Crime

Chester, SC: Gangs, murder tear at small town’s seams

CHESTER, S.C.

A small town is in turmoil because a good man died on the streets where he grew up.

Odell Williams was 69 when he was gunned down Nov. 4. Hometown mattered to him. People did, too.

Deputies found at least 15 shell casings near his car that night, his body slumped at the steering wheel less than a mile from home. The news went viral that a prominent city councilman, former police officer and longtime business owner was brutally slain by alleged gang members in a rural Southern community.

It was a bitter contrast to the promise just months before when the world’s largest tire company rebuffed Charlotte and chose “the little city on the big hill” for a new plant that will generate 1,700 jobs.

“Oh Lord, jobs, jobs, jobs!” one resident exclaimed. Chester was coming back after years of decline.

Now the news is about gangs and political infighting over what to do since Odell Williams died. After a contentious meeting last week, one Chester County Council member bemoaned: “We look like a bunch of damn fools.”

Williams’ killing isn’t the first tied to gangs. But it could be the one that alters Chester’s course. People remember him as a generous and decent man, a leader in their community. A husband, a father of three. His death has become a rallying cry.

Everyone expected Williams to leave Chester after high school to play college football but he stayed. He took a job as a cashier at Winn-Dixie, possibly the city’s first black grocery clerk. He told the local News & Reporter that some people avoided his line, but eventually he won them over.

In the early 1970s, he joined the police department, again one of the first blacks. He served as a deacon of Calvary Baptist Church and sang in the choir. He coached football and softball and led a Boy Scout troop. He mentored troubled youth. He fought to restore the old high school that black students attended before integration.

“You went to Odell, Odell went into his pocket and gave to you,” said resident Makeda Baker.

Many people knew Williams because he built their driveways and patios. He owned Williams Concrete Works and would often show up around town covered in white dust and wearing a ball cap.

In 17 years on City Council, he became known for forging compromise. Some people wanted him to run for mayor.

“Odell could flow anywhere and get along with anybody,” said Alex Oliphant, a member of the County Council. “He wasn’t that guy who was uncomfortable with people who weren’t like him.”

Poverty and crime

When Odell Williams was born on New Year’s Day in 1945, Chester was thriving. But as in many rural areas across the South, when the textile mills shuttered their doors decades later, the void filled with poverty, then drugs and gang violence.

Historian John Beck calls Chester one of the “left behinds.”

Although it is considered part of the greater Charlotte metropolitan area, just 40 minutes south on Interstate 77, Chester is one of the poorest counties in one of the nation’s poorest states.

The percentage of people living below poverty countywide was 24 percent in 2012, compared to 18 percent in South Carolina. Within the city limits, the rate was a staggering 37 percent, twice the statewide rate.

The rate of violent crime was also high: 61 percent countywide, compared to 56 percent statewide and 39 percent nationally.

“The numbers are just stunning,” said Andy Doyle, an assistant professor at Winthrop University who specializes in Southern history. “The Chester County population has been absolutely stagnant since 1940. So while the population of the South in general, and of South Carolina, has grown exponentially since then, Chester County’s population, according to the census, was 32,579 in 1940. It was 32,578 in 2013.”

Residents are pinning the community’s revival on GITI Tire, a Singapore company locating its first North American manufacturing facility in Chester County, and on JN Fiber, a Chinese company that recycles plastic bottles into polyester fiber. Together, the plants are expected to bring 2,018 new jobs.

After Odell Williams’ death, that hope was tempered by despair.

“We can’t seem to reverse ourselves,” said Dr. Rick Hughes, 65, who has practiced as a physician in Chester 37 years and still has hope for his city. “When I moved down here, the storefronts were full. People had jobs. We had a middle class. As the (textile) plants closed, that middle class started dying off. Now we have utter poverty.”

Along the avenue where Hughes lives, elegant antebellum homes still stand on spacious lawns. A handsome bed and breakfast caters to tourists from England who sip mint juleps by the pool and play golf on courses from Chester to Charlotte.

