Uncle charged in Brays Island slaying released from jail, March 23, 2011
Brays Island man charged in Thanksgiving eve shooting death, March 22, 2011
Security guard cleared in fatal shooting on Brays Island, Dec. 1, 2010
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Thanksgiving eve at 6 Brays Island Drive in Sheldon began with the arrival of family bearing gifts of food and the promise of fellowship.
It ended in a gun battle that left a nephew killed and an uncle wounded, hospitalized and suspected of attempted murder.
Seven family members came to Richard and Carolyn Santee's home on exclusive Brays Island Plantation for a long weekend of dining, drinking, golf and merrymaking. The family had their own traditions, among them preparing pork chop suey the night before the holiday.
It was after that dinner that an argument between Richard "Dick" Santee, 68, and his nephew, James "Jimmy" Piotrowski, 42, moved quickly from verbal to violent, authorities said. Piotrowski was shot four times,including once by a Brays Island Plantation security guard who fired after he saw Piotrowski shoot Santee, according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
Other family members at the home that night included Carolyn Santee; Linda Flad, Piotrowski's mother; and Julia Ribich, Piotrowski's grandmother, (Carolyn's sister and mother, respectively); Tracey Piotrowski, the dead man's wife, and James Piotrowski's brother, Steven.
Here, according to a recently released Sheriff's Office report of 170-plus pages, are the accounts of what happened in the house by those who were there.
Santee, the only living eyewitness to the deadly chain of events, gave investigators varying accounts of the incident.
In one account, offered Nov. 26 from his hospital bed at Savannah's Memorial University Medical Center, Santee said the night was "extremely uneventful" and that he and other family members had been "drinking and relaxing." Santee said he and Carolyn went to bed, but said he was unsure of the time. He first said someone burst into his room. Fearing a home invasion, he grabbed his pistol, a Taurus model called the "Judge," the report said. It was unclear from his initial story whether he knew it was Piotrowki.
Later, during that same conversation with investigators, Santee said it was Piotrowski who kicked open the French doors of the couple's first-floor bedroom and shouted he was going to kill them. Santee told investigators he got out of bed naked, went to his closet and retrieved the pistol. He said he told his nephew to come to the kitchen to talk, the report said.
He told investigators "it was his responsibility to protect the family," the report said.
As the two stood in the kitchen, Piotrowski lunged at him in an aggressive manner, the report said. Santee then shot him twice in the chest at close range. Santee said he then placed the pistol on a counter and shouted for help. He turned and saw Piotrowski get up and grab the pistol from the countertop. Santee said he tried to wrestle it away from Piotrowski, but his nephew was able to fire a shot, hitting Santee, the report said.
During another interview at the hospital, he said he and Piotrowski were the last two awake in the house and had been watching TV. He said Piotrowski did not mention anything personal or meaningful to him. Santee said he turned off the TV just before going to his room, the report said.
In that account, Santee said his nephew came into the bedroom and said, just above a whisper, "I'm going to kill you guys," instead of yelling the phrase as Santee said in the earlier interview. Santee also said he was dressed, rather thaan nude, during the incident.
He said the two went into the kitchen, where they continued to argue, the report said.
Santee was holding the gun, which was loaded with five rounds
"What are you doing, what do you mean?" Santee said he yelled at Piotrowski. He said his nephew lunged for the gun, so he had "little choice but to shoot him point blank," according to the report.
Santee said he shot Piotrowski once. His nephew fell to the ground, but quickly got up and grabbed the gun. Santee said he tried to push Piotrowski's arms up to divert the shot. He said his nephew pointed the gun down and shot him.
In that account, Santee also told deputies he believed he somehow took the gun away from Piotrowski and was able to shoot him a second time, the report said.
"He said he is not sure, but he thinks that is what happened," the report said.
When investigators tried to interview Santee after his release from the hospital, they were told to contact his attorney.
The dead man's wife told investigators that she and her husband drove to the Santee home from Stuart, Fla. They arrived about 7:30 p.m. She said it was their first visit in two years.
The group chatted before dinner and sat down to eat about 8:30 p.m. Carolyn Santee began to "start in on" her husband, and asked why her wine glass was empty. She grew angrier after Santee served himself and went to sit alone at the bar at the opposite end of the kitchen, the report said.
Tracey Piotrowski said she joined him and joked with her uncle because she "felt bad for him." She said Santee then re-joined the group.
It was "a rather uncomfortable situation deflected with attempts at humor," she told deputies.
At some point, she said family members began to retire for the night. Tracey Piotrowski told deputies Carolyn Santee was in and out of the kitchen a few times before going to bed. That left Santee and James and Tracey Piotrowski in the kitchen, the report said.
Tracey Piotrowski told investigators she wanted to stay up, but her husband was tired and the men had an early tee time the next day. She said there was nothing out of the ordinary about Santee's demeanor -- he was intoxicated but not "sloppy." She said Piotrowski was not "hammered," according to the report.
Between 11 and 11:30 p.m., Tracey Piotrowski went upstairs to bed.
Within about seven minutes, she heard screaming followed by a loud noise. She immediately ran downstairs, the report said.
