Crossing the line: How one county adds to the Grand Strand's violence


Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher remembers the days when heroin was only a rumor in Columbus County.

The sheriff would send his deputies after all sorts of drugs, like marijuana and cocaine, but the drug never seemed to make it into his jurisdiction.

"Heroin was in New Hanover County. Heroin was in Brunswick County. Heroin was actually in Horry County," Hatcher said. "But we hadn't seen heroin here."

Fast forward three years.

"Heroin is here now," he confirmed.

Faced with police report after police report naming people from Columbus County as suspects or victims of violent crimes along the Grand Strand, ABC15 Investigates requested an interview with Hatcher to talk about crime on his side of the border.

He told us about a region that, like many other rural counties in the United States, is battling both poverty and pills.

"Some of these folks are actually selling pills to make ends meet," he said. "People go, they get a prescription filled, they don't have money, so they sell these pills to substitute their income."

Hatcher says opioids are his big target as he tries to keep more citizens from becoming addicted.

Last week, a Tabor City doctor and his girlfriend were arrested after a six month investigation for running a "pill mill", according to the Tabor-Loris Tribune.

But cutting off the flow of pills isn't an end-all solution.

"Once you take pills out of the picture, are people going to divert back to heroin? Hatcher asked. "What does the real addict do? I would love for them to be able to go somewhere and seek some help."

Gangs and the State Line

One of the topics Hatcher talked about was the issues created by something that only exists on paper: the North Carolina-South Carolina border.

For law enforcement, he said, the border didn't give him any additional challenges. But criminals seem to love it.

In past interviews, Horry County officials have said gang activity was higher along the border, in places like Longs and Loris.

RELATED: Solicitor: 'Pretty substantial' number of gang members in Horry County

Hatcher mentioned a neighborhood on his side of the border that was known for gang activity. Several of his deputies warned us not to go there, saying strangers driving through it had been shot before.

"It's easy to go across the line, do what you're going to do, and come back," he explained, when asked why people thought the border offered them protection.

Instead, he said, agencies work together, and cross jurisdictions, when investigations are ongoing.

Overall, he said, Columbus County didn't have a huge gang presence. He described most self-identifying gang members as "wannabes."

"I see them on the same basketball court playing basketball with each other," he said. "They don't have turf wars going on."

But, he said he's honest about the fact that true gang members operate in his jurisdiction.

"I don't mind telling you that they're here, because we deal with them," he said.

Several business owners in Tabor City said they had run-ins with gang members, but said things were getting better.

The FBI's Crime in the US report shows violent crime in Columbus County is dropping, from 124 violent crimes in 2013, to 72 violent crimes in 2016, the latest year statistics are available.

Violent crimes are classified as murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault.

In 2016, Horry County had 1,000 violent crimes.

Bringing their beefs to the beach

"We continue to have the majority of our crimes being committed by people who come here from North Carolina," Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said to reporters during a press conference in June.

It was the day after two overnight shootings on Ocean Boulevard in June, and city leaders were again explaining how they were trying to make Myrtle Beach the safe, family-friendly destination it was advertised as.

Those shootings weren't helping.

While none of the six people arrested were from North Carolina, it was almost one year to the night when a shooting on Ocean Boulevard was captured on Facebook Live, striking a blow to the city's reputation around the country.

In that cast, several of the people at the center of the fight were from Columbus County.

Business owners later said that single night had lasting effects on their sales for the rest of the season.

Officials, including Bethune, have frequently placed blame for the violence on people from outside the city bringing existing feuds or gang relations with them on vacation.

Hatcher said it isn't surprising Columbus County residents frequent the beach. The county suffers from a lack of things to do, making the beach even more alluring, he said.

Several of his deputies listed favorite places in Horry County to go for the day or weekend, including boat trips to Little River and Broadway at the Beach.

He said Myrtle Beach created more opportunities for sudden acts of violence to happen, because of the large crowds of people that gather.

"You've got the people from Columbus County intermixing with the people from Horry County," he said. "There's more probability of it happening there than it is in Columbus County."

Police attributed both the 2017 Father's Day shooting and one of the shootings that prompted the press conference Bethune attended to gatherings that soured.

That's not to say Columbus County isn't affected by its proximity to the beach. Hatcher said he frequently arrests people from Horry County as well.

Nor does it mean Columbus County is the source of all of the Grand Strand's crime. Plenty of people from other North Carolina counties have been arrested, as well as many South Carolina counties.

Locals are often arrested for major crimes as well.

Still, Hatcher explained, the relationship between Horry County and other counties isn't equal.

"People tend to go where the action is," he said.

That's not slowing him down at all. With a population suffering from an addiction crisis, he said he was doing what he could.

"Whether it's opioids, gangs, heroin, crack cocaine, or whatever it is, I'm working aggressively on each one," Hatcher said.

ABC15 Investigates is committed to holding the powerful accountable and looking into issues that matter to you. Click here to learn more about our team and read our other stories.

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