Neighbors describe desperation before North Charleston murder-suicide

North Charleston police officers and Dorchester County coroner staff remove a body from a mobile home on Thoroughbred Drive, where authorities say a man fatally shot a woman during a domestic dispute, then turned the gun on himself Tuesday morning.

The North Charleston policeman drew his firearm Tuesday morning and pointed it over a set of doorsteps in the Saddlebrook Mobile Home Park.

Inside the home, a man waved a gun and a woman tried to protect five of her children. A sister of the woman, who also was inside at the time, had called 911 after the man dug a handgun out of his pocket and threatened the mother.

The commotion awoke 70-year-old George Felty. He sat upright on his couch and peered through an open window at Sgt. John Reynolds. “Get out of the house!” Reynolds shouted. “Get out to the roadway!”

“He yelled almost 10 times,” Felty said. “He wanted them all to come out safely. ... Then I heard it.”

First, a gunshot. A few seconds later, another gunshot. Then children’s screams. Another sister pounded her fist into a police cruiser and cried.

The man had fatally shot his former girlfriend, then turned the gun on himself in what North Charleston police deemed a murder-suicide. It was the latest domestic violence homicide in South Carolina, which has consistently ranked second in the nation for its number of women killed by men. In 2011, 52 South Carolinians were slain in such episodes; 75 percent were women.

The bodies of Zakiya Lawson, a 34-year-old mother of seven, and Peter Centel Williams, a 27-year-old felon, were found inside the home. Williams was arrested this year on charges that he punched Lawson in front of two of her children, including the infant son they had together.

In March, North Charleston was awarded a $200,000 federal grant to help police fight domestic violence. The program aims to spot red flags in relationships and prevent them from ending in bloodshed. It has not yet been implemented.

Neighbors described Lawson as a hard worker who had lived in the community near Ashley Phosphate Road and Patriot Boulevard for six months.

She depended on her 16-year-old son to watch the younger children as she worked a night shift.

She and Williams had dated for about a year until they broke up early this year. In February, they got into a fight at her home on Buck Pond Road in North Charleston.

As they argued, Williams put his hands in Lawson’s face, so she swatted them away. Williams punched her, the report stated, and her nose bled. He didn’t leave until Lawson called 911.

Williams was arrested last month in connection with the incident, but it wasn’t his first trip to jail.

His criminal history started with a conviction in May 2004 for assault and battery with intent to kill, and another in November 2010 for having a small amount of marijuana.

He was convicted once of criminal domestic violence.

Last July, a former girlfriend told deputies that Williams rode his Harley-Davidson up to her van on Brooks Loop near Summerville and started punching her. The woman, 27, ran into her mother’s house, but Williams broke down the door and started kicking her with his steel-toe boots, a report stated.

Deputies found the woman with a swollen black eye and a busted lip.

Sometime after that, Lawson and Williams again were living together at the mobile home at 4674 Thoroughbred Drive.

Neighbors said Lawson didn’t have a car and often got rides from Williams. On Tuesday, his white Chevrolet Malibu was parked outside a vacant home across the street.

Rebecca Williams-Agee, director of prevention and education for S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said Lawson’s predicament followed a story line she sees too often.

Women who try to leave abusive men often find themselves and their children being threatened with harm, Williams-Agee said. In many cases,

they try to patch their relationships.

That South Carolina has one of the most dismal histories of violence against women hints at deep-rooted gender roles here, she said, as well as a failure to hold abusers accountable. Crime data from 2012

that now is being studied might put the state at No. 1 in the country when it comes to violence against women, she added.

“The most dangerous time is when they try to leave,” Williams-Agee said. “The perpetrator loses control of the family, and that’s when they might murder the victim to regain control. He often takes himself out in the process.”

Officers went to the couple’s home around 8:10 a.m., not long after neighbors said Lawson typically returns from work. Two of Lawson’s sisters were there, trying to talk to Williams as one of them talked to a police dispatcher.

“You have a baby to take care of,” the sister said during the 911 call. “It ain’t worth it.”

The sister pleaded with Williams to let Lawson walk outside.

“It’s going to be worse,” the sister said. “You won’t ever see her again.”

About 90 seconds after the sister’s pleas, her phone captured the gunfire.

It was 8:24 a.m.

Police found Williams lying face down, a gun in his left hand.

A few lots down the street, Damian Gadsden lugged a loaded trash bag to a backyard barrel. He heard the “pop-pop” of bullets being fired. More police cruisers came. Family members cried out.

“They’re good people,” said Gadsden, 31. “Nobody expected that to happen.”

Neighbors saw Lawson’s sister run from the home and jump up and down in the street.

“He shot my sister,” she said. “He shot my sister.”

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