COLUMBIA On Sept. 21, 2019, Sloan Kiser was looking forward to her wedding, just two weeks away. Her father, who she described as her best friend, couldn’t wait to walk her down the aisle.
Sloan had finished writing out thank you cards, the final piece of her wedding preparations, when she got a call from her mom, she testified on Thursday.
When she answered, “time stopped. She was screaming for me to come help,” Kiser said.
She didn’t know it at the time, but her family’s pontoon boat had been struck by a speedboat driven by Tracy Gordon, who had spent a long day drinking on Lake Murray. On the Kisers’ boat was Sloan’s father, Stan; her mom, Shawn, and sister, Morgan.
“I heard my sister calling out for someone, anyone to help. There aren’t words that can describe the level of fear or helplessness that I experienced during that call,” Sloan Kiser said.
The call lasted for 45 minutes, she said. The entire time she could hear the screams of her sister, Morgan, desperately trying to keep their mother alive surrounded by her father’s blood.
Two weeks later, instead of wearing white and being walked down the aisle by her father, Sloan Kiser wore black and walked down the aisle behind his casket. Her wedding guests made up some of the 300 people who showed up for his funeral.
On Thursday morning, four years to the day after the crash, Gordon, 55, was sentenced to ten years in the state Department of Corrections. The sentence, imposed by Circuit Court Judge Heath Taylor, was the maximum allowed for someone convicted of reckless homicide.
“That day will always haunt my family,” Shawn Kiser said during a sentencing hearing Thursday. She told the court what she had lost in the tragedy: Her leg, her family’s peace and the life of her husband, her life partner, the father of her three children.
“I used to love to travel, ride bikes and dance. All that is gone,” she said.
On Wednesday, a Richland County jury found Gordon guilty of reckless homicide after a seven-day trial featuring close to 20 witnesses.
But Gordon, the former manager of a Mars dog food factory, was acquitted of one count of felony boating under the influence leading to death and one count of the same charge leading to serious injury.
The jury reached their verdict after almost nine hours of deliberations.
On the stand, Gordon, who admitted to drinking eight beers that day but denied being impaired at the time of the crash, described himself as a safe and experienced boater. He said he’d been on the water since his stepfather began teaching him to drive a boat at 7 years old.
But that day he was more like an “unguided missile,” said 5th Circuit Deputy Solicitor Dan Goldberg, who prosecuted the case.
Stan Kiser was killed after sustaining catastrophic injuries from the speedboat’s propeller. Pathologist Dr. Amy Durso, who performed Stan Kiser’s autopsy, said that the injuries were the worst she’d seen in her career.
Shawn Kiser had a leg amputated, and doctors thought for a month that she would die, her daughter Morgan, who suffered a serious head wound in the crash, told the court.
However, the jury never heard evidence of Gordon’s blood alcohol level, which solicitors confirmed was 0.043 seven hours after the crash. At the time of the crash, it would have been in the range of 0.1 to 0.16, solicitors said. The legal limit for intoxication in South Carolina is 0.08.
However, this evidence was suppressed when Gordon’s defense attorneys successfully argued that the search warrant was invalid because state Department of Natural Resources officer Marion Baker, who performed Gordon’s field sobriety test, failed to sign the probable cause affidavit.
Urging Baker not to lose sleep over the search warrant, Taylor criticized the judge who reviewed the incomplete affidavit, saying the warrant never should have left the courthouse.
“I speak the language of this case,” Taylor, formerly a leading DUI lawyer, told Gordon. “You were impaired that night, very impaired. You got lucky with that search warrant.”
Felony BUI leading to death carries a maximum penalty of 25 years while felony BUI leading to serious bodily injury carries a maximum penalty of 15 years.
Speaking briefly, wearing a navy blue jumpsuit from the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, Gordon addressed the Kiser family. “We do pray for you every single day and we will continue to do that.”
However, he did not offer an apology, and the Kisers said they had long since stopped expecting one. The family also noted that Gordon didn’t return to the scene after the crash.
“He left me there to die. He left my mom there to die,” Morgan Kiser told the court, recounting the horror she experienced as she pleaded with the judge to give Gordon the maximum sentence.
“Who ignores the screams of my daughter?” Shawn Kiser asked the court.
Defense attorney Jack Swerling urged Taylor to consider a sentence of less than the full ten years. Gordon’s decision not to help the Kisers was a product of shock and a belief in the moment that he would only make the situation worse.
“He had to make a very difficult decision that night. I don’t know if that decision could be made with logic, with a clear mind,” Swerling said.
Six people, among them Gordon’s wife, Angie, who was also on the boat the night of the crash, pleaded with the judge for mercy. They described Gordon, a father of two with two stepchildren, as a hard working, trustworthy, devout man who lived a quiet life based around family and routine.
“He’s our glue, he’s what sticks us together,” Angie Gordon said.
But in his remarks, Taylor made it clear that he was not inclined to show leniency.
“Kiser family, you’ve received a life sentence,” Taylor said. “I wish this black robe was just magic and I could just turn back time. But I’m just a man. I’m just a lawyer that’s got a different job.”
The Kiser family
At 66, Stan Kiser was still an active cyclist, sometimes riding up to 30 miles a day. He and his wife were avid South Carolina Gamecock fans with a close knit extended family. In addition to two daughters, the couple had a son, who is autistic and nonverbal and requires help from his parents for his basic needs.
Sloan remembered that her father was an attentive listener, who loved conversation and was the person she would turn to for advice.
“He always seemed to know at least a little something about everything,” Sloan said.
Since the crash, the family has advocated for boating safety. They founded Safe the Lake, a Facebook group with more than 8,000 members dedicated to safe boating in South Carolina. The family also helped push for legislation that will require all boaters born after July 1, 2007, to complete a boating safety course.
In their remarks at sentencing, the family, who wore garnet and black ribbons in honor of Stan, called for Taylor to send a message to the community at large about the consequences of boating while intoxicated.
“There was some measure of peace with this trial,” Morgan Kiser told The State. “To not feel so alone in my head, to have the judge and doctor (pathologist Amy Durso) validate what I have been saying for years.”
But new laws and the sentence cannot heal all wounds. To this day, Morgan Kiser told the court that she could not sleep at night. Shawn Kiser told the court that she experiences excruciating phantom pain where her leg used to be.
And in the middle of a family, there is a hole.
“I didn’t just lose a father, I lost my best friend,” said Sloan. Sometimes she still has the urge to call him, to talk and to ask his advice. “Every time I try I have to discover the truth all over again.”
Ted Clifford: 631-810-9272, @ted_clfrd
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Sloan Kiser holds a photo of her father, Stan, during a sentencing hearing Thursday for Tracy Gordon, who was convicted of reckless homicide in the 2019 death of Stan Kiser in a boating accident on Lake Murray.
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Tracy Gordon of Elgin was convicted Wednesday of reckless homicide in the death of a man in a Lake Murray boating accident. Stan Kiser was killed in the 2019 crash.
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The family of Stan Kiser speaks before Tracy Gordon is sentenced after Gordon was found guilty of reckless homicide on Thursday.