December 20 2014
– Sgt. Kim Milks (right) speaks with a resident who identified herself only as Betty on Monday as Milks and Brent Fenton (center), also a detective from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, searched a complex for witnesses in a Dec. 5 shooting death near Goose Creek. Sgt. Kim Milks (right) speaks with a resident who identified herself only as Betty on Monday as Milks and Brent Fenton (center), also a detective from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, searched a complex for witnesses in a Dec. 5 shooting death near Goose Creek. ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF
Excluding cases of self-defense, the total tri-county homicides by jurisdiction so far in 2014 and the number in which authorities have issued no arrest warrants:
Jurisdiction Homicides no warrants Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office 8 6
Charleston County Sheriff’s Office 10 1
Charleston Police Department 7 2
Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office 7 1
Goose Creek Police Department 1 0
Hanahan Police Department 1 1
Mount Pleasant Police Department 2 0
North Charleston Police Department 22 7
St. Stephen Police Department 1 0
State Law Enforcement Division 3 1
Summerville Police Department 1 1
Totals 63 20
Data confirmed by agencies
Hours after someone beckoned 15-year-old Alonza Williams to a dark street corner near Ladson and shot him, residents circulated two names of possible suspects in his killing.
For a map of all tri-county homicides since 2001, go to postandcourier.com/ homicides.
The names reached family members stricken with grief when Williams didn’t return home from playing video games that night. They also made it to detectives from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.
‘Our community is dying’ a common cry among frustrated families, activists
But the investigators never found anyone willing to testify as an eyewitness, and the suspects have remained free since the June 30 slaying.
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For weeks, the detectives have searched for new information in Williams’ death and in two other unsolved homicides with hopes of making an arrest. But their case load doubled to six when three other people were slain in the first week of December, straining the 12-member unit that investigates crimes ranging from thefts to murders.
“With a week like this, everything else gets shoved to the background,” said Capt. Bobby Shuler, who leads the sheriff’s Criminal Investigations Division. “Everybody gets involved. It’s very exhausting.”
While six of the eight homicides reported this year in unincorporated Berkeley County remain unsolved, North Charleston police have not made arrests in seven of 22 killings in the city in 2014, including five shooting deaths since Halloween. Some officials have blamed the streaks on dueling criminals locked in a cycle of retribution and on witnesses unwilling to cooperate because they fear reprisal.
Of 63 deaths this year reported by tri-county police agencies, 20 are unsolved.
As pressure mounts for Berkeley County detectives to solve the killings, they have resisted making arrests on evidence that might not hold up in front of a judge. But that’s not what some victims’ family members, like Williams’ aunt, want to hear.
Sgt. Kim Milks and Detective Brent Fenton of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office search a condominium complex Monday for witnesses in the unsolved Dec. 5 shooting death of Cordell Frazier on Greenmeadow Drive near Goose Creek. The suspected drug-related crime is one of the most difficult kind to solve. (ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF)
Enlarge Sgt. Kim Milks and Detective Brent Fenton of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office search a condominium complex Monday for witnesses in the unsolved Dec. 5 shooting death of Cordell Frazier on Greenmeadow Drive near Goose Creek. The suspected drug-related crime is one of the most difficult kind to solve. (ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF) ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF
“I’m willing to do anything short of going out and looking for (the killers) myself,” Shelia Bradley said. “I won’t stop until justice is served.”
Drugs and gangs
Unlike the first two killings that Berkeley County investigators handled this year - both domestic homicides – the following six have been the hardest kind to crack, Shuler said. In each, detectives have found links to drugs, gangs and a criminal culture whose players do not take kindly to those who help the police.
Shuler’s unit has tied some of the same people to multiple unsolved homicides – raising suspicion that the violence is part of a retaliatory struggle. He refused to name which killings had been linked.
