WALTERBORO — The sheriff's deputies got to the party a few minutes before midnight, just as the fight was breaking up.
Or so they thought.
A family had rented out the Colleton County rec center for a graduation shindig, and there were hundreds of kids milling about when an argument turned to a scuffle, the scuffle to a fight. The security firm on site kicked everyone out of the center, then called for backup to help clear the parking lot.
As the two deputies got out of their cruisers, the gunfire started — six or eight shots, there was too much confusion to count. Before the deputies could draw their own guns, two cars were speeding off into the country night.
In most towns this size, a tale of such brazen kids — willing to shoot at each other in plain view of law enforcement — might fuel local gossip for weeks, maybe months.
But, unfortunately, this community is becoming all too accustomed to violence.
On Monday night, Adela "Nell" Pinckney, 39, was shot and killed while lying in her bed with her 11-year-old son, the victim of what may have been a drive-by shooting. A shotgun blast tore through her window, her headboard and hit her in the head. The boy was unharmed.
Pinckney is the sixth homicide victim in less than six months in a county normally so serene and peaceful they don't see near that many killings in an entire year.
People here are scared. They are afraid of going outside after dark, weary of talking publicly about the killings for fear of retribution from one of several gangs roaming the county.
"It's a bad neighborhood," said Donnie Harrison, standing near Pinckney's home. "The other night, a guy ran out across the street in front of me, and you could tell he was running for his life. It's gotten to where it's a weekly thing, a nightly thing."
This fear has put a damper on all efforts to solve Pinckney's slaying. Investigators say it could possibly be the work of gangs, a problem that has proliferated here in recent years. The Colleton County Sheriff's Office is working the case hard, and deputies are out patrolling the streets non-stop.
Sheriff's Lt. Allen Inabinett said there have been no arrests in the case, and it doesn't help the investigation that so many people are frightened.
"It still looks like she was an innocent bystander," Inabinett said. "But if it turns out it was something else, people get worried about retribution. Citizens fear for their safety, and I respect that."
Out of the six killings here this year, a couple have been deemed domestic incidents. The rest are possibly gang related.
Doc Dougherty, director of parks and recreation in the county, said they haven't caught the kids behind the rec center shooting, but it's forced him to change the policy on renting the place out.
Dougherty said the problem here is guidance and discipline — most of the suspected gang members are kids who still live with their parents.
"If everybody made sure their kids came home without gunpowder on their hands, we'd be OK," he said.
In Pinckney's neighborhood, which is near the center of Colleton's problems, a lot of people have opinions but refuse to share them publicly. One clerk at a local convenience store, which some locals call "The Slab," said she heard the gunshot Monday night but didn't see anything. Another man, an acquaintance of Pinckney, said the crime rate is out of control.
But don't expect him to complain about it publicly.
David Bell, who can see Pinckney's house from his property, said he was recently attacked by a group of kids, some of whom were related to him. They hit him in the shoulder with a shovel, sending him to the hospital. He still doesn't know why.
"They're crazy, I guess," Bell said.
Like most people in this town, Bell is particularly upset by Pinckney's death. By all accounts she was not the kind of person to attract such trouble.
"She was a nice lady, as far as I know," Bell said. "Why kill somebody like that? I just can't see it."
Pinckney's visitation today at Koger's Mortuary Service is expected to be so crowded it has been scheduled from noon to 8 p.m., said Jeraldo Brown. Pinckney will be buried Friday.
"We've had lots of calls," Brown said.
That is the problem the Sheriff's Office faces. Everyone cares, and they want something done, but if they know anything they face a desperate struggle between outrage and self-preservation.
"This is a quiet, low-key place," Inabinett said. "This doesn't happen here. People are baffled."
That's absolutely right. This town is so quiet, so pristinely isolated, that Hollywood often calls on Colleton to film period movies.
But right now, some residents say Walterboro looks less like something out of "Forrest Gump" or "Radio," and more like a crime or horror film.
And they aren't happy about it.