The night of Dec. 6, 2016, Beaufort police were called to what they thought was a drowning in the marsh behind the Howard Johnson Inn. There, they found a 19-year-old woman crawling for her life through the mud.

 

The call came in to Beaufort County Emergency Dispatch at 7:43 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2016.

The woman’s voice was faint, almost inaudible.

“I’m at the Howard Johnson, in the marsh,” she said, her voice small.

“OK, how’d you end up in the marsh?” the dispatcher asked.

“I was running.”

“You was running? Were you running from someone?”

“Yes, they raped me.”

The click of the dispatcher’s typing became more urgent, her breathing heavier.

Less than seven minutes later a Beaufort police officer waded into the darkness, plowing through the thick South Carolina pluff mud behind the hotel on Trask Parkway.

At first he saw nothing. He scanned the marsh with his flashlight, calling out.

Then he heard her.

“Help me!”

He spotted her figure about 50 yards from shore. She began to crawl toward him.

She was breathing hard. Her gray shirt and blonde hair were now blackened with mud. Her lip was busted open and her knee bled.

“I’m with the officers, ma’am,” she told the dispatcher.

The 19-year-old Beaufort woman was safe for now, but her alleged attacker was nowhere to be found.

Over the next three days, a 35-year-old man — a man who had visited her in the hospital the day she was born — would be charged with her rape; four miles away from the hotel a home would go up in flames and a grandmother would lose her life; and the woman in the marsh would find herself searching for hope in a justice system that she believes failed her.

A young caretaker

Daryan Payne can’t remember when she realized her dad was a drug addict.

But by the time she was a teenager, she was all too aware.

She was his first call when he was in trouble, like the time he was picked up in Port Royal after police suspected him of stealing change from a hotel vending machine.

Submitted photo
A childhood photo of Daryan Payne hugging her father, Bobby Stewart.

She was his chauffeur when he was too strung out to drive and hearing voices that weren’t there.

For all his faults, though, Daryan loves her father. She thought of him more like a troubled brother than a parent.

Daryan’s paternal grandmother, Terry Stewart, raised her as her own.

The two lived in a busy home in Shell Point with an open-door policy for crashers, young people in the neighborhood whom Terry would never think of turning away.

Jay Karr/Staff
Daryan Payne, who was recovered in the marsh behind the Howard Johnson hotel in December, poses outside her family home near Beaufort.

Daryan is firm about their relationship: Terry is her mom.

She was the first person Daryan asked for after she was pulled from the marsh.

When police called Terry that night and told her to come to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, they wouldn’t say why, only that it was about her daughter.

For hours, Terry sat in a waiting room knowing her child was hurt in some way, but not how hurt.

No one would answer her questions.

She imagined the worst.

When Terry was finally allowed to see her daughter, she found out she was right.

Before entering Daryan’s hospital room, Terry was taken aside by a nurse.

“You’ll want to touch her,” the nurse said. “You’ll want to hug her, but you can’t.

“She is evidence now.”

Terry heard the words. She knew what they meant.

“Are you telling me my child has been raped?”

The nurse nodded.

Terry fell to the ground.

Everything would be different now.

Jay Karr/Staff
Daryan Payne with Terry Stewart on April 29, 2017.

Before the attack, Daryan would come into her mom’s bedroom some nights and talk for hours.

After that night, driven by fear, Daryan decided to move, which meant leaving Terry.

They had always relied on each other.

When Terry had her third heart attack, Daryan dropped out of high school. She was only 16 years old but wanted to work, care for her mom and pay down the medical bills.

Submitted photo
Daryan Payne shares a first dance with her mom, Terry Stewart, at her wedding.

When Daryan had her son, Brantly, Terry watched him so Daryan could work a double shift at an Enmark gas station and a Ruby Tuesday. Daryan had a brief marriage to Brantly’s father but would have been on her own by the time her son was born if it weren’t for Terry.

