Violence threatens history on waterfront; Mosquito Beach under fire after shooting death

ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF Seen Monday, alcohol bottles and cans litter the shoreline of Mosquito Beach, a small strip of land near a marsh on James Island where a handful of nightclubs like The Lake House have attracted customers -and occasional violence - for decades.

Bill Wilder still remembers the first time someone got murdered on Mosquito Beach.

He was a teenager in the mid-1950s, when a young man was shot inside a juke joint and died atop a pool table.

Three years later, someone else got shot during an argument. That was the second murder.

But Wilder said violence used to be rare for Mosquito Beach, a quarter-mile strip of James Island marshland that grew rapidly in the 1950s into a destination for black South Carolinians.

The so-called beach was mud, but with segregation still in effect, it was one of the few waterfront spots that welcomed people barred from the ocean shoreline.

They swam only occasionally. More often, they danced at a pavilion and ate okra soup in the restaurants. They listened to bluesman Jimmy Reed, whose guitar riffs floated from the clubs into the homes along nearby Sol Legare Road.

"Old people like me remember those days. People were here to have fun," said Wilder, 73, who lives on the street that parallels the strip. "I don't want that history to be lost because of the youngsters who now run and get their guns and bring violence here."

As its owners, Wilder and his extended family have clung to Mosquito Beach through the years. But every decade or so, they cope with another slaying and the notoriety it brings.

They took measures to temper the violence. They thought they had controlled it until 21-year-old Tyrone Moore Jr. was fatally shot May 17 outside The Lake House, one of three nightclubs there that his cousin, Alonzo Lafayette, has managed since the 1980s.

A turf war between 20-something residents on opposite ends of James Island, Lafayette said, sparked the shooting.

But the death of Moore, the brother of Atlanta Falcons football player Roddy White, has focused authorities' scrutiny on Mosquito Beach more than ever and has threatened the historically significant place for the local black community. Even James Islanders who danced on Mosquito Beach in its heyday have questioned whether it has lost its cultural value.

"I'm tired," Lafayette, 63, said. "I'm too old for this mess. I don't want to shut the doors, but it looks like they're going to make me."

The Sol Legare community rose from the pluff mud of the tidal creeks north of Folly Beach.

Residents worked at the oyster factory there. But after peaking in the 1920s, the business folded in the 1940s.

Many locals moved northward to New York for new jobs. Some in Wilder's and Lafayette's families stayed behind and held onto the land.

A new business model took shape in 1953, when Wilder's uncle built a pavilion on stilts above the water. Visitors named the area Mosquito Beach after the insects they encountered there.

But they didn't mind the bugs.

They came from out of town by the busload. More than 2,000 gathered on some weekends at the dancing halls, seafood restaurants and on a pier where they watched boat races.

It wasn't the first waterfront spot for black people in the Lowcountry. Others popped up in Hollywood and Johns Island. Riverside Beach in Mount Pleasant attracted performers such as James Brown.

But Mosquito Beach persisted after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation.

Many black residents visited as children. Work eventually drew people like John Simmons out of state, but they returned.

"Everyone is like family here," the retiree said on a recent day as he gazed at the marsh. "And the scenery speaks for itself."

Business at Mosquito Beach has ebbed and flowed with the economy, the weather and the violence.

Lafayette was 8 when a man was killed in the pavilion across from The Lake House, a restaurant that became the nightclub he now runs as a second job.

Six years later, in 1964, his family members told a newspaper reporter that they were still trying to shake the negative image caused by the shooting. It was "bad for business," they said.

For decades, businessmen there have devised grand plans to root out violence and make Mosquito Beach a true resort with a hotel and a swimming pool. A 16-room, no-frills hotel was built, but the pool never came to fruition.

Violence and other misfortune continued to crop up.

In 1988, a man sprayed two shotgun blasts into a crowd at one of the clubs, P & J Snack Bar, and wounded five people.

The next year, Hurricane Hugo wiped out the pavilion.

Wilder, who took over much of Mosquito Beach after his uncle's death in the 1980s, fought an impression that violence was proliferating there. Other landowners from the Lafayette, Chavis and Roper families joined the chorus.

They formed a business association and drafted a covenant with three tenets: maintenance, beautification and security.

In the 1990s and after another deadly shooting in the early 2000s, they aimed to privatize the street and put up a gate. The move would give them more control over the weapons people brought there. But Wilder couldn't come up with the money to fully privatize it, and the county denied his request to rebuild the pavilion.

"I've been fighting for Mosquito Beach for a long time," he said. "Why should we give up now?"

The wooden stilts that once supported the pavilion still jut from the oyster beds. Liquor bottles and beer cans caked in mud have mixed with oyster shells to form the creek bank. "Skeeta Beach" is emblazoned in green spray paint on a concrete slab.

Nobody swims in the water anymore.

Kayakers paddle by. They sometimes stop at Bowens Island Restaurant just to the east, but they pass Mosquito Beach.

Windows in the old hotel remain open, but a guest hasn't check in there for years.

The facade of D & F Club has faded and chipped. The Lake House and a nearby takeout-food shack have the freshest paint jobs.

At P & J Snack Bar on the dead end of Mosquito Beach Road, people show up on weekday afternoons. Its owner, Deborah Gladden, serves beer and wine to older patrons.

