According to police, the man who jammed the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge for three hours Thursday afternoon by parking his SUV perpendicular to traffic did not have any explosives with him in the vehicle. He did, however, have a fireworks smoke grenade and two cans of pepper spray.
At the time, many feared that Phillip Louis DeClemente, the driver of the white Lexus in question, was armed with an explosive device. He had painted phrases including “Stay Away,” “Happy Now,” and Back Off” on the dark-tinted windows. According to an incident report from the Charleston Police Department, police got a call from DeClemente’s father at about 2:20 p.m. informing them that his son was about to attempt suicide on the major connector between Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. As police cruisers arrived to box in the vehicle, FBI officers checked DeClemente’s home in Mt. Pleasant and found the door open. They went inside and found a single smoke grenade.
One of the police officers spoke with DeClemente on his cell phone, but ultimately he made an attempt to break through the concrete barrier between the road and the bike-pedestrian path, ramming it several times before surrendering to police at 5:07 p.m. A bomb-disposal robot was used to check the vehicle, yielding only the two pepper spray canisters and a realistic-looking novelty smoke grenade.
One witness, Chisolm Wilson of Mt. Pleasant, was near the top of the bridge on his bicycle at about 2:30 p.m. when he heard a car honk, looked at the roadway, and saw an SUV facing his direction across the northbound lanes. He remembers thinking, “What the hell does this guy want?” Then he saw the man at the wheel waving at him to move aside.
“It didn’t really make any sense at the moment, but then it became clear that he was planning to drive through right there in the middle. He was planning to bust through the concrete and go through the outer walkway and the rail and go off,” Wilson says. “He was nice enough to tell me to move before he did it.”
Wilson moved toward the Mt. Pleasant side of the bridge and then watched for about an hour and a half as DeClemente stayed in his vehicle, periodically inching forward and backward. “It was kind of like he was gearing up to do something,” he says. “It looked kind of indecisive.”
From where he stood, looking at the left side of the vehicle, Wilson could not make out the writing on the windows, which was all on the right side. According to police, in addition to the more menacing-sounding messages, DeClemente had used some sort of white paint to write, “Game Over,” “Dcl Pima,” and “David Leaird.” Court records show that David Carson Leaird Jr. of Mt. Pleasant applied for a restraining order against DeClemente in January 2011.
DeClemente, who works for Abacare Home Medical according to the police report, was issued a ticket for reckless driving and damage to public property. His vehicle was towed off the bridge once the bomb robot had checked it, and he was taken to MUSC under emergency protective custody.
During and after the standoff on the major Highway 17 artery, traffic was clogged as far away as North Charleston and West Ashley as rush-hour drivers sought alternate routes to the north of the bridge. Many downtown bars and restaurants saw a silver lining, though: door-busting crowds at happy hour as people decided to wait out the bridge closure.
“It probably doubled if not tripled our business for that time of night,” says Ben Davidson, general manager of Taco Boy on Huger Street. A cashier at Santi’s on Morrison Drive also reported a significant customer spike Thursday afternoon.
Davidson says that while some of the customers waited on the patio at Taco Boy, a large contingent crammed inside to watch live television news footage from the bridge.
“People didn’t seem nervous,” Davidson says. “I don’t know that the bomb threat was ever taken seriously, as sad as that sounds. They just thought maybe it was someone who was in a bad way.”
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