When Daryan was 19 years old, she had worked her way up to being a manager at North American Title Loans, a good-paying job. People knew she was doing well financially, which she believes might have made her a target.

Every week she was able to send her father, Bobby Stewart, about $100 at the Ridgeland Correctional Institution, where he is serving a five-year sentence for petty theft and traffic offense charges.

“Prison is a hard place to be, even harder when you have an addiction,” Daryan said. “He needed money for canteen and stuff like that. I wanted to help him because — I do love him.”

The news of Daryan’s attack destroyed her dad. The man who would be charged with raping his daughter was one of his oldest friends.

“I’m really tore up,” Bobby said in a recent phone interview from prison, his voice breaking. “Things will never be the same between me and my daughter now. I know that. I just hope I can see her. I hope I can see my grandbaby again.”

Fear thy neighbor

Submitted
Daryan’s father Bobby Stewart, left, poses with his mother, Terry Stewart, right, during a visit at the Ridgeland Correctional Institution.

Bobby Stewart and Brian Walls were like brothers.

Stewart called Walls “Big baby.”

Walls called Stewart “My Bubba.”

The two met as teenagers smoking behind the old Beaufort FoodMaxx in the ’90s, Stewart said.

But over the years, Walls got more violent, racking up assault and domestic violence charges, according to court records.

Three days after Daryan reported her attack, Walls was apprehended in a northeastern South Carolina county and charged with her rape, records show.

To Daryan, Walls was always a gauge for her father’s sobriety. He was never around when Stewart was off drugs but a constant presence when he wasn’t.

“I was never a big fan of Brian,” Daryan said.

Still the Stewart and Walls families were intertwined.

Daryan had sympathy for Walls’ 15- and 16-year-old sons. She knew what it was like to be the kid of someone with legal troubles.

In October, she and her mother took the boys in for two weeks after Hurricane Matthew. Daryan was friendly and gave them rides when they needed it.

Beaufort County Detention Center
Brian Walls

But she didn’t like when their father would come around. Terry Stewart would yell at the red-faced man with the long blond goatee to stay off her property. She worried he would get his boys into his same kind of trouble with the law.

Brian Walls had known Daryan her whole life. He knew, according to Daryan, that if someone called her and asked for help, she would come.

That’s what would happen the night she was raped. The night the man she had known her whole life would threaten to kill her, she said.

“It’s harder knowing that it was people that knew me,” Daryan said. “They’ve met my son. They knew I would pick them up that night because I will help somebody out. That’s my downfall.”

Coming home

When Daryan got home from Beaufort Memorial Hospital the night of her attack, she was still caked in mud.

Daryan’s own clothes were evidence now, so she wore her boyfriend’s gym shorts and a T-shirt he found tucked under a seat of his car.

At the hospital that night, the nurses who administered the rape kit were both named Ashley, which offered a momentary distraction.

“Do whatever you need to to get evidence,” Daryan told them.

She lay there naked and answered personal questions she never thought she’d be asked by strangers.

The nurses recorded the busted lip, which she would later tell police was the result of Brian Walls’ fists. They treated her knee, bloody from her jump out of a moving car.

The only request Daryan made: “Please don’t cut my nails. I’ve been trying to grow them for months.”

The Ashleys agreed.

Daryan went home as soon as the hospital would let her.

For hours she had readily fielded investigators’ questions. She focused on keeping calm, knowing that every word she spoke could be important to the case.

She was in business-mode.

When she got home, though, it all came crashing down.

Her boyfriend and her mom waited in the other room, while she sat in the tub with the shower running.

After almost an hour, her boyfriend checked on her and found her sobbing so hard she couldn’t wash away the mud still covering her body.

He stripped down to his gym shorts and grabbed a comb.

He climbed into the tub with her and gently picked the mud out of her hair.

He held her while she cried.

Submitted image
Daryan Payne continues to receive bills sent to her home from the night she got a rape kit at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. She can apply for funding to cover the costs, but has yet to complete the paperwork.