At the North Charleston Police Department, spokesman Spencer Pryor would not address whether detectives have found any common threads. The coldest of its cases involves the May killing of a man on the verge of arrest for his connections to the shootings of three mothers on New Year’s Day.
In Berkeley County, Shuler said their informants have often refused to put their accounts in writing.
“They’re scared,” he said. “They don’t want to be a statistic. But it does make our job more difficult.”
Kendra Morgan-Stevens knows that too well.
Her daughter, Ariel Morgan, was the 19-year-old nursing student who was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight that erupted June 7 during a block party near Moncks Corner. More than 800 people were there, but no one has helped investigators enough.
Only two weeks later, Morgan-Stevens wrote a letter pleading for the State Law Enforcement Division’s help because she was eager to see an arrest. Agents got involved and now regularly give her updates on their role, she said. The normally private mother who has raised $8,000 in reward money calls herself a “professional at searching for justice.”
“I’m also … a mother of a son whose sister was murdered,” she said. “When I see the look on his face, I get frustrated.”
Detectives got a late start on their first investigation in Berkeley County’s most-recent rash of violence.
After neighbors found Syqoune Kawme Pinckney’s body in his Judy Hill Drive mobile home Dec. 2, authorities estimated that it had been there since 10 p.m. the day before.
An hour before the time he was thought to have been shot in his community near Ladson, the 24-year-old called Summerville resident Eric Mazo’s brother, who once employed Pinckney at the hauling and demolition company he owns.
Mazo had regarded Pinckney as a goofy but likable guy, but he knew the young man had gotten into some trouble. Pinckney had arrests for trespassing and shoplifting.
When Pinckney called Mazo’s brother on the night of his death, he asked for a ride.
“But he didn’t sound desperate,” Mazo said. “He was laughing. My brother is beating himself up for not going to get him immediately.”
Three days after Pinckney’s death, about 9 p.m., Marilyn Metts watched television with her husband inside their rented condominium on Greenmeadow Drive near Goose Creek. Their 2-year-old son was asleep.
Metts heard two gunshots at first – some teenagers setting off firecrackers, she thought. When someone outside unleashed another volley, her husband threw her to the floor. They dialed 911.
A Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office investigator looks for evidence on Lander Street at Temple Road near Ladson, where Alonza Williams, 15, was fatally shot June 30.
Enlarge A Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office investigator looks for evidence on Lander Street at Temple Road near Ladson, where Alonza Williams, 15, was fatally shot June 30. ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF
In hindsight, Metts recalled that people often visited her neighbor, Cordell Marsalis Frazier. She sometimes smelled marijuana. Frazier, 24, had convictions for possessing the drug. Myrtle Beach police officers found lots of cash on him in 2012, when he was last convicted for having pot.
The gunshots that Metts heard Dec. 5 peppered Frazier outside the complex in what the Sheriff’s Office said was a drug-related crime.
“The baby was sleeping up front near where it happened,” Metts said. “It’s scary.”
‘All messed up’
Trey Williams isn’t sure what happened early on Dec. 7 inside Paradise Lounge, the Ridgeville-area nightclub he manages for his grandfather.
He had hired an armed security guard to watch the parking lot that night and another without a gun to stand at the door.
A man had been shot and wounded in January in front of the club at 1220 Old Gilliard Road. One of the 22 bullets fired in a drive-by shooting there in July 2012 hit a 20-year-old woman in the face. Another shooting wounded a man outside in December 2011.
Joshua Leo Holmes, 27, was fatally shot Sept. 14 at the River Edge apartments near Goose Creek.
Enlarge Joshua Leo Holmes, 27, was fatally shot Sept. 14 at the River Edge apartments near Goose Creek.
Most recently, the night of Dec. 6 featured live music by DJ Dominique and Benji Hwy 27. Some customers ordered chicken before closing time at 2 a.m., Williams said, so he let them stay while staffers ushered most everyone else outside.
