St. Helena’s ‘horrific’ drowning murder: Oldest sister became a vital first responder

The 16-year-old girl awoke from sleep at 1:20 Friday morning to the sound of her sister’s screams.

It came from the family’s bathroom, where she could hear the horrific sounds of her mother allegedly trying to drown the 16-year-old’s eight-year-old sister. The teen rushed into action, pulling her younger sister away from their mother and calling 911 as both girls retreated to a relative’s home across the street, Beaufort County Sheriff PJ Tanner said during a press conference in Beaufort later Friday afternoon.

Police arrived at the home on St. Helena’s Sam Doyle Drive eight minutes later, finding the body of Mackaya Bradley-Brun, the youngest of the three sisters. Despite CPR attempts from first-responding deputies and eventually from paramedics, the child was pronounced dead at Beaufort Memorial Hospital at 2:15 Friday morning, autopsy results later revealed.

The girl was six years old.

37-year-old Jamie Bradley-Brun, a St. Helena mother of the three girls, was charged Friday morning with murder and attempted murder. Police say a search of the home and interviews with witnesses revealed the woman “most likely” drowned her six-year-old before attempting to drown the middle sister, although Tanner would not specify which evidence was used to obtain Bradley-Brun’s arrest warrant.

Sheriff’s deputies used physical force and a taser to detain Bradley-Brun inside the home, Tanner said, as the woman resisted arrest and attempted to take an officer’s gun. The sheriff commended responding officers for “only using the force necessary” to arrest the woman.

The household’s eldest daughter may have been the morning’s most crucial first responder. The 16-year-old girl was “completely asleep” when her sister’s pleas for help burst from the bathroom, Tanner said.

“I think she did an unbelievable job,” the sheriff said. “She defended her family when no one else was available to do so until we got there.”

“I know what happened, and it’s pretty horrific,” Beaufort County Sheriff PJ Tanner told reporters at a Friday afternoon press conference. Police charged a St. Helena mother with murder and attempted murder, alleging the woman drowned her six-year-old daughter before attempting to drown the girl’s older sister.
“I know what happened, and it’s pretty horrific,” Beaufort County Sheriff PJ Tanner told reporters at a Friday afternoon press conference. Police charged a St. Helena mother with murder and attempted murder, alleging the woman drowned her six-year-old daughter before attempting to drown the girl’s older sister.

Police are not releasing the names of the two surviving sisters. Tanner did not know whether the eight-year-old girl was hospitalized but said she was in good health as of Friday afternoon.

Beaufort County’s judicial index shows no prior criminal record for Bradley-Brun. Tanner confirmed this at the Friday afternoon press conference, saying law enforcement’s only prior contact with the family was in February 2021, when a Beaufort County School District employee requested a welfare check due to “concern” for the oldest daughter’s mental health.

Because bonds for murder and attempted murder cases can only be set by a circuit judge, Bradley-Brun’s bond hearing will not be scheduled until Beaufort County court convenes next, Solicitor Duffie Stone told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette. The 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office calendar says the county’s General Sessions proceedings will resume June 12.

As witness interviews continue, Sheriff’s Office detectives will work in tandem with the Department of Child Fatalities, which investigates “suspicious, unexpected or unexplained” deaths of children as part of the SC Law Enforcement Division’s Special Victims Unit.

Motive remains a mystery

Tanner stuck to a strict narrative during Friday afternoon’s press conference, refusing to answer questions about a motivation behind the morning’s gruesome outcome.

“I know what happened, and it’s pretty horrific,” he told reporters.

He also steered clear of details behind the drowning, although he said the eight-year-old’s screams for help came from the bathroom.

Asked if the incident was tied to a psychological issue, Tanner said he is “not a mental health expert” and would not elaborate on Bradley-Brun’s condition.

‘This is not a typical situation’

During another question about Bradley-Brun’s potential motive, one reporter’s remark hung in the air: “Mothers don’t kill their kids.”

The sheriff agreed. “Typically, mothers should not kill their children,” he said. “This is not a typical situation.”

Tanner’s 25-year tenure in office has included a handful of similar killings — but none were more gruesome than Friday morning’s, he said.

He recalled the prominent and relatively local case of Susan Smith, convicted of double murder in 1995 for rolling her car into a Union, S.C. lake while her sons were inside. Both boys drowned.

Yearly child fatality statistics from South Carolina’s Department of Social Services reveal the relative rarity of cases involving the intentional murder of a minor. Out of 30 statewide child fatalities in 2022 — including one accidental drowning in Beaufort County — only 11 were ruled as caregiver-inflicted trauma.

Considering Friday morning’s especially grisly circumstances, the call’s responding officers deserve recognition, the sheriff said.

“Thank them when you get a chance,” Tanner added. “We’re very, very proud of what they do.”

A neighborhood grieves

The grief was palpable Friday afternoon on Sam Doyle Drive. Shaded by Spanish moss, the side street snakes through the primarily Black community of southern St. Helena.

Sam Doyle residents are more than just neighbors, said William Smith, a neighbor of Bradley-Brun and a member of the Beaufort County School Board. Many attend the nearby Bethesda Christian Fellowship church, while some are even part of the same family. Beaufort County property records reveal the large swath of family-owned land near the street’s midpoint, with nearly 10 adjoining parcels labeled with the last name “Bradley” or “Bradley-Brun.” The home of Jamie and her three children, where the drowning took place, sits in the center.

These nearby relatives have taken in Bradley-Brun’s two surviving children, Tanner said.

Grieving the child’s death will be a long and arduous process for the close-knit street, Smith said. In the meantime, many residents will lean on the neighborhood’s especially strong faith life.

“We’re praying for the family, and the father, even the mother,” Smith told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette. “That’s the mentality of this community: People are praying.”