A call at Waffle House

Daryan sat on a curb outside the Parris Island Waffle House on her cellphone.

It was three nights after her attack, and she and her boyfriend were out for a late-night meal before she stepped outside to take the call.

Beaufort Police Cpl. Josh Dowling was on the other line.

Walls had been apprehended about four hours away in Chesterfield County, S.C., Dowling told her.

He was found behind the wheel of the 1999 tan Toyota Camry she had reported stolen the night of her attack, police said. The car had passed by traffic cameras designed to spot stolen vehicles by their license plates.

Daryan sat on the curb and cried, this time with relief. She called her mom.

Walls would later be charged with criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and grand larceny in her case. He would be taken to the Beaufort County Detention Center, where he is still being held without bail.

Daryan wasn’t his only reported victim that week before his arrest, investigators told her.

The day after she reported her attack, a 56-year-old woman named Teresa Seigler, a neighbor of Brian Walls, was pulled from her burning mobile home on Falls Road in Burton, just two miles from Daryan’s house in Shell Point.

Seigler died a short time after, and investigators concluded the fire was arson.

Forensic evidence connected Walls and four other suspects to the scene, police said. Walls was eventually also charged with Seigler’s murder.

Hannah Seigler, Teresa’s daughter, said she doesn’t know why her mother was targeted.

“My mom was a nice lady,” Hannah said. “She helped him and his sons out. She gave them rides. So why?”

Joan McDonough/Staff
Fire officials reported a home in Burton was set ablaze with a woman inside the day after Daryan Payne reported her attack. Payne’s accused rapist, Brian Walls, now also faces murder charges in connection with the fire.

Is this justice?

It was no surprise to Daryan that Brian Walls had a criminal record.

But what she found out after her attack still makes her sick.

Walls has a history of drug, theft and domestic violence offenses, but there were four charges against him that shocked Daryan.

In 2011, Walls was charged with two counts of rape. A woman he had known for more than 20 years accused him of sexually assaulting her at knifepoint in her car. She told police her slapped her across the face with an open hand and put his hands around her throat. He told her to do what he wanted and that this had to be done to be part of the gang, police records show.

Walls pleaded to a lower misdemeanor assault charge and was given a 90-day sentence of time served, according to court records.

In 2016, seven months before Daryan reported her attack, Walls again faced rape charges.

This time he was charged with two counts of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl, records show. The charges were dropped four months later.

As Daryan read about these cases, she was in disbelief.

Why wasn’t he in prison?
Why would someone with four other rape charges still be free to do more damage?
This didn’t have to happen to me.

Daryan tried calling the prosecutors on her case at the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office for answers. For weeks, she said, she couldn’t get a call back.

She eventually got a meeting with the prosecutor on her case. Daryan said she was told that Walls’ previous cases had been pleaded down or dropped because the victims did not want to participate in the prosecution.

Contacted recently by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, the Solicitor’s Office declined to comment directly on Walls’ criminal history, pointing out he has outstanding charges.

Walls did not respond to a request for an interview, and his attorney declined to comment on this case.

Daryan said she has made it clear to prosecutors that she will do whatever they need for her case. She will go to every hearing. She will testify at his trial. She will open herself up to painful cross-examination.

Submitted
Brian Walls’ defense attorney subpoenaed Daryan’s high school records that show she dropped out of school as a teenager. When she got the request, Daryan cried. “What does that have to do with what happened to me?” she asked.

But she told prosecutors she will not approve of a plea deal to anything other than a rape charge.

Daryan believes they have enough evidence to push the case. Among other things, she points out: Two eyewitnesses told police they saw or heard her confrontation with Walls in the Howard Johnson parking lot. Police found surveillance video of a physical altercation in the hotel room where the attack occurred. She got a rape kit right away.

Still, knowing that statistics are not on her side, she is terrified they will drop her case.

