Crime & Courts

NC town canceled its 2017 fireworks due to gangs. Then Jeff Sessions got really ticked.

On Wednesday night, the city of Hamlet had its biggest ever Fourth of July celebration. But first Jeff Session had to get really mad.

In 2017, the leaders of the Richmond County community 85 miles east of Charlotte canceled the town's annual Independence Day festivities due to the threat of gang violence. A fatal shooting at a convenience store a few days before had brought the threat of reprisals to the town's annual celebration.

"It was a very difficult decision and we did not take it lightly," says City Manager Jonathan Blanton. "But there was just not enough time to secure the city."

Word of the cancellation of what is normally a big red, white and blue circle on the small town calendar spread rapidly beyond the state, even reaching the nation's capitol. To put it mildly, Sessions, President Donald Trump's attorney general, was not pleased.

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The City of Hamlet canceled its annual Fourth of July celebration in 2017 due to fears of gang violence. In response, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shown during a December appearance in Charlotte, sent a team of prosecutors to Richmond County to confront violent crime. The Justice Department announced six indictments in late June. Last night, Hamlet had its biggest fireworks display ever. Observer file

"I certainly respect the decision of the city leaders, but it is infuriating and wrong to me that they had to make it," Session said during a gang conference last August in Winston-Salem.

"This is America. We will not be held hostage in our homes by gangsters."

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According to the Justice Department, Session sent a team of federal prosecutors to Richmond County to team up with state and local law enforcement along with the courts to combat the area's violent crime.

Late last month, a federal grand jury indicted six Richmond County men from Hamlet and nearby Rockingham on charges ranging from robbery and extortion to firearms violations and cocaine sales.

Six law-enforcement agencies, from the FBI to the Hamlet and Rockingham police, were involved in the investigation. The cases will be tried by a Washington, D.C.-based team of federal prosecutors.

"It is our hope that (these) efforts — together with those of our federal and local partners — will lead to a decrease in crime ... and safer streets and communities," said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan of the Justice Department's criminal division in a news release.

On Wednesday the Fourth, the fireworks came back to Hamlet. According to Blanton, the show was the biggest and best-attended in the history of his 7,000-resident city.

After last year's disappointment, Blanton said town leaders planned this year's event months in advance. For starter's every Hamlet police officer was on duty. Blanton also cited the help the city received from the attorney general, who has been under heavy attack as of late for the Trump Administration's former policy of separating children from families who cross into the United States illegally.

"We overly prepared and were overly cautious and we were very pleased by last night's outcome," Blanton said in the morning-after glow of the event.

"Our Fourth of July was a major hit, and we are incredibly thankful for the attorney general and his staff. They have been instrumental in helping us take care of some of our problems."

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS