Published February 9, 2012
By Jon Bruce
WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCIV) — In 2009, the small city of Walterboro was hit with an unprecedented surge of violence punctuated by a drive-by shooting that left three people, including a 20-month-old dead.
At the time, many blamed the chaos on gangs — a claim city leaders like Mayor Bill Young have steadfastly and repeatedly refuted.
But in the years since the violence, those same leaders have been busy developing a plan to restore Walterboro’s reputation as a safe-haven for small town living.
Just take a walk down the Walterboro’s historic and quaint streets — thousands of “out-of-towners” stop there every year to see the sights, many say it’s like taking a trip back through time.
“We love to come down here and walk, have a cup of coffee at one of restaurants or look in the books at the book store,” Mayor Young said on a recent jaunt through Main Street.
But the Mayberry-like illusion was shattered just three years ago, when crime spiked to its highest levels in decades and a multitude of shootings, including a brazen drive-by shooting left three people, including a toddler dead. Several others were injured.
Mayor Young says public safety is his and city council’s top priority.
“We’ve certainly had some very tragic incidents that occurred in a relatively short period of time, and it certainly gave our community a lot of bad publicity,” he said.
With gun play on the rise and similar shootings just outside the city limits attracting media attention, Walterboro was classified as an unsafe area.
Heavily armed State Law Enforcement Division agents were even called in to help curb the violence.
Mayor Young and police officials say they were unjustly cast in what amounted to a negative light for the city.
“It’s (violent crime) certainly not characteristic of Walterboro, but it happened,” Young said. “We have to deal with it and we did. And we are going to do what we need to make sure Walterboro remains a safe place.”
In June 2010, SLED agents stormed the streets, netting 15 arrests. All were people believed to be involved the shooting and subsequent violence.
Many blamed the escalated violence on rival gangs, including residents in Sand Hill and Dooley Hill, something police chief Otis Rhodes vehemently denies.
“It was a group of guys that weren’t getting along, and unfortunately instead of fighting they used guns and some innocent people got killed that didn’t have to do with anything,” Chief Rhodes said.
But what was the difference? We took that question straight to the mayor.
When asked if he thought there is a gang problem in Walterboro? Mayor Young said, “No.”
Young does admit however, that under the grand jury, many of the crimes did fit under South Carolina state statutes for gang activity.
With many believed involved in the shootings locked up or awaiting trial, the city is now moving on and looking to the future.
Since that spike in 2009, public safety officers have revamped their tactics, relying on community policing, installing better lighting in high crime areas and conducting field interviews.
The city is now securing funds to raze dilapidated buildings and make neighborhoods safer.
Town officials believe it’s working.
According to city and FBI estimates, violent crime is down 30 percent and expected to drop another 30 percent in the next year.
Local religious leaders are in the process of designing a new program to take in and mentor kids who have already had run-ins with the law.
“We know that education is key to helping these guys and that people need to be empowered to get out of these slumps they are in,” Pastor Leon Maxwell said.
Downtown is once again bustling. Tourism is up, and Walterboro is now home to the South Carolina Artisans Center. The town hosts a major craft fair, the annual rice festival and one of the largest cycling events in the state — the Criterium.
Just outside downtown at the H&D market, life still passes by slowly, fish and chips still costs $3, and the locals say still feel safe.
“I wasn’t ever afraid,” Brenda Manigo said.
When asked how she made it through the surge of violence? One 30-year resident said. “We began to pray, and it has subsided”
But, the work is far from over according to Mayor Young and Chief Rhodes.
“We are going to continue to take steps to work at it on all different levels to make Walterboro a safe place,” Young said.
The progress, while still ongoing, is starting to take hold, highlighted last month when both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry made campaign stops in Walterboro.