Pictured on a dark, gray headstone next to Pilgrim Ford Baptist Church in Yemassee is the face of Ver’mon Steve with the words underneath, “I love you and there is nothing you can do about it.”
It’s a phrase the 36-year-old church deacon used to say as he greeted parishioners, recalled his mother, Janice Steve.
“He was not the person who looked down on somebody,” she said in a recent interview at her Varnville home in Hampton County. “That was just his demeanor.”
Ver’mon Steve was one of 95 homicide victims in Beaufort County from 2007 through 2016. His 2015 death was among 31 killings in 2015 and 2016 — the deadliest two-year stretch over the past 10 years, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found in a review of police and coroner records.
Steve’s killing also represents another troubling trend in the last two years: a sharp increase in the number and rate of victims who were black.
Unfortunately, all we got back was a bag of bones.
Janice Steve, Ver’mon Steve’s mother
▪ While 62 percent of all homicide victims during the 10-year period were black, in 2015 and 2016, 80 and 91 percent of the victims, respectively, were black — and mostly males. Blacks make up about 19 percent of Beaufort County’s total population; black males, about 9 percent, according to population estimates.
Over the last decade, 18 homicide cases remain unsolved, according to police records reviewed by the newspapers. Fifteen of those victims were black males.
▪ In the 31 homicides over the past two years, 26 of the victims were black — the highest two-year total for black victims over the 10-year period. The two-year total was only seven fewer than the collective number (33) of black victims in the previous eight years.
▪ There were 16 black homicide victims in 2015 and 10 in 2016; the highest number in the previous eight years was eight.
▪ Over the last decade, 18 homicide cases remain unsolved, according to police records reviewed by the newspapers. Fifteen of those victims were black males, and 10 of those homicides occurred in 2015 and 2016.
“Unfortunately, all we got back was a bag of bones,” Steve’s mother said about her son’s death, which resulted in the arrests of three people.
Black community leaders believe a breakdown in the family structure and a lack of job opportunities and community-funded programs for youths have contributed to the recent rash of killings. Most of the homicides occurred in less affluent areas north of the Broad River.
Contacted by the newspapers, the county’s top-two law enforcement officials — Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone — couldn’t pinpoint specific causes for the recent spike in homicides overall or the increase in the number of black victims.
The newspapers’ analysis of records from the Sheriff’s Office; Beaufort County Coroner’s Office; and the Beaufort, Bluffton and Port Royal police departments also found that over the past 10 years:
▪ The Beaufort area led all communities with 26 homicides, with the Bluffton (15), Hilton Head Island (14), St. Helena Island (13) and Burton (11) areas rounding out the top five with double-digit totals.
▪ The last-known addresses of 61 of the 95 victims were listed as north of the Broad River; 26 lived south of the Broad River; and the remainder were from outside the county.
▪ The average age of all victims was about 34.
▪ Of the 95 victims, 59 were black; 26 were white; eight were Hispanic; and the remaining two were other races.
▪ The vast majority of victims were males (78).
▪ Most of the homicides (71) were gun deaths.
‘Something bad has happened’
Steve’s remains were found off Pea Patch Lane on St. Helena Island on Nov. 18, 2015, after he disappeared from his Greene Street home in Beaufort on Oct. 25, 2015, city police said. That year was the deadliest in the last 10 years with 20 victims, records show.
On the day of his disappearance, an unnamed acquaintance of Steve went to the Greene Street home to meet with him, though he wasn’t there, according to Beaufort police. Steve’s roommate, Varsheen Antuan Smith, 40, and Tyron Wallace Jr., 22, tied up the acquaintance and threatened him with a gun before letting him go, police said.
Steve’s mother told the newspapers the acquaintance contacted her after leaving the home.
“He called and his words were, ‘Miss Steve, Ver’mon is missing, and I think something bad has happened,’ ” Janice Steve said.
