WALTERBORO — When Jodi Johnston heard a gunshot Friday morning while smoking a cigarette on her patio, she brushed it off.
Gunfire near her parents’ Phillips Road house, she said, seems common to her. The town she has called home for all 45 years of her life isn’t the safe place it once was, she said.
Drug busts and shootings seem frequent. Johnston frets being robbed during nighttime strolls, she said.
Burglars stole thousands of dollars worth of firearms from her house during daylight hours in recent years.
Her frustrations with crime came to a head Friday when Walterboro police officers chased two armed bank-robbery suspects into her community just outside the city’s limits. The men were caught, and no one was hurt.
Investigators were trying to sort out who fired the lone shot near Johnston’s home, police or the men they were chasing, and whether shots were fired elsewhere during the pursuit. Neighbors indicated that a police officer had fired the shot.
“We’re out in the country, and people shoot out here, so I didn’t think anything about it,” Johnston said. “This used to be the nicest street, but I don’t feel safe now.”
The ordeal began with a cash heist after 10 a.m. at the Heritage Trust Federal Credit Union at 841 N. Jefferies Blvd., what Walterboro Public Safety Chief Otis Rhodes said was the town’s first bank robbery in two years.
None of the five credit union employees were hurt, and the robbers fled.
The suspected thieves switched vehicles, but witnesses relayed a description of the new getaway car, and officers spotted the Mazda sedan two blocks from the credit union.
A chase involving two city officers and Colleton County sheriff’s deputies ensued, although Rhodes said he didn’t know how fast the suspects’ vehicle was going.
The Mazda traveled down Sidneys Road, then turned at Phillips Road, which is lined with high grass, houses and mobile homes.
During a sharp turn, Rhodes said, a tire on the Mazda blew.
The car stopped a few hundred yards down Phillips Road. One of the occupants bailed out and ran, but was caught moments later. The other man was found inside the car.
Rhodes said he didn’t know whether his officers shot at the suspects, whom he could not name despite officers leading the duo from City Hall in handcuffs. Investigators found a handgun they said was used in the robbery, the stolen cash and a single bullet hole in the car’s rear window.
The FBI is tasked with sorting out the bank robbery, and the State Law Enforcement Division is looking into the shooting.
“It could have turned out bad,” Rhodes said. “We were fortunate that the community saw them and gave us a good description.”
Friday’s shooting was the second in as many days in the Walterboro area.
Derrick Walker, 26, was “nicked in the ankle” by a bullet in front of Hosey’s Package Shop at 1210 Hampton St., the chief said. Walker told investigators that he was walking down the street when an unknown person shot at him.
The incidents were a reminder of the violence that plagued this rural community after gangs took up residence here.
A string of shootings followed their arrival, drawing unwanted attention to a city that bills itself as “the front porch of the Lowcountry” and prefers to highlight its quaint downtown and outdoor offerings.
Violent crime peaked in the city in 2007, but in November 2009, two adults and a 20-month-old girl were killed in a drive-by shooting. Authorities intensified their efforts, and a state grand jury investigation culminated in a June 2010 raid that targeted 20 gang members.
The city reported 50 violent crimes in 2011, compared with 118 in 2009. Last year also passed without a single homicide within the city’s borders.
Still, crime does rear its head from time to time. A woman was attacked this month by a robber at an ATM machine on Jeffries Highway. The previous month, police arrested two brothers in a robbery at a Bells Highway pharmacy.
“(Residents) should not be concerned. Things are going to happen,” Rhodes said. “But we always put out extra patrols ... during the holidays.”
For Beth Benton, who lives on Sidneys Road within sight of Friday’s chase, the violence reached the point where she moved a family tradition of erecting outdoor Christmas ornaments and lights to daylight hours.
“It seems like people are doing anything to get money these days,” Benton said. “Their crime always used to be up town. Now it’s coming into our neck of the woods.”
Benton stood on her porch with some of her 15 cats and talked with her next-door neighbor, Nadine Connelly, about the ever-changing face of what they once considered a quiet town.
Connelly, 73, had bars installed on her windows after burglars broke into her house. And as a door greeter at the Bells Highway Walmart, what she called the “happening place in Walterboro,” Connelly hears about all sorts of crime.
The store has been the scene of bizarre candy thefts and busts of mobile methamphetamine laboratories in the parking lot.
“It’s a shame when you can’t enjoy your own lawn,” Connelly said. “I don’t trust these people out here any more.”
Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
Walterboro Public Safety Officer Maurice Huggins prepares to take a bank robbery suspect to the Colleton County jail Friday. Two men, who were not identified, were arrested after a police chase.×
Authorities work at the scene where a Walterboro police pursuit of two bank robbers ended Friday morning on Phillips Road outside city limits. Two suspects were caught, and no one was hurt.×
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