Her husband lay propped at the bottom of the stairs, his jaw shot away, the report said.
As Tracey Piotrowski began first aid, Steven Piotrowski ran in and began yelling at Santee: "What happened? What did you do?"
"I shot Jim," the report quoted Santee as saying.
When asked by investigators to speculate about what led to the incident, Tracey Piotrowski said she believes her husband walked into the middle of an argument between the Santees that began in the couple's bedroom -- where a gun was introduced-- and spilled into the kitchen, the report said.
She said Santee and her husband "were very close."
"Dick (Santee) was the reason the couple would visit," the report said. "They loved him."
On Nov. 25, Carolyn told investigators she went to sleep after dinner and didn't hear gunshots. She said she awoke to hear her husband shouting her name. She went to the kitchen and saw Piotrowski lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Her husband was standing nearby, the report said.
Her nephew appeared to be trying to get up. She said her husband did not appear to be injured. She said she did not see a gun, the report said.
After her husband told her to call security and the police, Carolyn Santee said she ran back into the bedroom. She said she told security to "come quick" and then called 911.
When she came back to the kitchen, Santee and Piotrowski weren't there. She found her nephew in the foyer, face down, and her husband "propped up" by the stairs "with a bullet hole in him." She said the security guard had arrived, although she wasn't sure where he was, according to the report.
Carolyn Santee said she had never witnessed an argument between her husband and nephew. She said that before the incident, the night had been "wonderful and beautiful."
She said she and her husband collect guns and are licensed to carry concealed weapons in the state. They shoot clays pigeons in their free time, according to the report.
"Dick was the only one who really knows what happened," she says in the report.
Flad said she rode from Jacksonville, Fla., with her mother, Julia Ribich, and her son, Steven Piotrowski.
The trio arrived about 4:15 p.m., according to the report. Cocktail hour began at about 5:15 p.m., and Carolyn Santee made martinis. Steven Piotrowski and Santee had a few beers and everyone gathered around the fire pit in the backyard. James and Tracey Piotrowski arrived at about 7:30 p.m. and also drank beer while Dick Santee had Manhattans, the report said.
Flad said the group headed inside for a late dinner, which wrapped up at about 10 p.m. Flad, who was the first to go to bed at about 10:30 p.m., slept in an upstairs bedroom, according to the report.
She was roused by the sound of gunshots -- "a rat-tat-tat-tat noise" three or four times in quick succession, the report said. She then heard screaming and went downstairs to find Tracey Piotrowski performing CPR on her husband. Flad summoned Steven Piotrowski, who took over the CPR. She saw a security guard in the open front doorway, the report said.
Flad approached Santee, who said he was OK and that "Jimmy came after him," the report said. Santee told her Piotrowski "went berserk" and burst into the Santees' bedroom.
Flad told deputies she did not believe that was something her son would do, the report said.
She said she thought Santee had been acting strangely for some time.
She said Carolyn Santee called her in July and said Santee had hit her during an argument about his drinking.
In October, Santee went to stay at another of the couple's homes in Cashiers, N.C. He was supposed to stay about a week, but was there for nearly a month. Flad told investigators she believed the couple was having marital problems, the report said.
Steven Piotrowski, a Jacksonville, Fla., firefighter and paramedic, was administering first aid to his brother when Sheldon Fire District Chief Buddy Jones and Beaufort County emergency service personnel arrived. Jones asked Steven Piotrowski to move aside so crews could attend to the injured men. He ignored the request and had to be forcefully removed from the scene by a deputy, the report said. Steven Piotrowski, who the report said smelled of alcohol and appeared to be intoxicated, was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car.
Tracey Piotrowski, who also appeared to be intoxicated, also had to be forcefully removed from the scene and handcuffed, the report said.
After the incident, Steven Piotrowski told investigators Santee was "inebriated" but not in a stupor, according to the report.
He told investigators he "strongly" believes Santee and his wife had an altercation and that James Piotrowski either walked in on it or tried to avert it.
Steven Piotrowski said his brother would have not gone into the couple's bedroom unless he heard someone "getting ready to blow someone's head off." He said he could not "fathom" his brother pushing Santee to the point of pulling a gun, the report said.
Julia "Granny" Ribich
A few weeks after the incident, Ribich, 92, told investigators she went to her first-floor guest room shortly before 11 p.m., took her hearing aid out and quickly fell asleep.
Ribich said she heard what she described as the sound of the Santees' "raised and excited" voices coming from their bedroom.
Ribich said she thought, "Oh, they're having another one of their spats," and expected it to end soon.
But the argument continued. She got out of bed, but did not leave her room. She said she may have heard a third voice as well, although she could not make out who it was, the report said.
As Ribich stood at the door listening, the voices fell silent and another "commotion" began. Ribich said she could not remember hearing any gunshots.
Ribich said she heard someone repeat: "Who called 911?," but could not make out who. A few minutes later, a deputy came to her bedroom door.
Ribich told investigators that Carolyn Santee had been "snipping" at her husband earlier in the evening, but said the night had been largely normal, the report said.