Donald Frierson was tending to his backyard tomato plants when it all began.
“I heard this ‘pop’ and didn’t know what it was. A bullet came though the fence and came whizzing by me,” he said.
The resident of 230 Birmingham Drive immediately noticed something disturbing when he lined up the fresh new hole in his fence with a new hole in a window at the rear of the home next door. A bullet had just barely missed him.
Deputies who arrested 31-year-old Richard Justin Brewer after the 31/2-hour shooting rampage Tuesday said they evacuated 15 homes, as many as they deemed necessary, in the Sangaree community to keep residents out of harm’s way.
But not everyone left, and some returned while Brewer was still firing more than 100 shots, said Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ricky Driggers, who commanded the scene.
Though it totally disrupted the neighborhood between Goose Creek and Summerville, the shooting became for some residents a giant outdoor spectacle. But once it was over, bullet holes showed how dangerous the situation had become.
Should the law enforcement officers from three counties who converged on Birmingham Drive have stopped Brewer sooner, with tear gas or by returning fire?
Driggers said neither option was viable, and the plan was always to wait Brewer out.
“Time was on our side,” Driggers said.
He said officers had Brewer contained, he was alone in the home (except for two dogs), nearby residents had been ordered to leave or stay inside, and the Sheriff’s Office’s trained negotiator, Lt. Annie Jackson, had Brewer talking to her via cellphone, he said.
Driggers said the safety of neighborhood residents was the No. 1 concern.
“You want to end these with nobody getting hurt, and that’s what we did,” he said. “I feel everything we did led to this success. We did it right.”
Despite that, he said, officers were in real danger, and some barely avoided getting shot.
Authorities shut off Brewer’s electricity, put out some street lights and firefighters provided lighting that gave law enforcement advantages, Driggers said.
But in the darkness enveloping the area, some residents defied orders to stay away, he said.
“One man who came back and was sitting in his boat, in his driveway, and he was in the line of fire,” Driggers said. The man was ordered to leave, and later, after the ordeal ended, it was noted that a bullet had struck the vehicle attached to the boat.
A 30-year-law enforcement veteran, Driggers said shots Brewer fired from his 227 Birmingham Drive home were mainly from the front and back sides of the home.
There are no doors or windows on either side of the home, but some shots fired from inside the home into the side walls exited through the wood and vinyl siding.
Written policies did not apply to the situation, Driggers said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and never had anything like this happen. You don’t have a book to go by on something like this.”
Shooting at Brewer would have been problematical because he kept well-hidden, and even when he was firing through panes of glass, he kept the blinds down and shot through them, Driggers said.
“We could never get a visual on him. You could see a muzzle flash, but we couldn’t see him because of the curtains,” he said.
Frierson said that immediately after he noticed that he barely had missed being shot, he saw the first two deputies arrive, and he showed them the bullet holes. He and his wife, Mary, were told to evacuate.
More officers arrived quickly.
At 128 Coventry Road, which adjoins Frierson’s back yard, Pete and Debbie Johnson were finishing dinner when they heard a “big bang.”
“My wife said, ‘What’s that?’?” Pete recalled. “I thought it might have been a can falling off the shelf in the pantry. My wife got up and looked out the kitchen window, and said, ‘There’s a policeman out there with a gun.’ He told us we needed to evacuate our home.”
Driggers said officers escorted many people away from their homes, often putting the officers at great risk.
“You could hear bullets flying through the trees,” Pete Johnson said about his departure from home. Through the night, the Johnsons’ backyard shed took five bullets, their air-conditioning unit was struck once and a bullet bored into the home’s siding.
Gunshots blamed on Brewer struck at least five other homes and also vehicles and fences, and shattered neighbors’ sense of safety and security.
No law enforcement officers discharged their firearms, and all of the shots fired came from Brewer’s .38-caliber Rossi revolver, Driggers said.
He revealed that Brewer apparently tried to take his own life early in the standoff that began about 6 p.m. He said Brewer fired a shot beneath his own chin, and the shot only grazed him.
