Given the hefty penalties under state law for armed robbery and carjacking, a "pack" of young white and black men suspected of crimes against migrant farm workers on St. Helena Island are taking an awfully big chance, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner says.
"They're rolling some big dice," Tanner said. "They think what they're doing is low risk, but it's actually very high risk."
Migrant workers on St. Helena Island have been the target of three carjackings and armed robberies in the last week, including a June 18 incident in which two armed men near the intersection of Capers Island Road and David Green Road tried to steal a bus that carries workers. The driver refused to stop and continued onto a nearby camp, where he called 911. He was not injured.
Based on the description of the suspects involved in each case, Tanner said investigators believe the crimes to have been committed by the same group of people.
Each year, 1,200 to 1,400 workers follow the tomato season to St. Helena Island, where they live in one of about 10 migrant camps attached to various farms on the island.
Tanner said the workers might have been targeted because people believe many of them are working here illegally and are perceived as hesitant to report crimes to area law enforcement.
"These young white and black men are taking advantage of the Hispanic community, thinking that if they commit crimes against them, they won't report it in fear of being deported," he said. "Their angle is incorrect. These cases are being reported, these men are being investigated and the witnesses are cooperating."
Carjacking carries a possible sentence of 20 to 30 years in prison, and armed robbery carries a possible penalty of up to 30 years in prison, according to state law.
Tanner said he hopes his investigators can crack the cases before migrants begin carrying weapons to defend themselves.
"We just have some mean-spirited young men who have too much time on their hands trying to make a quick buck and someone is going to get hurt," he said. "We don't need gunplay. We don't want these people at the migrant camps arming themselves when they travel out of fear that they are confronted by this pack of guys and then we have a roadside gun battle."
Workers declined to speak with a Gazette reporter Thursday.