As body count rises, a few take a stand

Tamika Myers clings to a picture last month of her daughter, Sierra Truesdale, who was fatally shot in a St. George-area nightclub a year ago. Myers has joined the Tri-County 15, a group through which relatives of 15 Lowcountry homicide victims are trying to raise awareness about violence and money for college scholarships.

For a year, Tamika Myers has looked at her front door and expected her daughter to open it.

If she had walked in, Sierra Truesdale would have talked about the teenage pregnancy and domestic violence she saw in her community or about how gun violence ended too many lives around her. She would have talked about how life is short.

But Truesdale never opened the door.

A year ago Monday, while celebrating her 23rd birthday in a St. George-area nightclub, she got caught in a gang war she had no part in.

It took time for her mother to grasp that Truesdale had fallen victim to the violence she once preached against. But her daughter's slaying became a wake-up call.

"It took something to happen to my child to say I can't stand for this," Myers said. "Now it's my job as her mother to finish her story. It may take 10 years or 20. But her story will be told."

Amid a spike in homicides, Myers and parents of 15 other local victims recently joined forces to take on violence among youths. Called the Tri-County 15, the group includes the mothers of a college student fatally shot at a block party near Moncks Corner and of a young man killed in Myrtle Beach during a motorcycle festival - slayings that remain unsolved.

Members of the group and others like it have stood by their cause even though they haven't seen immediate results. Through midday Saturday, 32 people have been slain this year in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, compared with 21 in the same period last year - a 52 percent increase. The deaths have disproportionately affected black residents: 23 of the victims, or 72 percent, were black.

The groups insist on fighting for laws that target illegal guns, for resources that distract youths from the street life and for a cultural shift that stresses jobs and schools over drugs and violence.

Their fight is not unique.

Leaders have recognized a similar struggle in Chicago, where more than 80 people were shot, including 16 fatally, during the Independence Day weekend. The spate of violence moved the city's police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, to blame lax state and federal gun laws.

In the North Charleston area, where three people were fatally shot on the same weekend, police officials, community activists and residents said South Carolina has room for new laws that take on violence but guard the rights that gun owners hold dear.

To activist James Johnson, the issue has never been more pressing. His own grandson was fatally shot July 4.

"I've never seen it like this in Charleston, and I want it to end," Johnson said. "I refuse to let this city turn into another Chicago."

Only five hours into 2014, the year was off to a deadly start.

A string of shootings early on New Year's Day killed two women and critically wounded another in North Charleston - all innocent victims in what the police dubbed a feud between two men bent on retaliation.

Hoping to drum up clues in the unsolved crimes, community members hosted a news conference and an anti-violence march with the police.

The Tri-County National Action Network, whose umbrella organization is led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, organized one rally in which officers spoke of difficulty in solving the homicides. Johnson, president of the network's local chapter, urged residents to look for signs that their sons and daughters are mixed up in buying or selling drugs.

The community eventually stepped up. Two men were implicated as the shooters, but another suspect thought to have played an ancillary role in the shootings was gunned down in North Charleston before police could arrest him in May.

"If we don't deal with this, it's going to get worse for the next generation," Johnson said last week. "Getting the community involved is the only thing that's going to help."

After Jan. 1, the violence waned during the first three months of 2014. With only five other homicides in the tri-county area - two of which were behind the bars of a prison or a jail - the year was shaping up to be a tranquil one.

That changed in April. And it changed quickly.

Four people were killed that month in North Charleston.

Charleston, which had gone almost four months without a killing, has seen five homicides since late April - only two shy of its total for 2013.

Chief Greg Mullen of the Charleston Police Department noted that three of the deaths involved close family members or acquaintances - one of the reasons the agency has been developing a family-violence unit.

But in the community at large, Mullen has seen outrage over violence ebb and flow with the crime rate. He understood residents' frustrations, he said, but explained that changing youths' attitudes should be a long-term effort in times of peace or turmoil.

One of the chief's fronts in that fight has been in Columbia.

A law that he successfully lobbied for last year now denies bail if someone arrested for a violent crime is already free on such a charge.

His focus recently shifted to a bill that would increase penalties for people caught several times illegally carrying a gun. The charge is a misdemeanor no matter how often someone is arrested under the current law.

The proposal would make a person's third offense a felony punishable with at least a year and up to five years in prison.

