A crime reporter’s year in review

Note: This was a post I first published for my Gross on Patrol crime blog at GoUpstate.com.

So long, 2014. Another year has come to a close, marking my first full year as the Herald-Journal’s crime and public safety reporter.

My days here have flown by. I can’t tell you how easy it is to forget all that I’ve reported on this year and all that we as a news organization have accomplished. It’s hard enough just to remember what transpires on a weekly basis. Part of that forgetfulness is having so much to tackle at once. The other part is most likely because of the content. The details, the characters, the settings are many times by nature disturbing, grim and bloody. And I do mean that literally.

In the coming year, it is my hope to continue to dig deeper, tell the stories that are untold and to shine light into dark corners.

I felt the need to take a quick look back for reflection on some of the highlights. So let’s get to it. Here’s my year in review:

Campground shootout

The KOA campground in Gaffney.

In January, a man who’s had a hard go-around in life led police on a lengthy vehicle chase to his camper at a KOA Campground in Cherokee County. The man barricaded himself inside, fired gunshots out at police, took dozens of prescription pain killers and ultimately took on a showering of bullets from law enforcement officers. He died at the scene. The law enforcement officers involved were later proven justified and even awarded for their actions by the Seventh Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

Unsolved drive-by homicide

tumblr_n3hm8xtNVE1r8yry7o1_500Gunshots rang out outside a prominent athletic club on the city’s west side in early April. A man was shot and killed as he was driving home from church, on the phone with his wife at the time. Photojournalist Tim Kimzey and I were first on scene. I began speaking with eye-witnesses near the crashed vehicle. We knew the situation was escalating when a PIO withheld disclosing most of the information before the Sheriff showed up to deliver the news. The man shot ended up being the husband of Kay Woodward, who owns the longstanding funeral home in Spartanburg’s Northside. The homicide was the county’s only one unsolved this year.

Brookwood Inn Condemnation

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On an ordinary day in March, we began hearing about police activity at one of the county’s low-income motels. I ran out to the motel to find that the entire place was being condemned based on poor living conditions found by deputies during a disturbance call. The status of the condemnation kept changing and motel ownership was nowhere to be found. More than 70 families were ultimately displaced and had nowhere to go. The tenants included children, seniors, disabled, unemployed and self-admitted drug addicts. We ended up following this story for several days to see where the tenants would end up and to determine the future of this motel.

Gross on Patrol, Part 1

By Tim Kimzey/Herald-Journal

By Tim Kimzey/Herald-Journal

After several months of reporting on police activity in the city and jumping into patrol cars for ride-alongs, I signed up for the Spartanburg Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy. The 11-week course put us through the paces. I felt the bite of a Belgian Malinois K-9 (through a training suit), drove a police cruiser, rode on top of a 100-foot ladder truck with the fire department and yes, took a Taser exposure to the back. Never again. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience that gave me great insight into law enforcement, especially as a crime reporter.

Gross on Patrol, Part 2

By Tim Kimzey/Herald-Journal

By Tim Kimzey/Herald-Journal

Next, I was eager to get a taste of the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, which decided to bring back its program that had been dormant for about 10 years. I saw a lot of the same things, but how a different agencies handled them. The Sheriff’s Office also have a few more divisions since they cover a much larger area. I decided to forego getting shot with a Taser this time, but I still managed to speed through a course in a patrol cruiser, strap on a bomb suit and fire a handgun during a heart-pounding perpetrator simulation. The classes exposed me to a lot of inside information about the department and about crime trends that I would otherwise not have known.

Meth-ridden neighborhood

bildeA Chesnee neighborhood has been up in arms about a recent trend in meth manufacturing and dealing. I spoke with neighbors to pinpoint the problems and shined light on a drug raid that landed one of the meth suspects in jail. The story, through witness interviews, also urged the sheriff’s office in Cherokee County to continue patrolling this community with watchful eyes. Meth is one of the most common drugs in South Carolina’s Upstate. The problem really becomes a reality when pouring over the numbers and trends with chemist Ashley Harris at the Sheriff’s Office.