The cause and manner of Steve’s death have not yet been determined, said Deputy County Coroner David Ott, though the Sheriff’s Office has called it a homicide. Janice Steve said she believes her son, a welder and restaurant worker, was shot.
Wallace faces a murder charge, and both Wallace and Smith are charged with kidnapping the unnamed acquaintance, records show. A third suspect, Tayquan Lampkin, 21, is charged with accessory after the fact of murder.
None of the three defendants has been tried.
“It’s one thing when they die because of a sickness that could not be avoided,” Janice Steve said. “But when you take somebody from a family, you take a part of that family.”
Hanging with ‘thugs’
The recent increase in killings of young black men in Beaufort County mirrors national trends, Sheriff Tanner said.
A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that homicide was the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34. The second leading cause for that age range was unintentional accidents, according to the study.
“You can look at some of the trends on the national front, and you can kind of take the national trend and experience the same thing in Beaufort County,” Tanner said.
Tanner said in nine out of 10 county homicide cases, the victims knew their attackers.
“They (young men) are actually more entertained by gangs, drugs and crime,” he said. “When you put yourself in a position where you are going to hang around a bunch of thugs, there is going to be a volatile situation where someone is injured or killed. That’s just a fact.”
But defining a gang can be difficult, Tanner said.
“Our gangs are so loosely organized that’s it’s very difficult to connect the dots among those who are affiliated,” he said.
Stone, the solicitor for Beaufort, Jasper, Allendale, Hampton and Colleton counties, said while gangs are a contributing factor in all types of crime in Beaufort County, he didn’t know if “there are more gangs (now) than there used to be.”
“We see groups of people who are bonded together like in neighborhoods or friends,” he said. “Those groups of people are what I consider gangs.”
Stone said he could not comment on specific motives in pending homicide cases in Beaufort County but added the accused killers typically have a common problem.
“Defendants that I’m prosecuting can’t see beyond the immediate,” he said. “They see the immediate need for something whether it be drugs, violence or revenge. They don’t see the consequences of hurting people.”
For Tanner, the motives for homicides vary.
“When you look at a homicide case, you have to look at them independently to find out what’s going on within that relationship, and a lot of times, it is a relationship,” he said. “Homicides can be heat-of-the-moment, passion-type crimes, or premeditated murders. If you look at the murder cases in the last 10 years, a little bit of everything is represented in that.”
Neither Tanner nor Stone, however, offered any specific reasons for the recent spike in black homicide victims.
Gun deaths dominate
Of the 95 homicide victims over the past 10 years, 71 died as a result of gun violence, and 49, or 69 percent, of those victims were black, the newspapers’ review found. Among the black shooting victims was 21-year-old Rhashard Spikes, a Beaufort County Animal Shelter employee who died on Aug. 4, 2015, after he was shot while driving on U.S. 278 in the area of Southwood Park on Hilton Head Island, sheriff’s deputies said.
Investigators described it as a road-rage incident. No arrests have been made, and the suspect’s vehicle hasn’t been located.
Spikes is among 15 black male victims over the past 10 years whose homicide cases remain unsolved, the newspapers’ review found.
Of the 95 homicide victims over the past 10 years, 71 died as a result of gun violence, and 49, or 69 percent, of those victims were black, the newspapers’ review found.
Before he died, Spikes told sheriff’s investigators he was driving a Dodge Dart with two passengers east on U.S. 278 about 9 p.m. when a small, silver car with tinted windows traveling the opposite direction veered into his lane, according to a news release from the Sheriff’s Office at the time of the Spikes’ death.
Spikes said he was able to avoid a collision but yelled at the other driver and continued traveling. As he kept driving, he noticed the silver vehicle approaching from behind, the release said.
At least two shots were fired from the silver car, and Spikes was hit, the release said. He died about three hours later after he was flown to a Savannah hospital.