But the measure has gained little traction in the General Assembly.

Mullen thinks the bill could get wide support in South Carolina because it punishes people with illegal weapons, not law-abiding gun owners.

"No matter how you feel about guns," Mullen said, "when you introduce a firearm into the situation - whether it's drug-related or domestic violence or just two people upset - you increase the potential for a very bad situation."

The bill arose from discussions between community activists, law enforcement officials and lawmakers, said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, the Charleston Democrat who sponsored it.

While making laws is his forte in the fight against violence, Gilliard said residents must make the biggest change. He has attended rallies, prayer vigils and marches, but he has seen people become "desensitized when a youth kills another youth."

Their concerns, though, have inspired lawmakers to find ways to take on violence, Gilliard said. He vowed that a new version of his bill would succeed during the next legislative session.

"You hold onto your belief," Gilliard said. "You start building a bipartisan effort, and before you know it, a bill passes."

Talk of change after tragedies is often rampant in the communities where they occur.

Getting results, though, has been difficult, and residents and activists sometimes disagree on what it will take.

Johnson, the community activist from the National Action Network, has long been outspoken about violence among youths. Meanwhile, his family struggled to control his own grandson, Terrence McNeil, who repeatedly got tangled up in drugs and robberies.

The 19-year-old died July Fourth when someone shot him as he drove through Hanahan. It was that city's first homicide in nearly two years.

But the slaying only quickened Johnson's resolve.

He organized a meeting July 23 with community members and several tri-county police officials to discuss what to do. He supports a curfew or an FBI operation to root out gang activity, he said.

"It hit me hard to know that my family isn't immune to the violence out there," Johnson said. "But all it does it strengthen me to preach harder."

Some activists have taken a more controversial stance, asserting that police tactics have stirred mistrust and perpetuated lawlessness.

Dot Scott, president of the NAACP's Charleston branch, spends most days answering calls from concerned community members. She has never been so inundated, she said last week.

"We're in a real saddened state," Scott said. "We're really in our own little Chicago."

Scott deflects criticism that the local NAACP steps up only when the police are involved in a controversy, rather than when young men kill their peers. But she argued that fairness and equality from the government are keys to quelling violence.

Public resources should be dedicated to creating more recreational opportunities for youths, she said, and police departments should treat members of poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods with the same respect that residents elsewhere get.

But no one thing has prompted the crime, Scott acknowledged, and no one thing can stop it.

"There's never a point where we should stop trying to get this problem fixed," Scott said. "You keep talking about it. You never know when you'll get a breakthrough."

Ariel Morgan, 19, didn't stop talking about it until it took her life.

On Twitter, she expressed a fear of gun violence but a hope that people attending a block party June 7 near Moncks Corner would leave their guns at home.

But she got caught in the crossfire at the event when at least a half-dozen guns were fired. The young woman, who was attending college to be a pediatric nurse, was killed. Five others were wounded.

Morgan's death sparked more talk about solving disputes with words instead of bullets and about helping the authorities solve crimes.

But in the month since then, the talk has quieted.

Capt. Bobby Shuler, the chief detective in the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, said an initial flow of tips has slowed to a trickle. The crime unfolded in front of nearly 800 people, but none of the clues has led to an arrest.

"Despite the tragedy that a young lady lost her life, that doesn't radiate to the younger generation coming forward and assisting us," Shuler said. "Close friends always remember, and we remember. But everybody else seems to forget."

To Morgan's mother, breaking that silence is just one key to solving her daughter's slaying.

Community activists and politicians alone cannot change a culture of drugs and guns, Kendra Morgan-Stevens said. She put the onus on parents and peers.

"I'm not going to let the talk die down," Morgan-Stevens said. "The violence has gotten out of hand. It's time to end the silence to stop the violence."

She joined the Tri-County 15, the group that Truesdale's family became a part of. It held a six-hour event Saturday, the first step in its attempt to raise $500 in memory of each of the 15 families affected by homicides. The families include Patrina Dantzler of Summerville, whose son Devonte died in the May shooting that killed two others in Myrtle Beach. There have been no arrests announced in the slaying.

Louis Smith of Summerville, director of the Community Resource Center who brought the families together, said the money will go toward college scholarships to be distributed next year.

"We're moving from stop-the-violence rallies to actually doing something," Smith said. "That's a tremendous step in the right direction."

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