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CCSO: Wood-Chipper Victim Previously Caught Drinking at Appling Business

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The Columbia County worker who suffered a horrific death inside a wood chipper this month may have contributed to the freak accident by drinking on the job, authorities said in an investigative summary.

Ralph Pickens, 63, of McCormick, S.C., was killed Feb. 5 at Pollard Lumber Company after entering an industrial conveyor wood chipper at the Appling business, authorities said. Officers found an empty 200 ml bottle of McCormick Vodka in a brown paper bag in his booth.

The tragic event is detailed in a final report from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.

The officer concluded, “Ralph being caught drinking on the job several times and also being caught on the vibrating table, without cutting off the machine several times, and finding an empty liquor bottle in his booth leads me to think that for some reason Ralph became unconscious, whether due to a health issue, drinking, or hitting his head on something and fell onto the vibrating table, which led him to enter the wood chipper.”

The report continues, “I believe if Ralph had been conscious, he would have been able to get himself off the vibrating table in time to avoid getting caught in the wood chipper.”

The wood chipping machine at Pollard Lumber Company is a large, complex system involving a vibrating table, chipper, and conveyor belts to process scrap wood. Human remains were found scattered throughout the machine. The investigation revealed that Pickens had been seen near the wood chipper just before the accident.

Co-worker Jeffery Parks told officers that he noticed signs of distress when he observed what appeared to be blood and clothing emerging from the wood chipper. Upon investigation, it was discovered that Pickens, the operator of the chipper, had fallen into the machine.

Witnesses recounted instances where Pickens had been observed drinking on the job, a behavior that had reportedly led to disciplinary actions in the past. Additionally, Pickens had been witnessed on the vibrating table near the chipper, a dangerous act contrary to company policy.

Pickens’ wife, Brenda Pickens, confirmed to officers that her husband drank, but stated she did not know about him consuming alcohol at work. She said her husband suffered from a stroke, and his feet dragged while he walked. But other than that, he had no major health issues that she knew of, she said.

“I explained that there was not any part of the body that we could identify and would need to get a DNA sample from any sons or daughters,” the officer wrote in the report.

Pickens was identified through a DNA sample collected from his son. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) confirmed Pickens’ identity using a fingerprint from a finger that was in the recovered remains.

Levi Pollard with Pollard Lumber Company refuted rumors of a video capturing the accident, telling officers that cameras in the area were not operational at the time. With the GBI’s identification of Pickens’ remains, the case is considered closed, pending any further developments.

Pickens was honored in a memorial service Feb. 16 at Andrew Wardlaw Funeral Home in McCormick. On the funeral home website, Pollard co-worker Harold Cummings said he worked with the victim for four years. “I am sorry for your loss,” he said. “He was a good man.”

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Greg Rickabaugh
Greg Rickabaugh
Greg Rickabaugh is an award-winning crime reporter in the Augusta-Aiken area with experience writing for The Augusta Chronicle, The Augusta Press and serving as publisher of The Jail Report. Rickabaugh is a 1994 graduate of the University of South Carolina and has appeared on several crime documentaries on the Investigation Discovery channel.
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