LANCASTER — A mother shot in front of her three children. A former major league baseball played gunned down during an argument. An 87-year-old woman stabbed to death by her great-grandson after she refused to give him money. Two convicted felons who gunned each other down during a drug deal.
Authorities said they are less than half of the toll from a deadly six months in Lancaster County, which has seen 11 people killed by others in the first six months of 2012, more than all the homicides in 2010 and 2011 combined. The county is four times smaller than the state’s largest counties, but is on pace to have a homicide rate closer to South Carolina’s major cities.
The Lancaster County sheriff blames drugs and repeat offenders, while officials in the city of Lancaster blame the bad economy. But for the people who live in the neighborhoods not far from the stabbings and the shootings, all those factors can take the blame and none of them look to get better any time soon.
Kenny Dawkins lives just blocks from Lancaster’s revitalized downtown, but the only work he has found in the past few years are odd jobs. He moved to Lancaster 25 years ago, falling in love with the bustling, beautiful mill town. But the mills left and the unemployment rate shot up. The county’s rate is routinely higher than the state rate, and was at 11.9 percent in May. In October, authorities said they rounded up 15 gang members, and in March, a drug sting ended in 79 arrests. Dawkins, 45, said the crime and lack of opportunities is dragging his neighborhood down.
“Back then, you could keep your doors and windows open and nothing happened. Nobody was looking to rob you because they could find work if they wanted to,” said Dawkins , who sat on his stoop drinking from a small liquor bottle he said kept him from doing anything stupid out of frustration. “But that changed real quick. Now you have to have bars on your windows and you still better have a .12-gauge ready by the door.”
Dawkins’ neighborhood is a stark contrast to much of the rest of the county of 77,000 people, with its expensive neighborhoods catering to people from bordering Charlotte, N.C., to the north and the nice houses on the other side of town with “We Are Lancaster!” signs. The signs are left over from earlier this year, when some residents banded together after a national news outlet angered the town by saying it represented the decline of America.
Most of the homicides this year have been in or near Lancaster’s grittier neighborhoods. The two convicted felons shot each other in a neighborhood of homes built in the 1950s, where one house is for sale for $27,500. The mother was killed in her decades-old trailer in a run-down park a short distance from the boundary of the Lancaster Country Club. Deputies said she was robbed. Investigators said former major league outfielder Danny Clyburn Jr. was killed by a man with a record of assaults and drug arrests going back to 1992. The great-grandmother who investigators said was stabbed by her great-grandson lived in a neighborhood of small homes built just after World War II.
Lancaster County had five homicides in 2010 and five more in 2011. The 2012 rate of 2.9 homicides per 10,000 people would far outpace places considered more dangerous, like Orangeburg of Charleston counties, which have rates well below two homicides per 10,000 people.
The Lancaster police chief didn’t return several messages to discuss the increased violence in her city, but City Councilwoman Tamara Green Garris said the chief is stressing community watch programs.
Garris said the city also recently started bringing the solicitor to community events to help people understand how they can have minor criminal charges that might show up in background checks removed from their records.
“You would be surprised at the people who have made one mistake and now they just can’t find a job,” Garris said.
Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile said he is putting more officers on the streets and is emphasizing fighting drugs and illegal guns. But he thinks this uptick in homicides is just a blip that may take care of itself. All the homicides in the county this year have been committed by people with criminal records, who are either involved in selling drugs or need money to buy them, he said.
“If you get involved in this stuff, you end up in jail or you end up dead,” Faile said.
Faile also is asking judges to consider higher bonds. Not only did the two convicted felons who shot each other have long records, but one of them was free on bond awaiting trial on a murder charge, the sheriff said.
The neighborhoods where the killings are taking place aren’t far from the businesses and homes proudly displaying the “We Are Lancaster!” signs. But you won’t see any of those signs in Rhonda Hood’s community. In fact, the “no trespassing” signs outnumber the community watch signs. Hood has lived in Lancaster for all her 26 years. She said she makes sure to dress and act like she doesn’t have anything, which she said is fairly easy when she can’t find a job. But she figures she can’t guarantee she won’t be a victim.
“If it’s better for them, they are going to rob and steal,” Hood said.
Garris and the rest of Lancaster City Council are aware that the violence has to end in the city — nicknamed the “The Red Rose City” after its namesake in England — if they want to keep selling it as a small-town alternative close to the Charlotte region. She plans candlelight vigils to remember families ruined by violence so people don’t become desensitized and has let the police department know they have her full support.
“We can’t let them win. The greater good has to win,” Garris said. “The elderly people used to sit on their porches, but now they are afraid of gunfire ringing out. It shouldn’t be that way.”