For two hours on Thursday afternoon, all eyes in Charleston were on Phillip DeClemente, the man who halted traffic by parking his white SUV on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and threatening to harm himself. Who was he? And what was he about to do?
Rumors abounded, of course. When the news broke around 3 p.m., people thought he was going to jump into the Cooper River, as did MUSC student Tosin Oyelowo in December. Later, when it was discovered that he had painted messages on the windows of his vehicle including “Game Over,” “Stay Away,” and “Happy Now,” the narrative changed to one of a bomb threat, the supposition being that he was poised to detonate an explosive device at the top of one of Charleston’s most visible and vital works of civil engineering. Some people said he had a grenade. Others said he had a gun. Charles Francis, the spokesman for the Charleston Police Department, was unable to say what DeClemente, then an unidentified party, had with him in the vehicle.
And then there was the long stretch where Charlestonians’ eyes were glued to the grainy live stream from a S.C. Department of Transportation traffic camera, watching as he inched his vehicle back and forth in the middle of a cluster of police cars. Finally, he floored the accelerator, ramming into a concrete bridge barrier and stopping in his tracks. Soon afterward, police charged forward to detain DeClemente, and whoever was operating the SCDOT camera zoomed out, resulting in a few tense seconds before it became apparent that the officers had arrested the mystery man on the bridge.
It is still unclear what DeClemente intended to do when he drove his car to the bridge on that unseasonably warm afternoon. Some photos taken by motorists on the bridge who were allowed to drive by appear to show bomb-squad robots checking out DeClemente’s vehicle, but the images are not conclusive, and Charleston police have not said what was found in the car.
Here’s what we do know: DeClemente, 38, has a criminal record. He entered the Charleston County Detention Center in February 2011 for two counts of stalking, according to a prison official.
It is possible that DeClemente knew some of the very people who responded to the scene on the bridge. As a former member of the Charleston County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad, part of his duties included working on the dive team, swimming through Charleston-area rivers, lakes, and ponds during search-and-rescue and missing-person cases. As DeClemente staged his standoff with police Thursday, fire trucks were parked at the Charleston end of the bridge, and members of the dive squad were reportedly waiting at the ready on a boat in the Cooper River.
A Charleston County spokesperson said DeClemente hasn’t been an active member of the Rescue Squad for at least a year, but during his time with the squad, he won awards for his service, including the Life Saving Award in 2006, 2008, and 2009, as well as a special recognition for a rescue off the coast of Seabrook Island in 2002.
Danielle McBain of Summerville says she met DeClemente in the spring of 2007, when she was a senior at Summerville High School. She was interested in forensics at the time, so her father, who served on the squad, arranged for her to ride along with the team on several occasions. Five years out, her memory of DeClemente is hazy. “He was a really fun guy,” McBain says. “He got along with everybody.”
She remembers tagging along as DeClemente responded to entrapment calls, often pulling people out of wrecked vehicles. Professionally speaking, she remembers him for “being serious and getting the job done.”