2014: A deadly year Gun violence fuels 40 percent surge in Charleston-area killings

Ariel Morgan's mother Kendra Morgan-Stevens, wearing a picture of her daughter, received hugs at a memorial service on what would have been Ariel's 20th birthday Tuesday at the Folly Beach pier. Ariel was with nearly 800 people at a block party on June 7 when a gunfight broke out and a bullet hit the 19-year-old college student.

A spray of bullets rang in the new year in 2014, splintering wood, shattering glass and killing two women targeted inside their North Charleston homes. A third woman struck by gunfire barely survived.

As police assured rattled residents that they would find the culprits, some in the community wondered if the New Year's Day bloodshed was a terrible harbinger of things to come.

"There is a superstition that whatever way you start the new year, that's the way you're going to finish it," said Pastor Thomas Dixon, a community activist. "And it looks like that is the way it turned out."

The greater Charleston area saw a surge in homicides last year, with a steady parade of violence from Jan. 1 until Christmas Day, when a 17-year-old was cut down by gunfire on the streets of the Holy City's East Side neighborhood. In all, 66 people died in homicides in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties - a 40 percent increase from 47 deaths in 2013.

The death toll is even more staggering when placed in context with the region's murder count for the past 14 years. Since 2001, 709 people have been slain in the greater Charleston area at a rate of about one every seven days, a Post and Courier analysis has found. The review also determined that:

Gun violence fueled much of the bloodshed in 2014, accounting for nearly eight out of every 10 killings. Since 2001, guns have been used in 76 percent of all killings in the three counties.

Black people account for a disproportionate number of those killed, about 70 percent over the past 14 years. In Charleston County last year, 78 percent of the 45 people killed were black, though blacks make up 29 percent of the population.

Black people also are overly represented in the pool of murder suspects. Of 559 people arrested for homicides since 2001, 77 percent have been black.

Nearly two dozen of the homicides from 2014 remain unsolved, adding to the 150 unsolved murder cases in the tri-county area since 2001.

Most of last year's homicide victims knew their killer in some way, a pattern that has held true for years in the Charleston area.

The spike in 2014 came after the Charleston area saw a drop in violent crime in 2013, a trend mirrored by national statistics, according to the FBI. National numbers aren't yet available for 2014, but published reports from individual cities indicate a mixed bag of results. For example, while Boston saw a marked jump in homicides, New York and Chicago reported fewer murders. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police saw the fewest killings since 1977, and Detroit had its lowest number since 1967, though that city's population has suffered amid the economic downturn.

Heath Hoffman, a College of Charleston sociologist who studies crime issues, said the Charleston area's homicide patterns appear to be in line with national trends in terms of gun violence and the racial breakdown of victims. Hoffman said it's important to note that the violence, by-and-large, isn't random and is often confined to pockets within cities.

Hoffman, however, said the area's murder rate is troubling, placing portions of Charleston County in line with much larger cities, such as New Orleans and Chicago. In North Charleston, for instance, the murder rate was about triple the national average in 2013, the latest year for which national statistics were available.

"The real question is: Why are people using guns to solve their problems?" he said.

North Charleston again led the region in homicides three years after posting its lowest murder rate in decades, an achievement that had been partially attributed to aggressive policing. Its police force investigated 22 killings in 2014, up from 16 deaths in 2013, 13 in 2012 and five in 2011.

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers said all but two of those slain knew their killer in some way. Drugs played a part in some killings, as did neighborhood beefs, gangs and other factors. But Driggers said he hasn't seen any overall trends emerge to explain the violence.

Driggers said he is bothered by any death, but he bristles when folks compare his city's murder rate - 21 killings per 100,000 people - to national averages or those of other cities. He considers that a misleading indictment of his entire community when about 1 percent of the population is causing most of the problems, he said.

"I take exception to that. That's not relative to how safe we are," he said. "These crimes are committed by the same people - most of them in the criminal element - over and over. We need to start blaming the people responsible for these things and not taking it out on the entire population."