He was calculating payroll in his office when he heard a commotion. He ran out to the sight of 46-year-old Michael Jerome Haynes bleeding from stab wounds near the bar. Of the dozen people still there, about half were staff members, Williams estimated.
“I heard five different stories about what happened,” he said, “so somebody has to be lying.”
Sheriff’s officials said that an altercation had led to the stabbing and that they were closing in on a suspect.
Haynes had a criminal history that included assaults and drug distribution. Ten days earlier, he had gotten into a dispute outside the Chase Lounge, a club near Walterboro. He was incredibly drunk then, and Colleton County sheriff’s deputies reported jailing him for disorderly conduct in the interest of public safety.
But neither Williams nor his grandfather, James Gaddist, said they knew Haynes. Gaddist has owned the Paradise Lounge for two decades, but he relinquished the day-to-day operations four years ago. He hasn’t slept well since the stabbing.
“It’s got my mind all messed up,” Gaddist said. “This has never happened inside.”
A manpower issue
On the night of his slaying, Alonza Williams set out from his friend’s Temple Road home to grab some food.
The teenager wasn’t one to get into trouble on the street. He got into some in school, but he never was arrested, his aunt, Bradley, said.
Trouble, though, found Williams when someone called him under a broken street light and fired bullets at him, even as he ran away.
Bradley, who now lives in Stafford, Va., recalled how Williams told her weeks before his death how people often misunderstood him. But someday, they would get him, he told his aunt.
Since seeing Williams’ chance to prove himself cut short, his four brothers haven’t been the same, Bradley said. She saw one get caught in the ways of street life. Another asked why he hadn’t died when a car ran over him. Finding Williams’ killers might be their only solace, Bradley said, but she questioned whether the Sheriff’s Office has the resources to do it. Her family has put up $2,000 of its own money in asking people to submit tips leading to arrests.
“We don’t have any of the answers,” she said, “the who and the why this was done.”
Shuler’s unit is short one detective on medical leave.
Chief Deputy Rick Ollic, who oversees sheriff’s operations, acknowledged a deeper shortage rooted in budget cuts from the recession. But he said the agency has found ways to handle the workload. In Frazier’s death, he explained, Shuler’s unit could enlist the help of narcotics detectives with intelligence on the players in the drug trade.
“Manpower is always an issue,” Ollic said. “Unfortunately, we had three homicides in one week, but we put together teams to deal with them.”
‘Trust his timing’
When Sgt. Kim Milks, a sheriff’s detective, recently canvassed the Goose Creek neighborhood where Frazier was shot, she came across residents who heard gunfire but saw nothing.
“That’s pretty much been the consensus of everyone,” Milks said. “That’s why it’s just so difficult.”
Milks’ boss agreed that their detective work on street-level violence isn’t simple. A tipster naming a suspect could be enough to develop probable cause for an arrest, but seeing the case to fruition takes further cooperation on the witness stand, Shuler said.
“We might have some evidence, but it’s not enough to make a case in front of a jury,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is arrest someone, then have to turn around and turn them loose and tell the victim’s family we did a poor job.”
Shuler’s investigators decide whether to make arrests after collaborating with 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s office, he said.
While ethics rules prevent Wilson from discussing particulars, she said, it’s ultimately the investigators’ choice to make an arrest. Whether the police wait depends on the facts of a crime and whether they see potential for gathering more evidence while a suspect is free.
“Obviously,” she said, “the more probative and conclusive evidence we have for prosecution, the better.”
Morgan-Stevens, the mother of the college student slain in June, has grown more impatient as the days have turned into weeks, then months. On the verge of a new year, she will gather with others on the Folly Beach Pier at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 30 – what would have been her daughter’s 20th birthday – to pray for an end to her wait for justice.
In a flier for the event, Morgan-Stevens quoted an expression that her daughter posted on Twitter before her death. It summed up her approach to life.
“Wait on God,” it said, “and trust his timing.”
– Andrew Knapp