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66 homicides and counting: North Charleston is in the midst of its deadliest recorded two-year stretch

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Jimmy King was 24-years-old when he died, shot multiple times in a North Charleston cul-de-sac. 

The homicide was typical: It involved a gun, and the victim was a young, black man. King's death, the 34th in the city so far this year, remains unsolved as detectives pursue leads.

As North Charleston faces its deadliest two-year stretch on record, its officials, residents and activists say they hope to slow the violence, but they also realize there's no easy solution.   

Marvin Pendarvis, a Democrat who recently became North Charleston's newest state representative, said despair has gripped communities where crime is rampant.

He said the educational system's failure to serve at-risk youth and a lack of economic opportunities both have fed a vicious cycle. 

"That creates chaos in a way," Pendarvis said. "That creates this sense of hopelessness when it seems like we can't trust the police. We can't really trust that our city officials really care about us."

The average North Charleston homicide victim this year has been 30 years old, but 19 were in their 20s or younger. All but four victims were black males, and all but four were shot.

Most violent crime this year has happened in just five neighborhoods: Charleston Farms, Chicora-Cherokee, Midland Park, Dorchester-Waylyn and Dorchester Terrace.

Grim statistics

The past two years have been the city's deadliest on record, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, which stretch back to 1995. 

At the current pace, the city could see 39 deaths and a homicide rate of 35.32 per 100,000 people by the end of the year. In 2016, there were 32 deaths and a rate of 28.96 per 100,000 residents. 

The 32 homicides stood as the city's record until Oct. 26 of this year, when 22-year-old Akeim Javon Felder was stabbed to death in his Charleston Farms apartment. Felder's death was the 33rd homicide in 2017.

But the first red flags arose well before October.

North Charleston had reached 15 homicides by the end of May, accounting for half of such deaths in the tri-county. By late summer, it appeared inevitable that the record would be shattered by year's end.

Although the pace of the killings slowed as fall arrived, North Charleston's homicide rate remains far higher than the average city of its size.

FBI data show that in 2016, the average number of homicides per 100,000 residents for cities in that population range was 6.5. North Charleston's rate was 28.96. In 2015, the average rate was 6.2, while North Charleston's rate was 17.42. Statistics for 2017 will not be available until next year.

Silence at City Hall

Through the bloodshed, Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers have remained largely silent.

Post and Courier reporters made at least 10 requests for interviews with Summey and Driggers during the past 30 days. The city did not grant those requests.

North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson issued a statement Tuesday on behalf of the mayor and the police department that said officials would "work collaboratively with the city to eradicate the criminal elements from our neighborhoods."

The statement is identical to one issued Oct. 19 when the newspaper reported the city had tied the homicide record.

City Council members, meanwhile, have spoken out, insisting that addressing the killings remains a top priority. 

District 4 Councilman Ron Brinson called it a "crisis of many causes," and he and others disputed the notion the city has been passive on violent crime. 

"We talked about this prior to the summer because we saw back in about June or May where the numbers were," said Councilman Mike Brown. "It's not like, at the end of the year, the mayor says 'Oh, what are we going to do?'"

Councilman Kenny Skipper pointed to the city's efforts to help reading programs for children and to place school resource officers in schools. 

"There's a lot of good," he said. "We're constantly trying to advertise different programs through social media, word of mouth. We're trying to let residents know."

But getting residents involved can be challenging, he said.

Who's responsible?

James Johnson, president of the National Action Network’s South Carolina chapter, places at least some of the blame for the rising homicide rate on city leaders and singles out Summey in particular.

Many of the current woes can be traced to three major issues, he said, including firearms trafficking, drug trafficking and a failure of the education system.

"It has become the norm to see people selling drugs on the corner now," he said. "Until the resources hit the ground, it won’t happen. ... The city has failed the black community on so many levels."

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North Charleston apt homicides (copy)

A memorial seen on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017 at a North Charleston apartment complex one day after two boys were stabbed to death during an attack. Marlena Sloss/Staff

Councilman Todd Olds, meanwhile, stressed that city leaders are not the only ones responsible for addressing violent crime. Organizations like NAN, he said, talk "as if it's our fault that these crimes are occurring."

"Parents are turning their eyes to actual acts of lawbreaking situations," he said. "It becomes unfortunate because it's their children that are losing their lives."

Summey echoed that message in June with a frank Facebook post directed toward parents, saying, "The problem is we can’t raise your children. It is your responsibility to raise your children."

There is no "single-solution" when it comes to tackling the homicide rate, Olds said.

"If there was a single solution, our council would have implemented it already," Brinson added. "Unfortunately, we don't have the power to control guns, particularly guns in the hands of teenagers."

The city's police department has been the subject of an inquiry into police use of force by the U.S. Department of Justice. During that review, the city established a new Citizens' Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations to make recommendations on improving public safety and policing.

Brinson pointed to the creation of this group as a sign city leaders hear residents' concerns. "If one is to infer ... that there is a passivity, I reject that," he said.

Brinson added that the council remains in constant dialogue with the police chief, and difficulties in recruiting and maintaining a diverse police force have contributed to troubles.

Going forward

Looking ahead, Pendarvis pointed to Weed and Seed, a U.S. Department of Justice program that began in the 1990s as a model for making positive change.

Until its funding was slashed several years ago, the program offered a two-pronged approach: policing that targeted criminals — the "weeds" — followed by community involvement — the "seeds."

"It got the police department, it got the faith leaders, community leaders and it also got social programming in place, so all of these social workers, mental health workers ... to really work on a collaborative effort to address some of these issues in our community," he said.

But no resurrection of that program — or any other significant federal or state assistance — appears on the horizon, as the city grapples with what to do next.

That leaves residents such as Rex Bills uneasy.

On a recent night in Charleston Farms, the 57-year-old sat outside his Torgenson Avenue apartment, enjoying the cooler weather — the same thing he was doing three weeks ago when his neighbor Denardo Felder, 20, was stabbed to death in an apartment just below Bills'.

"There he goes again," Bills said as a city police cruiser drove by for at least the fourth time in an hour.

The cruisers have become a more common fixture here since Felder's murder, the record-breaking 33rd homicide.

Debra Merritt, also 57 and Bills' temporary roommate, said she wants to get a place of her own, away from North Charleston.

"Just too much crime," she said. "When he (Bills) leaves for work, I lock three locks ... and they stay locked until he comes home in the afternoon."

Inside their apartment, a knife with an 18-inch blade rests on a cabinet beside the door. 

Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.