Columbia inmate who dodged death sentence, escaped prison in 2005 found dead in cell

COLUMBIA -- Johnny Brewer, who managed to beat the death penalty in 1999 only to escape from a maximum security prison six years later with the help of an Episcopal bishop's son, was found dead in his cell Monday morning.

Brewer, 41, was hanging from a bed sheet in his solitary confinement cell at 2:15 a.m. inside Kirkland Correctional Institution on Broad River Road, the Department of Corrections said.

Brewer was pronounced dead at 2:50 a.m., after corrections officers tried to revive him.

Evidence points to a suicide, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said. The Corrections Department is investigating.

Brewer and another inmate, convicted kidnapper Jimmy Causey, escaped from the Broad River Correctional Institution on Nov. 1, 2005, by hiding in a Dumpster that was carried off on a trash truck.

The men were aided by another inmate, Stephen Beckham, who helped make dummies out of clothes and toilet paper to fool Corrections officials during head counts.

Beckham, son of a former Episcopal Bishop of Upper South Carolina, is serving a life sentence for hiring a contract killer to kill his wife, Vickie Lander Beckham, who was the daughter of state senator Jim Lander.

Beckham later was indicted by a Richland County grand jury for his part in the escape plot, according to a letter from 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese to SLED Chief Robert Stewart and obtained by The State newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request. That case is pending.

Brewer and Causey rode in the trash truck until they jumped out as the vehicle was turning onto Percival Road from Spears Creek Church Road.

After getting rid of their clothes, the men walked to Clemson Road and got a ride to the Leesburg Road exit on Interstate 77. An ex-girlfriend of Causey spotted the pair walking through the Greenlawn Cemetery and called her father, who reported them to the Department of Corrections.

By 10:45 a.m. -- nearly five hours after they had escaped -- Corrections officials confirmed Brewer and Causey had disappeared.

The men were caught two days later at a Jasper County hotel after they ordered pizza and the delivery woman recognized them from media reports.

After reviewing the case, Giese's office determined no Corrections officers were criminally responsible. However, Giese's letter noted "there are several matters that should be investigated administratively by the SCDC."

Corrections officials did just that, prisons spokesman Josh Gelinas said, instituting a new policy that all inmates must be accounted for before a Dumpster leaves a prison. They also put fences and razor wire around trash compactors at high-security prisons.

Brewer's record showed four minor prison violations, Gelinas said, all of them before his escape and all for not being in the right place. Prison rules keep maximum security inmates on "restricted movement," meaning they must be in certain places at certain times.

Kirkland is a maximum-security prison, and all inmates are closely supervised, Gelinas said, but Brewer was not on a suicide watch.

"He was considered one of our biggest risks," he said.

Causey, who is still incarcerated at Kirkland, was convicted in 2004 for holding Columbia attorney Jack Swerling and his family at gunpoint in their home in 2002.

Brewer was serving a life sentence for the 1994 strangling of his sister-in-law, Kelly Burbage. He was convicted in 1999 but was spared the death penalty when a jury gave him a life sentence.

Brewer represented himself against 11th Circuit Donnie Myers, who has put more people on death row than any other solicitor in South Carolina.

"He did a pretty good job representing himself," Myers said. "I thought he was a little too sane for him to do something like that (commit suicide). He thought a lot of himself."