129: The number that changed crime in Charlotte

129: The number that changed crime in Charlotte




Posted on April 26, 2013 at 3:20 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 10:22 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Last year, there were 52 murders in Charlotte, a 24-year low.

In 1993, there were 129 murders in Charlotte, a record high. And our city’s population was about half of what it is today.

So what happened? We asked six people who were personally affected by, covered, or tried to find a solution to that crime to explain what happened during Charlotte’s bloodiest year, when two police officers were lost, and a serial killer was on the loose:

A Change Coming

Rick Thames, Charlotte Observer Editor: Charlotte in 1993, one of the things I remember about it was the uptown atmosphere was still more of a vision and less of a reality. Charlotte was still in a period of wanting to become something.

Richard Vinroot, Charlotte Mayor (1991-1995): It’s always been a healthy, successful city as cities go. A city with a lot of optimism. There were a lot of big things happening then, Panthers, you name it.

Garry McFadden, Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Homicide Detective: I still thought it was a good city to live in. I love Charlotte. I moved here, went to Johnson C. Smith University, got out of college and joined the police department. There were a lot of good people. Everybody knew everybody. But it was kind of odd that crack had just hit the market. New Jack City was being shown on TV, and then you would see your first crackheads, I guess you would say.

Vinroot: It was a drug culture. And it was a violent time. We don’t know all the reasons. We were certainly frantic to come up with a solution to it.

: You didn’t have just drugs fueling it, you had kids being left at home because of drugs, or being left unsupervised because of drugs.

Glenn Counts, NBC Charlotte Crime Reporter (1988-Present): Most importantly, the criminal justice system was just broken.

McFadden: We had people spending hours in jail.

Counts:  You would basically spend a month for every year you got sentenced. You would have people on probation for committing a murder. I’m not saying that was a common occurrence, but it happened.

McFadden: You were arresting people with $8-10,000, you give it to your boy when you’re going to jail, you go to jail and bond them out. So they were right back on the street.

I think the attitude among criminals was, they didn’t respect the system, didn’t think there were going to be any consequences for their actions, compared to today there really weren’t.

Thames: There were some people who thought that Charlotte had just reached a stage where we’re dealing with big city crime. But Charlotte was beginning to lose its sense of innocence, I think.

Violence Explodes


Vinroot: I went to a home over near Johnson C. Smith University for a 6-year-old child who was killed in a crossfire. That was an awful experience on my part. That happened in a city in which I was mayor. It happened to an innocent child who didn’t deserve that.

You would get calls before you get into work. Most of the time, you never get into the office. You go go go. Cases come in one after another. Multiple murders. We had murders where sisters and brothers were killed. We had double murders, triple murders. We had everything you could imagine then. We had cab drivers being killed. We had domestic violence. We had small kids being killed. We had a 14-year-old stab another 14-year-old at a Valentine’s party.

Judy Williams, Co-Founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring: I think our homicide detectives were doing the best they could, but they were just understaffed. Charlotte was growing by leaps and bounds, and crime was growing faster than we could handle it.

McFadden: We had a blue police van, and anybody in Charlotte who did any crime on the street knew of the city’s van or a van like it. They named it the jump-out van. So the jump-out van would come into your neighborhood, or you’d see a van that looked like the jump-out van, and you would be leery of what you’re doing. That day, for whatever reason, these guys on Katonah Avenue were selling drugs off the west side, saw the van, shot into the van, but it wasn’t a police van.  And this lady was in the van with her daughter. I believe she was sitting in her mother’s lap. They shot in the van and killed her. That was a case that would stand out, because in that area of the city, we had multiple murders on Katonah Avenue, during that time. It was a hot area.

Thames: If you looked over from the west side arcing over to North Charlotte to the east side, there was swath-- a pattern of crime in that region. There were about 66,000 people living in that region.  In that area that we studied, we found that the chances of being a victim of violent crime was 1 in 13. If you were in any other part of Charlotte it was 1 in 78.

Counts: One murder off of Echodale Drive stuck out in my mind because we knew [Jamaican gang members] were involved. The police didn’t say a whole lot about it, but I will never forget, one of the investigators brought a big pair of hedge clippers of that house, so I leave it to your imagination as to what happened to that victim.

Counts:  Kenny Street. Six murders on that street alone. It was the deadliest street in North Carolina, and one of the deadliest streets in the nation.

It was prime for a serial killer to come in and do what he did.

Henry Wallace 

Dee Sumpter, Founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring: There’s a God that I believe in. And I just choose to believe that he was preparing me for that day, February 19, 1993.

McFadden: Shawna Hawk, Dee Sumpter’s daughter, was murdered by Henry Wallace.