But even in this neighborhood, Hughes says he doesn’t feel comfortable walking after dark.

A few blocks away, former tiny mill houses sit chockablock on narrow, rutted roads, most homes in disrepair, many with “Keep Out” signs guarding their front doors. Gunfire is rampant. Gang members control the streets.

Terrorizing a town

Gang violence in Chester dates back to at least 2000. That November, a group of men jumped out of a car at a gas station and battered four others in the face and head with rocks. The next night, there was a second attack.

One of the worst episodes occurred in 2010 after a fight between the Eastside Boys and Westside Boys. A gang member was shot and killed at Chester Regional Medical Center while taking shooting victims to the emergency room.

Sheriff Alex Underwood blamed gangs on at least three homicides within the last two years – all of which took the lives of people apparently not involved in gang activity: A 59-year-old grandmother killed in a murder-for-hire plot; an 18-year-old shot at his best friend’s birthday party; a 16-year-old caught in crossfire while leaving a corner store near downtown.

Chester County had the second highest rate of gang violence against victims in South Carolina in 2007 (the last year for which statistics were available), behind Colleton County south of Charleston.

“The biggest component that drives the gang activity is the drug trade,” said Rock Hill Police Sgt. Tim Ayers, president of the S.C. Gang Investigators Association. Ayers said most gang members in small communities like Chester are local, but some are influenced by gangs from bigger cities such as Charlotte and Columbia.

Chester investigators estimate there are 12 gangs in the county – and say many members are in middle school and high school.

The community has tried different tactics to stem the violence.

In 2005, City Council adopted a 10 p.m. curfew for anyone younger than 17. In July, residents and officials talked at a gang summit about the need for more parental involvement. This fall, the middle school principal banned camouflage because it’s the color of the notorious Roundtree Circle gang.

But the violence continued.

A drive-by shooting

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, election night, shots were fired near the intersection of Parkway Drive and Roundtree Circle, a neighborhood of modest brick homes. A red vehicle crashed into a porch.

A call went out to 911 at 8:18 p.m. Lt. Kyle Cummings discovered Odell Williams shot in the head.

Gang war is not uncommon in and around the neighborhood. Members of the Roundtree Circle gang were featured in an A&E “Beyond Scared Straight” episode filmed at the county jail.

Underwood won’t say why gang members targeted Williams. The case is still under investigation.

The rumor on the streets is that Williams discovered a break-in at his business, and was shot while pursuing the perpetrators just outside the city limits. People who knew him said they wouldn’t be surprised if the former cop decided to handle matters himself rather than call 911.

Williams had been in confrontations before.

When the town hired a new police chief in 2011, Williams argued that someone locally should get the job. The council picked André Williams (no relation) from Colleton County. The two men had a strained relationship.

Earlier this year, Chief Williams accused Odell Williams of threatening him after a council meeting, suggesting that he was carrying a gun. They had been in a dispute about police cars. The S.C. Law Enforcement Division charged Odell Williams with threatening public officials. He denied it. The case was pending when he was killed.

According to court records, Odell Williams had no other criminal charges except a 1994 charge of unlawfully carrying a pistol. The charge was dismissed.

Political infighting

Underwood asked for help from SLED and nearby law enforcement agencies to track down the killers. Eventually, they arrested five men. Underwood said they all belong to the Roundtree Circle gang.

He issued a challenge: “I am personally declaring war on gangs in Chester County. So you don’t have to look for me, I’m coming for you.”

Underwood, 51, took Williams’ death personally. He had known him all his life.

“To be taken in such a violent and tragic way makes it that more painful,” Underwood said. “He was just a man, like many here, trying to make an honest living and make a difference in our community. Unfortunately, he paid for this with his life.”

But Underwood’s bold challenge alarmed some residents who feared a backlash. Others thought he exaggerated the problem, unfairly damaging Chester’s reputation.

