On Friday morning, Samantha Josephson’s co-workers at the Liberty Tap Room in Columbia, S.C., grew concerned when she didn’t report for her breakfast shift. Rich Vascovich, operating partner at the restaurant, told the State newspaper that Josephson’s friends called him to ask whether she had shown up for work. They had not heard from her either.
The last time her friends had seen her, it was at the Bird Dog bar just past 2 a.m. earlier that morning. Josephson decided to part ways with her friends. Then, according to police, the 21-year-old University of South Carolina senior ordered an Uber.
Josephson had been out in the downtown Five Points district of Columbia, S.C., a popular nightlife hub close to the campus.
Surveillance footage shows her walking outside, waiting on the sidewalk and holding her phone. At 2:09 a.m., a black Chevrolet Impala pulled into the parking space beside her and, as pedestrians streamed by, Josephson climbed inside the vehicle.
But the Impala was not her Uber, police said, and the man driving it never took her home.
Twelve hours later, Josephson’s friends reported her missing.
Two hours after that, authorities found her dead.
“Our hearts are broken,” Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said at a weekend news conference, shortly after meeting Josephson’s relatives, who had arrived from New Jersey. “They’re broken. There is nothing tougher than to stand before a family and explain how a loved one was murdered.”
Josephson’s killing and the mystery surrounding her death shocked the campus community she called home for four years and immediately spurred her friends, strangers and university officials to advocate for vigilance when using ride-hailing services.
In a message to students, the university encouraged them to use campus shuttles and to “exercise best practices when using services like Uber and Lyft.” The message said a customer should always match the vehicle description and license plate with the information in the app and should ask the driver to say his or her name before entering the vehicle.
The police chief said authorities surmise that Josephson got into the Impala because she thought it was her Uber ride.
Police have arrested 24-year-old Nathaniel D. Rowland on charges of murder and kidnapping, Holbrook said.
Rowland waived his right to a court hearing on Sunday and did not appear before a judge, but Josephson’s mother made a statement during proceedings, a Columbia NBC affiliate reported.
“There are no words to describe the immense pain, his actions have caused our family and friends,” Marci Josephson said.
She implored the judge, and the world, not to forget her daughter. “Samantha Josephson. My daughter’s name is Samantha Josephson," she said. “Don’t ever forget her name. Samantha Josephson.”
Rowland’s case will be moved to general session court, which handles felony and misdemeanor criminal cases. A judge will determine whether he will be granted bond.
People who knew Josephson said in local news reports that she was kind, well-liked and warm. They called her “Sami.” They told the State she was a sister at Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and planned to graduate in May before heading to law school in the fall at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.
“She was sweet as can be,” restaurant partner Vascovich told the State. “She was honestly one of those people you loved to be around.”
School and government officials in Josephson’s hometown of Robbinsville, N.J., issued statements of shock and grief. On Facebook, her father said, “It is with tremendous sadness and of a broken heart that I post this! I will miss and love my baby girl for the rest of life.”
“It is extremely hard to write this and post it but I love her with all my heart. ... I could continue to write about her but it kills me,” he also wrote in the message that was accompanied by a photo of his daughter with her arm slung around his neck.
It was when Josephson failed to report to work that her coworkers sensed something was wrong. “That kind of clued us in that something wasn’t right,” Vascovich told the State.
At 1:30 p.m. Friday, Josephson’s friends called police to report her missing. Officers responded to Hub on Campus in downtown Columbia, an apartment complex where Josephson’s roommates had been waiting for her to come home. They had been searching for her and calling her.
Authorities began collecting information on Josephson’s last known whereabouts and asked for photos they could distribute to media outlets. They found the surveillance footage and released information on what Josephson had been wearing that night: black jeans, light shoes and an orange top.
As police were searching for Josephson, two turkey hunters about 70 miles away in Clarendon County were moving through a wooded field 40 feet off a dirt road when they discovered a body.
Holbrook said authorities in Columbia and deputies with the Clarendon County Sheriff’s Office soon realized the woman the hunters found in the woods was Josephson. Her clothes matched.
The university later confirmed Josephson’s death in a statement. “Times like these leave me searching for words of wisdom and comfort,” school President Harris Pastides said. “However, I take solace that the Carolina Family is here to embrace those who are hurting.”
Authorities shared information about the vehicle and put the community on alert. At 3 a.m. Saturday, about 24 hours after Josephson’s disappearance, a patrol officer spotted a black Impala two blocks from Five Points.
The officer pulled over the car, approached the driver and asked him to step out of the vehicle, Holbrook said. The man fled but was later apprehended.
Authorities found blood in the trunk and on the passenger seat. Tests confirmed that the blood was Josephson’s. Police also found window cleaner, bleach, antibacterial wipes and Josephson’s phone. The child safety locks had been activated in the back seat.
Authorities identified Rowland as the driver, and he is being held at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. It is unclear whether he has obtained an attorney.
Holbrook said Rowland had previously lived near the area where Josephson’s body was found, a place the police chief described as “very difficult to get to unless you knew how to get there.”