Underage drinking conundrum

SADAC-LogoIn May, we got wind of a suspicious high school prom night after party in one of Spartanburg’s more affluent neighborhoods. Underage drinking is one thing, but dozens of partygoers being charged and then abruptly let off raises a concern worth reporting. I began digging into this story and ended up writing a series concerning the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s handling of this incident and how some disagreed with his actions. Those that voiced disagreement have since retired, and some say they were forced out. The coverage also revealed that a federal grant was sitting dormant, that the county government had refused to turn over public documents and that underage alcohol enforcement had hit a standstill because of how that prom party was handled.

Cowpens Firefighter Recovery

Alex Hicks Jr./Herald-Journal

By Alex Hicks Jr./Herald-Journal

The community was stunned after a firefighter from Cowpens crashed a small plane in Florida. Aboard the plane were his mother, aunt and nephew, all of whom died at the crash site. Somehow, he survived. I followed this story and traveled to Augusta, Ga. to visit with Patrick Schultz at the Joseph M. Still Burn Unit, the largest burn center in the country. His recovery was and is inspiring to many. He has since been released from the burn unit and back with his fire departments, still recovering but back again with the fire service. The article and series of articles chronicled his recovery as a burn patient and the level of support from those in the community and around the country. It was amazing to get to know the Schultz family and shine light on this story about recovery, determination and a will to live.

Mental health

CaptureA complaint and tip from a mental health patient fueled my inclination to obtain data an documents from Spartanburg Area Mental Health, a government funded agency. I found that counselors were taking on many more patients than they should, causing longer wait times to patients suffering from serious mental health conditions. The burgeoning caseloads were a result of significant budget cuts, an outstanding debt and an open positions that are unappealing to qualified applicants. I worked on this story with the Herald-Journal’s county government reporter, Felicia Kitzmiller, who added great content to the story relating to how other county agencies are stepping in to fill the gaps.

Totteridge Drive killing

By Alex Hicks Jr./Herald-Journal

By Alex Hicks Jr./Herald-Journal

I reported on a number of brutal slayings throughout the year, but some just stand out. This was a case in Wellford where a 25-year-old was shot several times in his front yard. He died there and were on scene before the sheets were over his body. Deputies worked the active crime scene for quite some time before they called it a night. A neighbor had gotten into an argument with Brandon Soloman Bryant and before long, he was taking on bullets to his face and chest. The night of the homicide was tense. Many family members were on scene, and rightfully so, they were livid. Tensions mounted between family members and the media, but I went back the next day and sat down with the victims mother for quite some time. We had a very pleasant conversation about her son, “the gentle giant,” on her couch as she recall all of the best memories she had with him. We captured those emotions in a follow-up story.

Teen drowns despite rescue attempt from best friend

bildeSpeaking with grieving families is never easy. In mid-June, I visited a home to pick up the pieces after a teen had drowned in a nearby river. I arrived to find close family and friends gathered at the house of a mother, who lost her 18-year-old Berry Rashaud “Shaun” Palmer. He was fun-loving, outgoing and encouraging to those around him. The most gripping interview of the day was with his best friend Josh Pruitt. The two grew up together as kids and Josh was there with him the day he drowned. In fact, he gave it all he could to try to save him from the waters but came up short. I can’t begin to imagine how some cope with the loss of someone so close, especially when it is under tragic circumstances. I was honored to share that story and shine light on this 18-year-old’s life.

Drive-by slaying outside domestic violence shelter

tumblr_n56pvwDvqn1r8yry7o1_500Marianne O’Shields had just walked to the bus stop to send her daughter off to school when she was gunned down by her estranged husband right outside a secure domestic violence shelter known as a safe haven for the abused. Authorities charged her husband in the killed. This was a long day of reporting and the story showed the struggles with protective orders and the secretive, undetectable nature of a domestic abuse situation. I remember speaking to neighbors who would say the wife was always very quiet and stayed indoors mostly, but otherwise they would have never expected any abusive situations. Since the killing, the domestic violence shelter has invested in security upgrades. Marianne was gunned down at a time when domestic violence in South Carolina is under the microscope.