Since taking over as police chief in 2013, Driggers said he and his officers have worked to build trust and stronger relationships with the community, through everything from face-to-face meetings with activists to sponsoring youth athletic programs. His message has been straightforward: Residents play a key role in keeping the peace and need to work with police to make sure crime doesn't take root.

"It's up to all of us," he said. "We're on the front line. Come stand with us."

Dixon, the local activist, and James Johnson, president of the local chapter of the Tri-County Action Network, are among those convinced that a key to reducing homicides, particularly those involving young black males, is curtailing the number of guns flowing into inner-city neighborhoods.

Dixon said he has heard tales of black-market gun merchants who sell firearms from the trunks of their cars for as little as $20, placing pistols in the hands of teens not yet old enough to vote. He favors adopting a program modeled after Richmond, Va.'s Project Exile, which mandates a five-year prison sentence for anybody caught with an illegal gun.

Statistics on how many homicides in recent years were committed with illegally obtained weapons were not readily available.

Johnson, meanwhile, plans to travel to Columbia with other activists in the coming weeks to demand that Gov. Nikki Haley appoint a task force to crack down on gun trafficking in the Palmetto State. Johnson, who is black, said young black men are dying in large numbers, but the state seems to be doing little to address the carnage.

"If we had this kind of killing in the white community, we would have the FBI on every single street corner looking for answers," he said.

Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said several constituents in downtown Charleston told him last week about weapons streaming in from places likes Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. They told him of .45-caliber pistols on sale for $20 each, especially if the dealer was looking to get out of town quickly.

He worked with Charleston-area police officials last year on legislation that would make a person's third offense for illegally carrying a gun a felony punishable by between one and five years in prison. Now, it's a misdemeanor no matter how many times someone is caught. Gilliard plans to revive the proposal for the upcoming session.

Police officials are skeptical that out-of-state traffickers are carting in carloads of guns. They contend that most firearms end up on the street as a result of burglaries, car break-ins and "straw purchases" in which someone with a clean record buys a gun for someone who can't do so legally.

But Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and his boss, Mayor Joe Riley, strongly support Gilliard's efforts to increase state penalties for those caught illegally carrying handguns. Mullen said state law currently punishes repeat shoplifters more severely than someone caught flouting gun possession laws - and criminals are keenly aware of that.

"There is no deterrent," Mullen said. "Nobody takes it seriously."

Mullen and Riley have been frequent advocates for such statewide reforms while trying a number of new initiatives at the local level to curb violence, including camps for at-risk children and teams of officers embedded in some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. Though the number of city homicides rose from seven in 2013 to nine last year, the latter number is still half of Charleston's total for 2003 alone.

Gilliard has other ideas for attacking violence in the Charleston area, including one dubbed the "Witness Protection Act."

Prosecutors and police have complained about violence, threats and intimidation directed at witnesses who tried to help solve deadly crimes in recent years. Early in 2014, for example, the brother of a murder suspect shot up the Charleston home of a key witness' mother on the eve of trial. And a suspect in the New Year's Day shootings in North Charleston also was later charged with trying to kill a federal witness in a Walterboro drug case.

Gilliard's bill would put witnesses' safety in the hands of the Attorney General's Office and the State Law Enforcement Division. He hopes the program would encourage more young people, who otherwise would fear reprisal for cooperating with the authorities, to step forward with key information that solves crimes and prevents new ones.

He said other lawmakers should, like him, focus more on crime-reduction measures than on political ethics reforms because they have a greater effect on residents' lives.

"I couldn't count the number of vigils I've been to, but we're turning our backs on those grieving mothers," Gilliard said. "It's really getting worse. (Lawmakers) ought to be embarrassed to walk the halls, as I am sometimes."

Some members of the Lowcountry's black communities found themselves for the first time last year speaking out publicly against violence, but the struggle has long frustrated residents and activists alike.