“The only thing I remember is it took me an hour to find out where he was,” Evelyn Spikes, Rhashard Spikes’ mother, told the newspapers in a recent interview. “The last words he (the coroner) said to me was, ‘Rhashard Spikes expired at 12:04 a.m.’ Those words will stick with me forever.”
The oldest of four children, Rhashard was raised by his Marine father and his mother, who is a teacher. He had just moved back home before his death after serving in the U.S. Army in South Korea for a year, Evelyn Spikes said.
Before he enlisted, people warned him of the dangers of being in the military, she said.
“He used to say that you could get killed walking down the street,” she said. “The ironic part is that he came home and was shot on the very street he worked on.”
“(The shooter) had to think about whether he was going to chase him down and shoot at him,” she added. “That’s something he just didn’t have to do.”
Stopping the violence
Black leaders contacted by the newspapers say they are aware of the recent increase in homicides involving black victims.
“It’s definitely something that people are beginning to talk about, and there’s a great deal of concern,” said Pastor Kenneth Hodges of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort. “People are trying to find out what the African-American community can do to try to stem this.”
Hodges said a lack of jobs and community-funded programs for youths have contributed to the killings.
You can’t continue to take these outlets out and expect the street corners to fill that void.
Pastor Kenneth Hodges, Tabernacle Baptist Church
“You can’t continue to take these outlets out and expect the street corners to fill that void,” he said.
Other leaders focused on issues involving family life.
“With the absence of fathers in the home and with mothers working double duties to make sure that little Johnny or little Susie is taken care of, there is nobody there,” said the Rev. Dr. Sam Spain of Lady’s Island Baptist Church. “The structure has been completely demolished.”
For Spain, mentorship programs offer a possible solution to violent crime. To set an example for young men north of the Broad River, he said he started a male retreat in his church 19 years ago.
“The program was a hope for the brothers of the church to come together,” Spain said. “Once we came together, it was extended that other black males who needed to come together to do greater works.”
Others offer football as an outlet to connect with the county’s youth.
Beaufort’s Extra Mile Club, founded in 2008 by Chris Dantzler, a veteran who said then that he wanted to give back to his community, promotes athletics, education, leadership and discipline for children between the ages of 6 and 17.
“I think we are unique in what we do,” Gaynelle Dantzler, Chris’ wife and executive director of the organization, said in a recent interview. “I know that there are other youth football programs, but as far as other programs that have taken the holistic approach we have, I don’t see anyone else doing that.”
Dantzler said none of the program’s graduates has gotten in trouble with the law. Many go on to serve in the military or attend college after, in some cases, traveling outside Beaufort for the first time with their football team and visiting colleges.
“They know that they are being watched,” she said. “They know someone is out there looking and that someone cares. ... It’s like a collaborative effort to make sure we keep kids on track.
“Especially with our young black kids.”
Reporter Wade Livingston contributed to this story.
Correction: Matthew Horne, who was shot to death in 2015 in Beaufort, was black. Beaufort County Coroner’s Office records listed an incorrect race. This story has been updated to reflect that correction.
Steady increase in minority victims
▪ From 2007 through 2010, 62.5 percent of Beaufort County homicide victims were black or other minorities.
▪ From 2011 through 2014, 71.8 percent of Beaufort County homicide victims were black or other minorities.
▪ From 2015 through 2016, 83.8 percent of Beaufort County homicide victims were black or other minorities.
Most dangerous years
The top three years out of the past 10 for homicides in the county were 2015 with 20 deaths, 2012 with 14 deaths, and 2016 with 11 deaths.
How old are the county’s victims?
The average age of Beaufort County homicide victims over the past 10 years was 34.
Note: Several discrepancies in the number of homicides recorded by the Beaufort County Coroner’s Office; the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office; and the Beaufort, Bluffton and Port Royal police departments were found in the newspapers’ analysis, as some departments defined what made a case a homicide differently. The final number of 95 victims from 2007 through 2016 was determined by the newspapers through discussions with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office on cases that came into question.