his whereabouts be tracked, the solicitor’s office agreed to his attorney’s requests for him to travel at least twice without giving the alleged victims or their attorney prior notice or opportunity to object, according to an April 8 motion filed by Ford.
“There has been a pattern of ignoring the Victims’ right to be heard on matters relating to bond by the State,” Ford wrote.
Acting on a hunch amid a dearth of information from the prosecutor’s office, Carol Bess, Chloe’s mom, asked SLED Agent Katie McCallister, who was working on the case, if Turner was complying with his house arrest.
He was not. Investigators unearthed dozens of instances in which Turner violated his bond order. Tracking data from November 2021 to February 2022 show that Turner made trips to golf courses, restaurants, sporting goods stores, malls, a Bed Bath and Beyond, and traveled out of state to Georgia to visit a car dealership.
Records also show that in January 2022, Turner visited Memorial Park Cemetery, where Dallas Stoller is buried.
The Stollers don’t know if Turner was at the cemetery to visit Dallas’s grave, but Karl said it seemed “a little coincidental” that he went there at all. Tabatabai, Dallas’s sister, told BuzzFeed News that a supporter later left a sign at Dallas’s grave that read, “Bowen Turner, you are not welcomed here!”
“At first I was like, What the hell, and then I was like, Maybe he was out there remorseful and asking for forgiveness,” Tabatabai said. Then she saw the other locations he had visited. “And I was like, Well, then you went to play golf the next day, and then you continued to go to steakhouses and go shopping and do other things. So he must not have been that remorseful.”
Prosecutors filed for Turner’s house arrest to be revoked after the violations on April 4, but then, a few days later, the office struck the plea deal with Turner — voiding the bond revocation request.
Although the judge’s order explicitly stated that law enforcement is authorized to “immediately take the defendant into custody” if he was “observed violating any term or condition of this order,” the Besses said SLED informed them that it would not arrest Turner because McCallister, the agent handling their case, would have to had personally observed Turner violating his bond to take him in.
“I knew then that when they started to just play a semantics game with us that something was not quite right,” Darren Bess, Chloe’s dad, said. “You know, something started to smell pretty bad.”
Alphin, the SLED spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News that McCallister had tried to find a witness to Turner’s violations so that they could corroborate the GPS monitor records. They were unsuccessful because “the witnesses refused to cooperate or even speak with us,” Alphin said.
“The concern was that if asked under oath whether she ‘observed’ the bond violations as set forth in the order, S/A McCallister would have been forced to say no as she did not actually observe the violations,” Alphin added. “This was not a situation where the conduct in question was actually seen by law enforcement, as is most often the case in bond violation situations.”
Alphin declined to say if SLED had ever taken someone into custody for bond violations even when an agent did not observe those violations, noting that bond orders vary from case to case.
Chloe and Dallas’s families said that they did not have much contact with David Miller, the Second Judicial Circuit deputy solicitor prosecuting their cases. (The cases would have been under the jurisdiction of the First Judicial Circuit Solicitor, but that office was recused because Turner’s dad was an investigator there when the investigation began.)
After Dallas died last November, the Stollers knew that it would be challenging to proceed with the case without the victim’s testimony, but not impossible — Dallas had given a written statement, after all, and investigators took photo evidence of the injuries on her body.
But this April, the family was still taken aback when Miller informed them over a Zoom call that he was dropping the charge against Turner in Dallas’s case.
According to Karl Stoller’s account of the Zoom call on April 6, Miller told the Stollers that he was dismissing the criminal sexual conduct charge against Turner because she was not around to testify as to whether their interaction had been consensual.
Recalling the conversation, Karl said that Miller implied he would not waste his time, the state’s time and money, and the jurors’ time pursuing a case that he believed the state could not win. Ford, the attorney representing the Stollers, was also on the Zoom call and corroborated Karl’s recollection of what Miller appeared to suggest during the call.
Miller, according to Karl, also informed the family that he had not seen the photos of Dallas’s injuries from the alleged rape until the morning of that call. Ford confirmed that Miller had said this in their conversation but then had tried to backtrack. She said she was unsure whether Miller had seen the photos based on that conversation.
Two days after the Zoom call, Turner appeared in court and accepted the Second Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office plea offer in Chloe’s case, in which his charge was reduced from criminal sexual conduct to first-degree assault and battery.
Neither the Second Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office nor Miller himself responded to multiple requests from BuzzFeed News to address detailed questions about Miller’s handling of the cases and the Zoom conversation with the Stollers about dismissing Dallas’s case.
The Besses, who told BuzzFeed News that they disagreed with the plea deal, claimed Miller also treated their case with a similar dismissiveness. Darren Bess said the first time he met Miller, he felt like he was “just trying to go through the motions” of prosecuting the case. The family said they hardly heard from Miller about how the case was moving. Ford told BuzzFeed News the solicitor’s office only reached out to her to meet with the Besses immediately prior to the plea deal earlier this month.
“This is the way I look at it,” Karl Stoller told BuzzFeed News. “If you at least tried to do something, made some sort of effort to actually prosecute this case and other cases diligently and really work at it, and you still lost, I can accept that. Because if you did, you did your best to fight for justice for these victims. But when you do nothing, do nothing but just say the easiest thing is just to walk away from it — I can't accept that.”
The court proceedings, according to the two families, were plagued with delays because Turner was being represented by state Sen. Hutto. As Turner’s lawyer as well as a legislator, Hutto cannot be obligated to attend court proceedings while the General Assembly is in session under protections that have been criticized by victim advocates, as local outlet Live5News reported. The practice has led to indefinite delays of trials across the state, and cases such as Turner’s, in which one party is represented by a lawyer-legislator, have dragged on for years.
“If you're a member of the General Assembly, you can get your [court] cases deferred on the grounds that the General Assembly is in session, or if it’s not in session that you're so busy with legislation committee work and constituent service … that you don't have time to appear,” John Crangle, a former director of Common Cause of South Carolina who’s currently on the executive committee for South Carolina Progressive Network, told BuzzFeed News.
Hiring a lawyer-legislator is a “big asset for criminal defendants who want to delay their case as long as possible,” Crangle said. “There’s a number of ways that [extra] time works in favor of the defendant, particularly if the defendant is out on bond.”
South Carolina is also one of two states in the country where lawmakers have the power to elect judges. Miller, the prosecutor in both cases against Turner, has applied for a judgeship in circuit court at least twice, including as recently as 2019, public records show.
While Chloe’s family is not appealing Turner’s sentence, Ford filed an appeal last week after a circuit court judge previously struck down three motions that she had filed to enforce Chloe’s victim rights, including one for Chloe to be heard in court prior to Turner’s guilty plea, one to hold the bond company accountable for not reporting more than 40 house arrest violations by Turner, and a third against SLED and the prosecutors for failing to take Turner into custody after the violations.
The Besses said they understood the appeal process is a long and arduous one. But both families told BuzzFeed News that they believe what went wrong in their individual cases is a symptom of a larger problem with South Carolina’s criminal justice system, and especially when it comes to sexual assault victims’ rights.
“It's supposed to be a 50-50 playing field, there's not supposed to be one side or the other [with an advantage],” Karl Stoller said. “We received nothing that even vaguely resembles justice.”