The day's light had faded when the Horlbeck brothers and a childhood friend piled into a cherry-red Ford Explorer and began the familiar journey to the gritty streets of Charleston's East Side.

Rafael and his older brother Leon had grown up there, in a public housing complex locals refer to as the Johnson Street projects, a sprawling collection of low-slung, brick apartments.

The Horlbecks had moved to North Charleston some years before, but they always found their way back to the projects, like a pair of planets stuck in their orbit. They knew its families, the people on its streets and how to make cash slinging drugs from its corners.

As they left that night of June 29, 2009, Leon Horlbeck told his pregnant girlfriend that he'd be back a little later with the Explorer so she could go bowling with her sister and a friend.

The Explorer was their only transportation, a loaner from her father, who worried that she would have no way to get to the hospital if her water broke.

Driving along Interstate 26, they likely had no idea how this short trip would change the course of their lives and plunge another family into the depths of grief.

The events of this night also would enrage and unite a community, break a neighborhood's long code of silence and help spur a significant change in state law to crack down on habitual criminals.

But that was a long way off.

High on Ecstasy and sucking on a pint of gin, Leon rode shotgun as they pulled into the projects. His boyhood friend and roommate, Shawn Smalls, was behind the wheel, sharing sips of Leon's liquor as he drove.

Rafael sat in back, sober and nursing a grudge. This trip had been his idea.

A month earlier, Rafael had fronted 30 dime bags of marijuana to a kid named Jermaine Brown, 15 years old and one half of a pair of twins. Jermaine was supposed to sell the dope and give Rafael $200 of the proceeds.

The problem was, someone stole the weed after Jermaine stashed it in a bush so his mom wouldn't find it. Now he didn't have the drugs or the cash. Rafael was not happy.

No drug dealer likes to get played or look weak in front of his customers or competition. Debts need to be paid. Period. Like Rafael told his friends, "I can't eat being sweet."

Bad reputations

At age 22, Rafael already had established a heavy rep on the East Side. The youngest boy in a family of nine kids, he had ditched school in 10th grade, worked odd jobs and sold dope to get by.

In the past four years, he had been accused of killing a man in the projects, raping an 8-year-old child and selling crack cocaine. He had never spent a day in prison.

Rafael had been acting distant and strange in recent months, talking to himself, hearing voices, seeing things that weren't there.

He'd shown up at Leon's place one day after another brother put him out. Leon took Rafael in to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Chandalay, and Smalls, better known as "Baby Boy."

The eldest of the brood at 32, Leon had made a career out of messing up, having been busted 77 times in 15 years for selling drugs, stealing cars and committing other crimes.

Now, with children of his own and a baby on the way, the ninth-grade dropout was taking a stab at the straight life, managing an auto detailing shop in Moncks Corner for his girlfriend's father.

When they arrived in the old neighborhood that night, Rafael told Smalls to pull over at Johnson and America streets. Leon and Smalls got out and shook hands with those milling about.

Rafael marched straight over to Jermel Brown, the twin brother of the kid who owed him money. Rafael told Jermel to find his brother, Jermaine.

Jermel was known as a happy-go-lucky teen, a good student at Daniel Jenkins Academy in North Charleston who loved computers, sports and TV. He tried to avoid trouble. His brother called him the good twin.

While Rafael waited and stewed, Jermel dashed to a nearby apartment where Jermaine was hanging out with friends. The twins talked for a few minutes, then Jermel ran back to the corner to tell Rafael he couldn't find Jermaine.

Rafael decided the innocent twin would suffice.

"Come take a ride with me," he said to Jermel, pointing to the Explorer. Jermel climbed in the back seat as Rafael slid in beside him.

A deadly struggle

They cruised to an apartment building on Huger Street, where Rafael ordered Smalls to back into a parking space by some woods at the end of the lot. Suddenly, Jermel called out to Leon.

"Juice," the teen screamed, using Leon's nickname. "You gonna let him do me like that?"

Leon whirled around and saw an engraged Rafael holding a box cutter. Jermel clawed for the door and tried to pull himself through the window. Rafael tried to wrestle the teen back in as he yelled for Smalls to hit the gas.

The Explorer rocked back and forth from the struggle as Smalls steered the sport utility vehicle out of the complex and onto a dirt path beneath the I-26 overpass. Smalls glanced back and saw that Rafael had pulled out a pistol.

Jermel had almost pulled free when the Explorer lurched to a stop. Rafael leaped out and circled the SUV. Gunfire crackled through the air as two bullets ripped through Jermel's skull and a third pierced his arm.

Minutes later, the trio were back on the road to North Charleston as Jermel lay bleeding on the dark path. Leon, drowsy from the booze, went to sleep in the passenger seat.

Breaking the silence

Leon's girlfriend gave birth to his son four days after Jermel was gunned down. As they welcomed their new child, Jermel's family and city leaders pleaded with the community to come forward with information to help police find his killer.

The code of silence can be strong on the East Side, where open-air drug markets have thrived for decades. People fear retaliation or being labeled a snitch, making them a pariah on the streets.

Witnesses had seen Rafael with Jermel that night or observed portions of the struggle, but getting them to talk wasn't easy. Some, including Smalls, initially lied to police. He denied any knowledge of the killing, even after Rafael reportedly shot him in the head on July 6 to keep him from talking to investigators.

Eventually, however, the silence yielded to conscience or self-preservation.

Jermaine told police about his drug debt to Rafael. A friend of Jermel put him in the SUV with the Horlbecks and Smalls. A Huger Street resident witnessed the struggle in her parking lot. And Leon's girlfriend had heard Rafael talking about the killing.

The information proved crucial, as investigators lacked a smoking gun, fingerprints or any solid physical evidence tying Rafael to the crime. After the killing, Leon had cleaned himself up at the shop he managed.

Guilt and change

The arrests of the Horlbecks and Smalls on murder charges in early July outraged the community, especially after people learned of the brothers' criminal records and how little time they had spent behind bars.

They became poster boys for the dysfunctional state of South Carolina's criminal justice system.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley took to carrying a photo of Jermel in his wallet as he traveled to Columbia to fight for anti-crime bills, including a measure that would allow police to search offenders on probation and parole without a warrant.

Riley said the photo reminded him of the damage career criminals can do when allowed to slip through the cracks.

The warrantless search bill won passage and went into effect Wednesday while Rafael sat in a Charleston County courtroom to answer for Jermel's death. The day before, Leon had turned against him, joining a parade of prosecution witnesses. Leon told the jury that his brother was a self-centered killer who needed to be locked up.

The jury agreed and found Rafael guilty of murder Thursday. A judge sentenced him to life in prison. Rafael just scowled and rolled his wiry shoulders beneath the same baggy oxford he had worn all week.

He glanced at his relatives and shrugged as court security officers led him away in handcuffs.

As the lawyers packed up their files and the judge retired to her chambers, the Brown and Horlbeck families filed from the courtroom, each minus a son.

As for Leon, his story remains incomplete. He and Smalls still face murder charges in the case, despite their testimony against Rafael. Prosecutors have not decided what, if any, leniency should be shown to them for their cooperation.

For now, his infant son grows up without a father, just as he and Rafael did, long ago in the projects of Johnson Street.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.