“We think he did it early, because the blood was already dried on the floor.”
He said Brewer has a history of drug and alcohol abuse and reportedly was despondent over losing his job. He was charged after the standoff with attempted murder and five counts of discharging a firearm into a dwelling. His bail was set at $320,000.
Several neighbors said they had seen Brewer but didn’t know him, and they said the rampage came as a complete shock. Tyler Hodge at 222 Birmingham Drive said Brewer “was really quiet, and if we didn’t know about (the shooting), he would be like your perfect neighbor.”
“He was quiet and we never had any problems from him,” added Hodge’s roommate, Kathy Smith.
Driggers said it took crime-scene experts “a full day and half to process the scene” after Brewer was in custody. Found in his home were 79 spent shells and nine unfired .38-caliber hollow-point rounds.
Investigators believe Brewer flushed some spent shells down the toilet or sinks, explaining the discrepancy between the count of spent and unused shells and the estimate of shots fired.
“I feel comfortable saying he shot well over 100 rounds,” Driggers said.
Brewer’s pistol could hold just six bullets, and he often fired them in bursts. He often could not have seen whet he was shooting at, as he fired into closed window blinds and even a metal garage door.
“He shot his home all up. He would go into the garage and just stand and shoot the garage door,” Driggers said.
According to an incident report, Brewer’s wife, Alexis, reported at 6 p.m. that her husband threatened suicide via a text message. The first two deputies at the scene were alerted by Frierson that shots had been fired.
Though many were inconvenienced by the event, it also brought neighbors together. Some who fled crowded into homes of people they didn’t, or barely, knew, and others mingled outside with people and families previously strangers.
For a block or more in all directions from the Brewer home, the neighborhood took on a party-like atmosphere. Adults and children took to the streets, occupied driveways, porches and lawn chairs.
“It was a block party. Everybody was outside, and kids were in the streets,” said Gina Jenkins of Birmingham Drive. She and many others outside could hear the gunfire. “Some said it sounds like firecrackers,” Jenkins said.
“Sometimes it would be loud, sometimes really quiet. You could tell he was in different rooms” when he fired, she added.
The ordeal wasn’t a party for Bethany Perritte, who was evacuated along with her children, ages 7 and 11/2.
Officers knocked, then came in through her unlocked door. “They told me to grab my kids and go as fast as I can. There was a cop car in my driveway and police were behind it using it as a barricade. It was very scary,” Perritte said.
She and her children ended up in the home of a family she barely knew, and shared it with four other families. The hosts were gracious, she said.
“They didn’t know us, but they let us come in.”
Adults spent the hours talking and children found activities. “Me and my friends played video games,” Bailey Perritte, 7, said.
Her mom said that as time passed, things got more difficult. “It was a small house and we didn’t have any diapers,” she said.
A Birmingham Drive man who would not give his name said that although his home sustained three bullet holes, he felt no fear. “I worked in Afghanistan three times. I don’t sweat the small stuff,” he said.
Driggers said several law enforcement vehicles were damaged by shots, and many officers at the scene experienced close calls.
“This was a very dangerous situation and everybody out there heard a bullet come by them.” Driggers said. “One officer in a backyard had a bullet come so close to him he had shavings of the fence in his hair.”
After 9:30 p.m., Jackson, the sheriff’s negotiator, convinced Brewer to surrender. But he prolonged the situation.
“She talked him into putting the gun outside, and he did that, but as we approached the house he went back inside and flipped us the bird and slammed the door,” Driggers said.
They were still talking to Brewer but not sure if he had any other weapons. Finally, he came out with his hands up but tried to run and was subdued with a stun gun, Driggers said.
Residents felt relieved. “It’s a life-changing experience,” Donald Frierson said. “I am more cautious about what I do and where I do it.”
His wife, Mary, said the ordeal “was like something in a movie. It was unreal.”
Donald said that one of the deputies who had been first on the scene told him later “that I had saved his life. He said, ‘It could have been us that were shot because we were fixing to knock on (Brewer’s) door.’?”