“If I were an outsider hearing about the news of Chester, I’d think, ‘Oh my God ... it’s a war zone there,’ ” said Mayor Wanda Stringfellow. “That is not the case. It concerns me the image that this community is beginning to take on.”

But the sheriff didn’t stop there. He had tough words Monday for County Council members.

Underwood said he doesn’t have enough deputies to protect Chester County – only five patrolling 586 square miles at any given time. He asked for four more.

The outspoken sheriff stared down the council. Underwood is an imposing 6-foot-3, 270-pound former SLED agent known as Big A. More than a dozen deputies gathered around their chief. Tensions escalated.

“How many more officers are going to die?” Underwood asked. “How many more citizens are going to die?

And then this: “How many council members are going to die?”

“... You’re threatening us,” County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey shot back and called Underwood a bully. “We done told you. The money is not available right now. We do not have it.”

Roddey peered back at Underwood from the dais. It was not the first time the two men faced off. As supervisor for 32 years, Roddey holds sway over the county and has been instrumental in bringing in new industry. He is part of “old Chester.” The government center is named for him.

Council members voted to form a task force. Underwood responded with outrage.

“While you’re forming your task force, gangs members are out here threatening people. They’re out here breaking into people’s houses. They’re out here attacking people and they’re out here threatening my officers.... We need action.”

No consensus

Though council members conceded that something must be done, they questioned whether Chester County needs more deputies. The Sheriff’s Office has 52 deputies, with 24 working the field and another 28 in narcotics and investigations.

By comparison, Fairfield County to the south, has 45 deputies. Though Fairfield is larger geographically, it has fewer people (23,109 compared to 32,578 in Chester County). But Chester has much more gang violence per resident, over two times the rate in Fairfield.

In an interview after the meeting, Roddey said gangs have been in Chester for years – and they’re in just about every other community in the United States. Because Odell Williams died doesn’t mean they are any worse in Chester than before.

Others agreed. “He’s playing this thing of Odell Williams ... to the (hilt),” said council member Archie Lucas.

Police Chief André Williams proposes a less confrontational approach. “Before you say you’re at war with something, you’ve got to see what you’re at war with,” Williams said. “I see things differently.... My goal is to get into the houses because these kids come from the houses.”

The way to fight gangs, he believes, is through education and exposure.

“I hate to use this analogy,” he said, “but when you cut the lights on, the roaches will scamper and run.”

Ayers, of the S.C. Gang Investigators Association, supports Underwood’s hardline approach.

“A lot of towns are in denial,” he said. “Big A and his command down there have stepped up, but a few things just got out of hand recently.”

This weekend, at Underwood’s request, the state sent 10 probation officers to Chester to help. Authorities arrested at least 15 people between Friday and 10 p.m. Saturday during traffic stops and home visits. None of those arrested were identified as gang members.

Opposing views

Shannon Landry isn’t waiting for the gangs to go. She’s leaving.

Landry, 33, moved to Chester from Louisiana and thought she had lucked out when she found an inexpensive place for rent on 3rd Street, one of the old Eureka Mill houses.

But then the gunshots began.

“It got so bad, it was like an episode of ‘Cops’ every night,” said Landry, a waitress. She said she and her daughters, 14 and 11, would huddle together in a bedroom as shots were fired outside. She said she broke her lease and moved. As soon as the school year ends, she plans to leave Chester.

“People that are from here, they love it,” she said. “Certain parts of the town are wonderful. There’s a lot of heritage here, a lot of camaraderie here. But a few are taking over.... It’s too violent.”

Tommy Caldwell, 64, owns BB&C Copy Express downtown. He has lived in Chester all his life and believes his hometown is on the the verge of a comeback.

As tragic as Odell Williams’ death was, Caldwell hopes it will inspire the community.

“I hate to put it this way, but by Odell getting killed, that might be something good that happened,” he said. “Not because he got killed, but that’ll open their eyes and make them do something.”

Staff writer Gavin Off, researcher Maria David and The Herald of Rock Hill contributed.

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