S.C. parents sentenced to 5 years after Alford plea for child abuse

5-year-old tells of being forced to snort cocaine along with 2-year-old sister

COLUMBIA -- In a 5-year-old's eyes, his parents' greatest sin was stealing.

Living in the back seat of a green 1994 Buick -- between mushed food in the seats and overturned drinks on the floorboard -- the child was appalled that his parents would steal four food trays, dinner rolls and a half-gallon of tea from a Piggly Wiggly to feed them.

As for the "white medicine" he said his parents forced him and his sister to snort through a straw, all he knew about it was that it made his nose burn and his 2-year-old sister throw up.

The boy's parents -- 24-year-old Brandon Suggs and 30-year-old Ragane Suggs -- pleaded guilty Wednesday to child abuse with great bodily injury. Judge Kenneth Goode sentenced them each to five years in prison.

Detective Danielle Belk interviewed the 5-year-old boy for the Cayce Department of Public Safety.

"He was very explicit as to that they had to suck it up through a straw, him and his sister, and that sometimes (his sister) would cry and it would choke her and that mom and dad were present," she said.

The parents admitted to smoking crack cocaine in front of their children, but both vigorously denied forcing their children to snort the drug.

Both parents pleaded guilty under a U.S. Supreme Court case called an Alford plea -- in which they do not admit guilt, but admit they would probably lose in a jury trial.

In a videotaped interview, not shown in court, the 5-year-old says his father gave him a cigarette to smoke but doesn't talk about being forced to snort cocaine, said Wayne Floyd, Ragane Suggs' attorney.

Floyd said the fumes from the parents' cocaine use might have been the burning sensation the boy described to police.

The 5-year-old had 8,556 parts per million of cocaine in his system. His little sister had 12,143 parts per million, tests showed.

Dr. Bob Stafford, medical director for the Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, said those levels are so high it would be impossible to have gotten them from fumes.

Stafford also said the high levels indicate the children used cocaine more than once. "You can't take that much in at one time and survive," he said.

'White medicine'

Brandon and Ragane Suggs were together for three months before Brandon got another woman pregnant and split his time between the two households, Floyd said.

Ragane Suggs had her own place and took care of the children herself on an $8-an-hour salary from a cleaning job.

"She was a good parent," Floyd said. "She had no problems with these children at all until (she and Brandon) got on that crack."

For a while, she had an on-again, off-again relationship with her husband, Floyd said. She eventually got back together with Brandon Suggs and, at some point, the two started using cocaine.

Brandon Suggs lost his job at Gaston Vinyl Siding. Then, Ragane lost hers. Soon, the parents couldn't afford hotel rooms.

That's when the family moved into the green Buick. According to the 5-year-old, his parents would steal from local stores clothes, shoes and food -- and either swap or sell them for drugs.

"They would go to some guy's house in Gaston, and that's where Daddy would pick up his 'white medicine,' is what (the 5-year-old) called it," Belk said.

Floyd said the children never stayed overnight in the car, but would stay with relatives while their parents slept in the Buick.

'It was horrific'

On Feb. 15 at 11:40 a.m., the family walked out of a Piggly Wiggly on Charleston Highway without paying for the four carry-out food trays, dinner rolls and a half-gallon of tea from the deli department, according to an incident report.

The manager, Mike Rawl, saw the family get into the Buick and drive to a nearby Hardee's parking lot to eat. Rawl called police.

When officers arrived, they found the children were dirty and half-dressed. The back seat, where the children sat, smelled so bad that officers had to remove the seat before impounding the car, said Larry Wedekind, assistant 11th Circuit solicitor.

"It was horrific," Belk said of the scene. "It's probably one of the worst things I've ever been on -- and I've been on some pretty gruesome ones."

The parents were arrested, and the children were placed in emergency protective custody. After two weeks, social workers noticed the children were showing withdrawal symptoms. The test results came back positive for cocaine.

'She hurts for her children'

The children have been living with their aunt, Belk said, and are doing "fabulous."

The 5-year-old will start school this fall. He can ride a bicycle, knows his colors and is learning to swim. The 2-year-old is learning to count and has gained 3 pounds.

"By God's grace, the children seem to be doing well, but it wasn't because of the actions of the parents," Wedekind said.

The parents could have received 20 years each if convicted at trial. The 11th Circuit Solicitor's Office, which prosecutes cases in Lexington County, made a deal to cap the prison time at five years for each parent in exchange for a guilty plea.

"We wanted to spare the child from going through the difficulties of having to make allegations about his mother and father," Wedekind said.

"Everybody is just distraught about it, including her," Floyd said about Ragane Suggs.

"Whatever the judge does to her would not hurt near as much as the way she hurts for her children."