Sumpter: [Shawna’s] boyfriends beeps in on the others line. I’m like “Darrell, where is Shawna, is she with you?” [He said] “No ma’am, I was calling to ask, is she with you?” Darrell comes to the door. Then I hear him walk into the bathroom, and then came the bloodcurdling scream. He said “Miss Dee, dial 911. She’s in the bathtub face down.”

Williams: Shawna met Henry when she worked at Taco Bell.

McFadden: Henry was almost like a big brother to the young ladies. But when he wanted to become sexually involved with them, but when they said no and he was denied, he formulated in his mind: One day I’m going to kill you, because you said no to me.

McFadden: During the time of Henry Wallace’s reign, we had 322 murders. Within the time of those 322 murders, Henry committed nine.

Sumpter: Shawna was number three.

McFadden: A lot of people talk about that. Why couldn’t we pick nine cases out of 322. Absolutely difficult. We’re working murder after murder after murder after murder. You’re tired, you’re frustrated with what’s going on, you’re looking for help from other agencies throughout the department. We didn’t get a lot of help.

Counts: The homicide unit was just so busy. They had a ridiculous number of cases, and a ridiculously small number of investigators to work on it. They had triple the number of homicides we have now, with six investigators. And these guys are basically having to run around in some instances, and I hate to say it, treat it like a traffic accident. Just hit it and go. Just hit it and go.

: Once he confessed to it, absolutely devastating. Because you think about all the cases that you worked, and you look back at those cases, and think what you could have done (Wallace is still awaiting execution).

Counts: You have to give Dee Sumpter credit. She could have just grieved silently, and not done anything. But she decided to turn her grief into action. In so doing, she created an organization, Mothers of Murdered Offspring, that has helped a lot of families.

Sumpter: I will not sit idly by and watch the blood of our children flow freely through Charlotte. Mothers are a very powerful entity. We’ve got to stand up en masse and band together.

John and Andy

Thames: The low point of that year for me, and for most people living in Charlotte, was the murders of two police officers: Andy Nobles and John Burnette. That was in October. These were the early pioneers of community policing. They had done a terrific job of befriending Boulevard Homes, a housing project in West Charlotte. They were chasing a car thief suspect through the woods of those homes, a suspect grabbed one of the officer’s revolvers and they were dead within seconds.

McFadden: I had just spoken to them on the phone about working an off-duty job together. So a couple of hours before that, they’re alive.

Vinroot: I was at home or driving home, and I get a call from the police chief. He said “Richard, something terrible has happened. Can you come to Carolinas Medical Center.  I’ll tell you when you get here what it’s about.” I got there and saw the blue lights. I walked in, had the chief, Ronnie Stone, tell me what had happened.

McFadden: I had just spoken to them on the phone about working an off-duty job together. So a couple of hours before that, they’re alive.

Thames: It was just a terrible tragedy. I have rarely seen the city sink in a deeper depression than it did at that time. Because you had this soaring crime rate and you had the efforts of these really outstanding police officers who had lost their lives.

Vinroot: For the next couple of days, I was consumed by it. And every year, I’ve been reminded of that terrible tragedy. Every time I go by the complex where they were killed, I think about it. Any time I’m down in the Eastern part of the state, anywhere near Andy’s hometown, I think about it.

Counts: It was one of the things that galvanize the sentiment to do something about a lot of this serious crime that was going on.

The Legacy

Thames: I think we found that community policing is a smart policy. It was just at the edge in 1993, it was just beginning in Charlotte. It was a new idea. It was expanded in the years thereafter.

McFadden: Community policing to me is, getting out of the car, talking to the people, knowing who’s in the neighborhood, know what person lives in what home, what car belongs to what person, the flow of the neighborhood every day. John and Andy, sadly, they started a lot of that at Boulevard Homes.

Counts: One agency that I think had more to do with cleaning up Charlotte than any other was Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, because they were heavily into the gangs, and the drugs and that sort of thing, and they put a lot of people away for some very serious time.

Sumpter: We have not since the creation of MoMO had triple digit numbers in homicide.

(Click here to watch a video recounting the events that led to the deaths of Andy Nobles & John Burnette)

Williams: Once your city gets known for being high crime, it doesn’t attract people who want to come live here. Since then, it has gotten better.

McFaddden: We had six or seven homicide detectives then. We have 22 now.

Vinroot: We’re safer today. We’d like to think the things we did then worked, and they continue to be done and they continue to work.

McFadden: I deal with a lot of families that are still dealing with the effects of murder crack cocaine and the violence in 1993. We didn’t have all of the agencies to deal with the emotional trauma that we do now.

Counts: People who think that crime is bad now really have no idea. No idea. It is nothing compared to 1993.

McFadden: We can’t forget 1993 I know a lot of people want to forget it. I know a lot of family members would like to forget it. But a lot of people died in 93. A lot of people. A lot of people.