Her business doesn't have a sign. She usually opens its large shutters, and a breeze blows in from the marsh, keeping the mosquitoes at bay.

On a recent day, customers found seats on the front porch. A man sat in his parked car and nursed a beer. Another found a loaf of bread behind the bar and made a sandwich.

Most go there after church on Sundays. Cookouts draw the largest crowds. Gladden usually closes by midnight.

"The retired guys don't want to stay up that late," she said. "They just sit out here and talk trash."

But she and a friend, Jeffrey Middleton, have grown anxious recently. They fear the youths with drugs and guns who visit the other clubs on Fridays and Saturdays.

"This place is a landmark," said Middleton, a one-time New Yorker who retired to the Sol Legare area he was raised in. "But there are too many kids out here now. That's what's causing the problems."

To the operators of The Lake House, the young man's death outside their hip-hop dance club earlier this month indicated a larger struggle that has played out among James Island youths in recent years.

It amounts to a turf war, Wilder and Lafayette said, between teenagers and 20-somethings living near Fort Johnson Road, an area they called "Down the Island," and those belonging to the "Beach Gang" in the Sol Legare community.

Gunmen have targeted members of the Chavis family, who descended from an early landowner on Mosquito Beach, in their cars and in their homes, according the Charleston County Sheriff's Office.

During the latest episode in December, two teenage family members told deputies that someone had fired nine shots at their car on Sol Legare Road. A 16-year-old boy from Seaside Lane in the "Down the Island" area was identified as a suspect. The duo had been quarreling with the boy at a car wash near his neighborhood.

The tension between Sol Legare residents and outsiders has spilled onto Mosquito Beach.

Early one morning in October, a 23-year-old North Charleston man ran to a deputy's car outside The Lake House and begged for a safe haven from people inside the club.

"Just get me out of here," the man said. "Put me in the car and get me out of here."

Also that month, detectives were investigating a noise complaint on the strip when gunfire rang out. Seven bullets hit the trees behind them, but they never found the shooter.

On the night Moore died, a group of young women hosted a party in The Lake House.

Alonzo Gladden, 42, whose parents manage P & J Snack Bar and The Lake House, helped coordinate the 12 security guards contracted that night to search cars and people for weapons and to stop customers from bringing alcohol to the club where such beverages were banned.

About 100 people, a larger crowd than he had expected, were there that Friday night.

He was inside before 3 a.m., when the music was so loud that Gladden said he couldn't hear the three gunshots. Outside, Moore fell face down near his car. He had been shot twice in the back.

Moore had no criminal convictions, though he been arrested in February on charges that he brought marijuana and crack cocaine into a club on Folly Road.

"You try to stop everything, but something manages to slip through the cracks," Gladden said. "Sometimes the security guards make more money than us."

Lafayette, Gladden's father, was sitting in his truck on Sol Legare Road when he heard the gunfire. He soon saw a man running on a path that cuts through a small marshy area between Mosquito Beach and the residential area.

He later suspected that it was his distant cousin, Darnell Lafayette, who lives nearby. The 23-year-old was arrested on a murder charge two days later. The suspect and Moore, a resident of a community near Fort Johnson Road, also were cousins.

When Alonzo Lafayette and Wilder got together last week on Mosquito Beach to discuss what's next for their land, they grew anxious that more violence would follow. Lafayette has been accustomed to violence: His own son was fatally shot when robbers invaded their home in 2000.

"I don't think we've heard the end," Wilder said. "The word on the street is that someone in Sol Legare has to die for this."

The Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare, a group that Wilder helped start, met last week to float ideas about their next move.

County Councilmember Anna Johnson, whose district includes the community, planned to call her own meeting with residents within two weeks.

A native James Islander, Johnson recalled better days for Mosquito Beach, when she danced at the pavilion and attended get-togethers on Easter Sundays.

"It used to be a family recreation area," she said. "It's just not that anymore. It's becoming a more unsafe place."

The Sheriff's Office increased their patrols last week, and code enforcers zeroed in on The Lake House.

Detectives had prompted the S.C. Department of Revenue to revoke the club's alcohol license in 2011. They called it a public nuisance rampant with drug deals, fights and gunfire.

Lafayette got the license back three months later.

But he decided to let it lapse in early March. A new ordinance that set the closing time for bars in unincorporated areas at 2 a.m. had stifled much of his revenue, he said.

Not serving alcohol, he said, was a way to stay open between 2 and 4 a.m., when his club is the busiest. Instead, he sells chips and pickled pigs feet, along with juice and Red Bull. He makes money off cover charges.

In mid-March, though, deputies noted in a report that the club's sale of beverages commonly mixed with alcohol led to drinking. They found cups and bottles containing alcohol, the deputies said, but no evidence that the club was selling it.

"We do everything we can to watch for illegal activity," sheriff's Maj. Eric Watson said. "But sometimes, they do everything they can to circumvent the law and stay in business."

Over the years, Lafayette has asked for bank loans to fix up The Lake House. He dreamed of turning it into a bar and grill with a wraparound porch. But the area's history didn't help his cause, he said, and his requests were denied.

He and Wilder often encounter developers admiring their property. Finding it ripe for mansions or a condominium, they have offered sums that would make their lives more comfortable.

"It's never been about the money," Lafayette said. "It's about the family. Somehow, I want to find a way to carry on the family tradition."

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