For three decades, Maureen Sturgis has lived on a secluded horse ranch surrounded by the trees, squirrels and mosquitoes that also call the Francis Marion National Forest home.
Life in the country comes with country problems, she said. A resident once shot a dog because it was barking; someone else was found cultivating marijuana, and Sturgis' truck and tractor were stolen from her yard.
At the same time, the property north of Mount Pleasant, between Cainhoy Road and S.C. Highway 41, was a relatively serene place to raise two girls, Sturgis said, and to care for animals. Now grown, her daughters thank their parents for settling there, even though they never could get pizza delivered.
But recently, Sturgis has been glancing over her shoulders and fearing unannounced visitors.
After two bodies were found in late August near Cordesville, what Sturgis considers just a short drive through the woods, she and her husband stashed a gun in their bedroom.
And this week, when her husband and a ranch hand spotted a vehicle just off the dirt road they drive over every day, Sturgis thought an alarming trend might be emerging. Still inside Tuesday was the body of a man who had been shot to death.
“When we first came here, this was such a closed community, but that has changed,” Sturgis said. “It's not the place people usually think about for criminal activity, but it's happening.”
The body of Robert Moultrie, 31, of Conway, was the third in two weeks to be found in the forest, a 250,000-acre swath of federal property speckled with small communities.
Released Wednesday by the U.S. Forest Service, a tally of fatalities in the forest shows accidental hiking and hunting deaths over the years, but four homicides in 2012.
Seven bodies have been discarded on the land since 1996.
“It's a good place to put someone and possibly not find someone,” Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury said. “Why they choose the national forest, I don't know.”
An autopsy revealed Wednesday that Moultrie was slain, but Salisbury wouldn't give any further details about how the man died.
It was only a coincidence that the county's past three homicide victims were found in the forest, Salisbury said. The killers could have discarded the bodies “anywhere else just as easily,” he said.
Charleston County Chief Deputy John Clark said the Francis Marion's size and terrain present unique challenges to law enforcement. The forest straddles two counties and is filled with thick underbrush, swamps and wild boar.
“It is such a large expanse of land,” Clark said. “There is just no way to do a typical patrol.”
That's why, over the years, the forest has attracted everyone from marijuana growers to moonshiners and murderers looking to dump bodies. It has thick woods and plenty of nooks and crannies where they can hide.
Aircraft often are needed to guide crews looking for missing people. In the summer, the forest is steaming hot, thick with bugs and choked with dense weeds that can make it difficult to spot clues.
While Moultrie had disappeared Sunday night, no searching took place until his body was found early Tuesday.
Moultrie, a felon with convictions for burglary, trafficking cocaine and assaulting a police officer, left his girlfriend's home in Conway on Sunday, according to an incident report. He planned to drive her 2000 Chevrolet Suburban to his brother's house in Santee.
Saladean Moultrie, 33, who lives in Georgetown, said he last saw his brother at his house Sunday night.
“I can't take this ... anymore,” Saladean Moultrie recalled his brother saying, according to an incident report. “I'll take care of it myself.”
Saladean Moultrie told The Post and Courier that his brother was a “nice guy, a cool guy” who “never made anybody mad.”
Robert Moultrie's mother told authorities that her son traveled to Huger, where he attended a party Sunday. He then left in the Suburban “through the Francis Marion Forest way back towards Georgetown,” his mother told deputies.
Ten miles to the south, Sturgis said a ranch worker returning from a horse show first spotted the SUV in the woods off Brick Church Road on Sunday night.
The sighting was initially dismissed as typical forest activity — possibly hunters. But when the vehicle was seen again Tuesday morning, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office was contacted.
Sheriff's Capt. Rick Ollic wouldn't discuss any suspects in the slaying, and said deputies still are trying to determine where the shooting occurred.
The area where Moultrie's body was found is within a half-mile of Brick Church Road's namesake, the 200-year-old St. Thomas Church.
Stop signs often are used for target practice; one was riddled with bullet holes Wednesday.
Amid pine trees, ferns and black-eyed Susans, the remote tract is often used for dumping junk. A mattress, stuffed plastic bags, a dilapidated picnic table and Bojangles' food wrappers littered the roadside. Animal bones were strewn about a plastic pet carrier.
Sturgis figured that criminal activity picked up when Interstate 526 connected North Charleston with East Cooper in the 1990s. The highway made the Francis Marion more accessible to outsiders and their nefarious deeds.
“This is the first time in 30 years we are really freaked out,” she said. “For 30 years, everybody here knew what everybody else was doing.
“But things are not like they used to be.”
Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.