“A lot of times what they’ll do is make the plea bargain because the Solicitor’s Office worries they can’t make the case,” Daryan said. “But it’s like the victims have no say-so. So that’s why I’m making my position clear from the start.”

A little more than a month after her attack, Daryan decided she didn’t want to stay silent.

She called a reporter at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette newspapers.

She was a rape victim, she said, and wanted to draw attention to her case and how victims of this crime are treated.

In a first interview at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort, Daryan sat at a picnic table smoking a cigarette next to the tidy landscaping and folksy bench swings.

“You see these people,” she said, pointing to the tourists and retirees passing by. “I want them to know what happened to me; it’s still happening to me. I feel like when these people know what happens here, that’s when anything can change.”

The night of the crime

Delayna Earley/Staff
Marsh spreads out April 20, 2017, behind the hotel where Daryan Payne says she was attacked by a family acquaintance.

The following account comes from multiple interviews with Daryan and a 26-page police report documenting her recollections to police of the night of Dec. 6, 2016. Brian Walls has not been tried on the charges he faces from that night.

It started with a call for help.

Walls called Daryan’s cell phone at 5:17 p.m. She was off work that Tuesday and home with her son.

Walls told Daryan that he and his teenage sons needed a ride to a hotel. He said they didn’t have a car or anywhere to stay.

Daryan wouldn’t have given the ride to Walls alone, but she had driven his sons around a few times and had gotten to know them when they stayed at her house several months before.

Walls offered to pay her gas money for the favor.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll give you a ride.”

Daryan left her son with her brother-in-law and drove her 1999 Toyota Camry to a mobile home on Falls Road in Burton.

Daryan called Walls three times because she couldn’t find the house. He finally answered and directed her to a home where he was staying. Daryan was surprised to find more than just Walls and his sons waiting for her.

There was also a young woman Daryan knew and a man she had never seen.

“There’s not room for y’all,” Daryan remembers telling the group. But they continued to put bags into her backseat and got in.

“Fine,” she said.

Walls told Daryan they wanted to go to a secluded motel in the Point South area of Yemassee.

That was way too far out of town, Daryan told him. She had to get back to her son before too long.

The closer Howard Johnson on Trask Parkway should be fine, Walls said.

They stopped at the Parker’s gas station on Trask Parkway near the Howard Johnson hotel.

Walls paid for Daryan’s gas and bought one case of Corona, a case of Bud Light and a few bags of chips, and loaded it all into Daryan’s car.

By the time they got to the hotel, it was dark.

Daryan waited 20 minutes while the man Daryan didn’t know booked a room for Walls, his sons and the woman.

They got the key for Room 227, and the passengers hopped out of Daryan’s car, carrying nothing.

Daryan shouted to Walls to come get their food and backpacks out of her car, but he yelled at her to help him carry it.

She said no twice, but Walls insisted.

She was annoyed, but carried the Bud Light and two grocery bags up the stairs to the side of the two-story of the hotel.

Daryan started to feel uneasy as she approached the room.

She came in and set the stuff on the table. The man she didn’t know locked the room door behind her, she said.

Walls took off his shirt, said it was hot, and adjusted the air conditioning unit.

As Daryan turned to leave, Walls slapped her with an open hand in the face. He then grabbed her and covered her mouth with his hand.

“I mean it, don’t scream or I will kill you,” he told her. She said she began to cry a little bit.

The man she didn’t know asked her where her phone was and began searching her for it.

She put her hands up to tell him she wouldn’t fight. She didn’t stand a chance, she thought.

Daryan eventually pointed to her sweater pocket. The man took her phone and turned it off.

Walls loosened his hand from her mouth, and she told him she needed to use the bathroom.

Walls placed his hand around her throat and walked her to the bathroom. He had the nerve to close his eyes while he stood over her using the facilities, she remembered.

Walls then closed the door and told her that he did not want to do this, but that her dad owed $500 to the family of the man she didn’t know.