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office is keenly aware of the problem.

Of the eight homicides that the office investigated in 2014, all of the victims were black, and six of the cases remain unsolved.

Capt. Bobby Shuler, who commands the sheriff's homicide detectives, said the surge is likely connected with spikes elsewhere in the Lowcountry. His detectives have seen links between their slayings and deaths in other jurisdictions. Shuler has blamed the lack of arrests in the cases on the nature of the crimes and the unwillingness of witnesses to come forward.

"You can track almost everything to drugs," he said. "One or two things usually happen when someone is dealing in the drug industry: You somewhere down the line become a statistic or you end up going to jail."

At the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, Capt. Tony Phinney said his agency also is working with others to investigate whether any of the violence is connected. The year's deadliest shooting, when two Summerville-area men were fatally shot in Phinney's jurisdiction on Dec. 15, was no exception.

The next night, Charleston County deputies responded to a shooting in Lincolnville, and Phinney's investigators arrested one of the wounded men as a suspect in the double homicide the night before. Solving such crimes quickly, he said, depends on deputies knowing of criminal elements in their area before violence erupts.

"Sometimes, people are going to commit crimes, and there's very little you can do about it," he said. "But when you've already got the intel about what's happening on the street, you've got somewhere to start."

One death that remains unsolved in Shuler's territory is the June shooting of Kendra Morgan-Stevens' daughter.

Morgan-Stevens got together last week at Folly Beach Pier with a handful of friends, family members and others on what would have been her daughter's 20th birthday.

Ariel Morgan died June 7 when gunfire broke out during a block party near Moncks Corner. She had no part in the argument that sparked the violence that also wounded another woman and four young black men. In fact, she had spoken out on social media against it and those who participated in the violence, but her messages posted on Twitter apparently fell on deaf ears.

"They lived by the gun," Morgan-Stevens said. "My daughter didn't live by the gun, but she died the way she spoke against."

Morgan-Stevens supports efforts to crack down on street thugs, but she has shied away from attending stop-the-violence rallies because the young men who most need to hear that message aren't likely to attend. She considers most of these displays a "waste of time."

"The people who need to be at rallies are not there," Morgan-Stevens said. "The community leaders are there, but the people who are toting the guns are not there, and they're not listening."

The same feeling of helplessness has befallen some of the black community leaders more involved with organizing such efforts.

To Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, efforts to tackle violence among youths must start with parents passing along positive values to their children and continue with equitable treatment of students at their schools. He said black schoolchildren are too often more harshly punished for acting out than their white counterparts.

Darby also said a lack of trust between young community members and area police agencies and an unequal playing field for black youths looking for jobs in the Lowcountry tend to breed more violence.

"A lot of the violence is driven by the drug culture," Darby said. "It's hard to tell a young man not to sell drugs when the only job they can find is at McDonald's."

Darby, other local activists and scholars joined Charleston city and police leaders in 2004 for a summit to address a spike in homicides the year before. The 18 killings in 2003 that disproportionately affected black men had been the highest since 1969.

He and the mayor said then that the event could be a turning point for the city in addressing the issue. No solid plan developed from the initiative, though, and Darby said he couldn't remember the effort now.

"It takes something extraordinarily heinous to get people all riled up, then they go back and do things the way they have been doing," Darby said. "I don't know if frustrating is the right word for it. It goes beyond frustrating."

Riley said the roots of violence are myriad and complicated, and can't be solved with an easy, "magic wand" solution.

Mullen agreed, saying he's become convinced that street violence, like domestic abuse, is a generational problem that should be addressed like a public health matter, bringing together experts from various disciplines to grapple with the issues that help feed the cycle. Those include educational challenges, poverty, substance abuse and repeated exposure to violence on the streets.

"Violence is really a learned behavior," he said. "So we've got to find a way to reach these young children and change the way they think."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or twitter.com/glennsmith5. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.