It was a sticky mid-November afternoon, and, new to Sumter, I drove a dirt road out to Manchester State Forest to examine a hole where a murdered woman had been dumped.
That was how I met Ken Bell.
The first big case I covered as a new member of The Sumter Item's newsroom in 2017 was that of Suzette Ginther, a woman whose boyfriend worried when she failed to show up for work. So there we were, a 28-year-old female who knew next to no one in Sumter and a man in a police uniform and unmarked vehicle. Retracing the steps of how it could be that someone dragged the dead weight of a grown woman's body from the dirt road to a half-buried spot about 50 yards in amid fallen leaves, roots, jumbled terrain and mud.
Within minutes, I knew I wasn't also going to be murdered, and I knew this Ken guy was someone I wanted to know better. He was helpful and respectful, interested in the details of the case and keen on the storytelling from both the reporter's and deputy's perspective.
Ken loved this kind of stuff. Humanizing tragedy, bringing truth to serious situations that often gets skewed in dramatics. On Jan. 21, the 66-year-old Lancaster native died after spending the better part of January at Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital battling COVID-19 and exacerbated health complications.
"When he was in the hospital and dying, he kept in touch with his close friends via text until they put him under heavy sedation and put him on a ventilator. He was dying, and he knew it, but he sent out comforting messages to those of us who loved him, telling us he was not in pain and he was at peace," said Barbara Martin, a former managing editor at The Sumter Item. She left The Item in 2001 to take the same position at the Beaufort Gazette, which is where she met Ken. In 2004, she recommended him for an open city editor position at The Item. "He wanted to make sure we knew he loved us. I texted back: 'Please stay.' And he sent me a thumbs up. Kind of an appropriate text for a man who never believed in giving up."
Talk to any of his friends in Sumter, and they'll tell you the same thing, though maybe tweaked with their own anecdote of a hilarious real-life story he loved telling or a selfless act he didn't think twice about. He volunteered to cut their grass for months. He rescued them from dead car batteries and secured a Sumter-opoly game set for their children. He blew up a baking turkey and accidentally house crashed the Christmas party next door to where he was supposed to go with a blind date. He planned a cruise for his singles group and drove a friend's father to Pennsylvania.
He loved the experience of life. If you knew him well enough, or maybe even if you were new to town, you might have watched the video of when he got Tased at the sheriff's office for his deputy certification. He probably laughed while you watched.
"He was just a really decent guy," said Tammy Wise, who met Ken through her time teaching Sunday school at Alice Drive Baptist Church. "We never dated. It was never romantic, but my father - he lives with me - and Ken and I would go out to dinner almost every Friday night just to catch up."
He'd tell stories about what came across his desk at The Item, like a murder over a stolen porkchop. He'd cheer for Clemson football - his one bias - and predict game scores "with his heart and not his head." He "could tell a bad date story better than anybody."
He loved finding homes for stray cats, and he loved Sumter. Not for the notoriety or the thanks but for the fun and the philanthropy. In my more than three years of knowing him, I've seen him at crime scenes and in the courtroom, taking tickets at the city's craft beer and food truck festival and volunteering as an usher at the Sumter Opera House, serving as president of the Sumter-Palmetto Rotary Club and installing Free Little Libraries at HOPE centers, responding to unsightly calls with the coroner's office at any time of the day or night and responding to neighborhoods during hurricanes from the back of a military-surplus armored vehicle, talking about Clemson and holding talks about his new nonfiction book, "Triple Tragedy in Alcolu," an enterprise piece that makes my heart hurt when I think of how much more of it he would have thoroughly enjoyed seeing through.
"I think Sumter is going to miss a champion of this town. He did so much quietly in the background
He moved here as an outsider. He didn't grow up here, but he wanted to make it a better place, and he made it his home," said Holly Chase, a former Item co-worker who now is the director of community development at Tandem Health.
The reporter in him carried through after he left The Item.
"He asked questions and wanted to know who you were. That smile when he first walked up; it was instantly 'how are you, how can I help you?' He always made sure people were taken care of," Chase said.
She said he was excited to become a deacon at Alice Drive Baptist, and the singles group they were in together went to support him.
"He was just a person who shared his life in his testimony. You knew exactly how he felt and where he stood," she said. "He was like a big brother to me. I'm so glad he's not suffering and he's healed, but we're selfish and want to have those laughs again."
It's unfair, some cruel joke that the storyteller's story ends over text, ravaged by a virus that left him unable to speak, unable to die next to family and friends.
Chuck Bell (Cher), one of Ken's three children - his siblings are Chad Bell of Lancaster and Crystal Strickland (Christopher) of Elgin - said the end was hard for the family. Because of COVID-19 visitation restrictions, they couldn't see him until the very end, when he was no longer awake. The Kershaw resident said his father loved to play music and loved his work. Ken was also most recently a deputy coroner.
Ken graduated from Lancaster High School, received his bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina and earned his master's degree from American Military University. In addition to the Beaufort Gazette and The Item, he also was a reporter at The Charlotte Observer and (Myrtle Beach) Sun News and was a reporter then news editor at The Lancaster News. He won more than 25 S.C. Press Association awards during his career in addition to awards from the S.C. Education Association and The Associated Press.
His funeral was on Monday in Lancaster. In addition to his children, he is survived by a sister, Karen Bell Ritenhour (Michael) of Kershaw, and six grandchildren.
"He got right with God, and that's the most important thing. You can't go back and do that," Bell said.
Two years after Ken and I met on a dirt road, between gigs at the sheriff's and coroner's offices, Ken helped me cover the trial of the dead woman's soon-to-be-convicted ex-boyfriend. He knew we were (perpetually) shorthanded, and he had some newfound free time in his not-so-retired retirement. That's Ken. Always happy to help, always wanting to be in the thick of it.
His friends will remember all that and more. The man whose Facebook profile is a sun setting over the horizon of where saltwater meets sand and a simple statement for his bio. "Ken is just glad to be here."
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