Daryan had never heard anything about that kind of debt before, but told Walls her wallet was in her car and she could withdraw money from the ATM.

Walls told her that was not an option, informing her that “in a gang, if you do not pay, this is what happens.”

Daryan started to cry and asked Walls to let her go home to be with her son.

Walls ordered her to turn around and face the mirror. She asked him to please stop, but was too scared to scream.

Walls raped her.

After about two minutes, he called for a beer. The woman Daryan knew brought him one, smiling, she recalled.

After it was over, Walls told her he was sorry. She was scared for her life, so she said it was OK.

Daryan said she then lied to Walls and told him she only had a babysitter for an hour and a half and needed to get home.

He said he would let her go home, but not at that moment.

Walls agreed to Daryan’s suggestion that they go to the ATM. Before they left the room, he told her to hold his hand.

She collected her phone, keys, sweater and chapstick. They went down the stairwell at the side of the building.

She thought she stood a better chance outside.

She formed a plan to get away.

Delayna Earley/Staff
The parking lot at the Howard Johnson Inn in Beaufort the evening of April 20, 2017.

The escape

Daryan told Walls she would drive him back to the Parker’s to use the ATM.

When she got in the car, she immediately put it in reverse and backed into Walls.

She tried to drive away but was blocked in by cars in the parking lot.

Walls climbed in through her backseat.

“Don’t do this,” he said and began trying to hit her.

In the struggle, she put her foot on the gas, and the car began spinning.

With the car still in motion, she grabbed her phone from her jacket and jumped out of the driver’s door, landing hard on her left knee.

Walls grabbed her jacket as she jumped. She let it slip off her arms and sprinted away from the hotel.

She came to what looked like a patch of dirt in the dark but was actually a downed tree. She ran up it and hid inside long enough to peek out and see that Walls was chasing her.

She jumped over the other side of the tree and fell hard on her back on the ground.

It knocked the breath from her.

Her heart was beating out of her chest now, but she got up and ran again.

This time into the marsh.

When she looked behind, she saw Walls getting into her car. He might have driven closer to the edge of the water, but she wasn’t sure. Daryan remembers lights shining behind her into the dark and thinking it was him.

She began to sink in the mud almost immediately but kept going. She army-crawled through the muck to keep from sinking.

After a few minutes, she tried 911 on her cell phone. The phone was wet. The screen would not unlock.

Terrified tears came. I will die here in this marsh, she thought.

She tried three more times. Finally the last attempt went through.

“911 — what is your emergency?” came the dispatcher.

She whispered, afraid to speak too loudly, fearing that Walls was still following her and getting closer with every second.

As she spoke, she continued to crawl with one arm through the mud. The voice on the line told her to stay calm.

Audio clip: Daryan talks about being in the marsh in an April 2017 interview.

After a few minutes, the dispatcher asked, “Can you hear the officers calling your name?”

“I see flashlights,” Daryan sobbed.

She worried it was Walls, finally catching up to her.

“They’re out there sweetie, I just need you to yell,” the 911 dispatcher told her.

Daryan screamed out.

“Help me!”

An officer plowed through the mud toward her voice. She could hear him yelling and crawled toward the sound and the light.

He reached her and put her arm over his shoulder to guide her to land.

“The officers have me, ma’am,” Daryan said into her phone.

She could see the lights of more officers in the distance.

She heard them radio to dispatch: “We found her.”

The woman in the marsh was safe.

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh

Epilogue

Daryan, 5 months later

Erin Heffernan/Staff
A view in late April of the marsh where Daryan Payne fled the night of Dec. 6, 2016. The lights of the Howard Johnson Inn are visible in the distance.

About this project

This story was reported using a collection of court documents, police records and more than 15 hours of interviews with Daryan Payne and her family and close friends.

Daryan said she hopes to bring attention to her case and the treatment of sexual assault survivors in the justice system.

Her accused attacker did not reply to requests for comment. His attorney declined to speak for this story.