Remains identified as missing man

tumblr_n7ryz3Koly1r8yry7o1_500Kenneth Chad Lowe became I name I’d recognize very well. When he went missing abruptly in Jan. 6, the community did not let up. Several search parties were organized I we reported on each development as the case unfolded. To an extent, the family was holding onto the idea that he’d walk right in the front door one day and all would be well. On the other hand, the six months that had gone by were trying. In late-June remains were found in a wooded area, not far from where he abandoned vehicle was found earlier in the year. It was a rainy day. I had a hunch so I made contact with the family who had just been notified. I was first to break the news that the remains were indeed of Chad Lowe, a humble 40-year-old with a bright 14-year-old daughter. That night, I reconnected with the family. I sat down with his parents, wife, brother and daughter, all of whom were very welcoming. I even got the sense that, to some degree, they were at peace. I remember the wife telling me how she broke the news to their daughter. An excerpt: Kelly Lowe, Chad Lowe’s wife, said one of the first things their daughter asked her when his remains were found was if it was OK for her to be happy, remarking on the need for closure. “I said, ‘Yes it is, because we found him. Yes, he’s with Jesus now,” said Kelly Lowe. Moments like these are when it becomes difficult as a reporter to contain emotions. It’s only human to feel for this family. I thanked them for their time.

New Police Chief

tumblr_n9vabkKQgr1r8yry7o1_500The Spartanburg Police Department welcomed its newest police chief to take the helm of the department this year. It marked the start to a number of changes and advancements within the agency. He has changed the department’s uniforms, grown the downtown unit, expanded the take-home cruiser program and put emphasis on more Tasers, batons and other less-than-lethal tools for officers. Alonzo Thompson comes from an extensive career with the Winston-Salem Police Department in North Carolina. He could have retired, but felt the calling to lead an agency and call Spartanburg home. In the midst of his settling in, I wrote a personality profile on the city’s new law enforcement leader.

Police-worn body cameras, and officer-involved shootings

bildeThe police-involved shooting in Ferguson, Mo. raised a slew of policing issues. Among those issues were the need for police-worn body cameras so that when incidents arise there’s no discrepancy as to what took place. The Sheriff’s Office had purchased and had been using body cameras prior to Ferguson, and the shooting there further validated their decision to have them. I also took a look at statewide officer-involved shooting statistics after we saw two in Spartanburg County earlier in the year, one of which was fatal. The story showed the need for more training and a closer look at the root of violence.

Locksmithing swindle

CaptureAn influx of locksmith listings sporadically appeared in the phone book. Is the locksmith business really booming? No, but some across the country have swindled their way into local markets. I reported on a locksmithing scam that had made its way into the Upstate. It was interesting to make these phone calls to false locksmith listings and see how some tried to beat around the bush and justify their business tactics. The actual brick-and-mortar businesses are at odds with these listings and some have gone to legislatures to find ways to shut down the swindling tactics.

Massive apartment fire

By Tim Kimzey/Herald-Journal

By Tim Kimzey/Herald-Journal

The year came to a close sooner than I could have time to remember what had happened, but not before a massive fire that claimed the lives of five. Among the dead: two brothers, ages 6 and 8, and a family — a mother, her 19-year-old daughter and her 10-year-old son. Dozens were displaced and the apartment building was left in ruins. I have followed the stories of the victims, shined light on an outpouring of donations, attended funeral services and reported on building codes, apartment management and other factors that have proved notable in this case. This has been an ongoing reporting project, both in terms of the fire investigation and also of the victims and their stories. The gristly details of this fire added to the county’s overall total of 14 fire deaths in 2014, by far the highest amount in the state this year. As the county’s Fire Marshal put it: “I’m tired of body bags.”

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