Homeless woman's body discovered beaten, naked

Police personnel move equipment into the area behind a house at 97 Nassau St. where a woman's body was found Friday.

A big red construction crane parked next to Kim Tootle's cinder-block home on the banks of Ashepoo River is a sign of the new bridge and four-lane highway to come.

Tootle left Mount Pleasant two years ago for the rural beauty and cheaper living she found at Crosby's Landing on U.S. Highway 17.

Progress, though, is catching up with the region she predicts will one day become a suburb of Charleston.

"I love it here," she said.

Not that it's perfect. The nearest grocery store is 18 miles away. The sound of trucks rumbling on the ACE Basin Parkway between Charleston and Interstate 95 is a nighttime fixture.

"They fly through here," she said.

All those 18-wheelers are on the parkway because the 22 miles from Jacksonboro to Gardens Corner is a main transportation artery from Charleston south to Interstate 95.

The road through the wilderness moves a lot of freight to and from the Port of Charleston.

Not so long ago, the backwoods route was considered one of the deadliest stretches of highway in South Carolina. For that reason, the state embarked on a $100 million campaign to widen the road to four lanes.

The first segment of the work from Gardens Corner to the Combahee River is finished. The final leg to Jacksonboro is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2013.

"It's a whole lot safer and it's been way overdue. It will make my job a whole lot easier," said Shaune Gossett, a driver for Superior Transportation of Charleston.

The old, two-lane section of road had no margin for error because there were no shoulders, he said.

Dave Dombrowski of Mount Pleasant drives the highway weekly during his commute to Jacksonville, Fla., to work for a steamship company. He takes the ACE Basin Parkway on Sunday night and returns Friday.

The two-lane portions of the road are more hazardous in part because there are no shoulders, only a gully or ditch, he said.

"It seems like it's taken forever," he said of the widening project.

He enjoys the landscape with its Spanish moss-draped trees and wetlands as far as the eye can see. The charms of the area, however, can be a nuisance if he is stuck behind tourists poking along at 40 mph for a better view of the scenery. Four lanes eliminate that problem but the new asphalt comes at an aesthetic price.

"Now a lot of the trees have been cut down," he said.

The move to widen the road began in 2004.

"They had that horrible bus accident," said Coleman Thompson, vice president of Hunter Transportation Co. of North Charleston.

Three sailors died and 71 people were injured in a crash near Gardens Corner.

More than 33 people have died in more than 1,000 crashes on the highway in the past decade. Fatalities happen at a rate 77 percent higher than on the South Carolina Interstate system, according to the state Department of Transportation.

However, the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto River Basin also is known as one of the most beautiful places in the country with its marsh vistas and lazy rivers.

The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League fought against an initial plan for five lanes of asphalt that would have allowed development along the roadside.

"It would have looked like Savannah Highway. It would have destroyed a lot more wetlands," said Dana Beach, league executive director.

In the end, a design was settled on that included a roadside buffer to prevent development and a landscaped median separating two northbound and two southbound lanes.

"The redesign was a huge improvement," Beach said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711