Witnesses to gang-like violence on St. Helena Island who won't speak to law enforcement officers may soon be called to testify.
And if they refuse, they could face charges.
The county's sheriff and top prosecutor plan to use a little-known state law -- the "mob statute" -- to subpoena witnesses to give sworn testimony so officials can bring charges in a series of violent crimes on the island, including a shoot-out last month at a nightclub that killed two men and injured two others.
Testimony could then be included as part of prosecutors' presentation to a grand jury to indict suspects, according to 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone. Witnesses who still refuse to cooperate could be held in contempt of court, he said.
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Stone and Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner say the mob law is necessary because the power to subpoena witnesses before an indictment is issued can give prosecutors the missing pieces that currently force them to drop charges for lack of evidence.
This particular use of subpoena powers can only be used when a violent crime against someone is determined to have been committed by a "mob," which the state defines as two or more co-conspirators acting with intent to harm another person or group. Tanner said these "mobs" on St. Helena have become increasingly violent since 2010, with four incidents occurring in the past nine months. A 44-year-old man was shot dead in his driveway Oct. 6, and a body with a gun shot wound was found in a burning vehicle the next day.
On June 21, the night club shooting left two more men dead and two others injured.
The most recent incident was a drive-by shooting July 7 in which an 18-year-old man was shot several times.
Tanner said law enforcement has struggled to get information from witnesses in all those cases, and believes the mob law's power of subpoena can help.
Tanner believes many of the St. Helena crimes are related to a rivalry between two island groups.
Stone said the groups shouldn't be dignified as "gangs," but said the mob law can apply to their activities as long as there are "violent criminals working in at least pairs of two."
Tanner agreed: "It's not an organized crime thing. It's almost like a culture."
Over the years, authorities have become familiar with people they believe have witnessed or perpetrated crimes and are actively involved in these two groups. Since deputies are familiar with the groups' activities and their members, there will be no need to "subpoena everyone in sight," Tanner said."The subpoena process will be very strategic as it relates to each investigation," he said.
Witnesses are hesitant to talk to authorities for one of three reasons, according to Stone.
"The witnesses tell you .. .'I'll handle this myself.' 'I'm afraid.' Or, 'I don't snitch,'" Stone said. "Mob members count on silence." Tanner believes much of the violence was in retaliation for earlier violent acts.
"The attitude of 'I'll take care of myself' is terrible," Tanner said. "It is extremely unhealthy for any community."
Officials believe the June 21 gunfight at the Midnight Soul Patrol nightclub in a close-knit neighborhood off Toomer Road demonstrates just how unhealthy -- and deadly -- retribution can be.
Dozens were gathered at the club when at least 15 shots were reportedly fired. In addition to the dead and injured, two men were charged -- one with murder and one with attempted murder.
After collecting shell casings, guns, fingerprints and other evidence from the scene, deputies are certain more shooters than the two arrested were involved. But other arrest warrants cannot be obtained, Tanner said, until information from witnesses can link suspects to the evidence.
Some allegedly involved in the shooting have been suspected of trying to harm each other before.
Dante Kendall Bailey, 33, who was killed, had been charged almost exactly a year earlier with attempting to kill Lucas Morgan, 25.
The Solicitor's Office dropped charges against Bailey on Dec. 13 for lack of evidence, according to court documents.
Morgan was charged with attempted murder in the nightclub case and is being held without bond in the Beaufort County Detention Center.
Morgan's younger brother, Michael Morgan, 24, also was killed in the nightclub shooting.
Joseph David Bowers, 26, was charged with murder and also is in the county jail. His bond hearing has been set for July 30.
Bailey's shooter, Tanner said, has not been arrested, and the investigation has hit a wall.
Stone said using the mob law will yield more arrests and allow for the prosecution of these cases to move forward.
More importantly, he said, it will make residents safer.
"We're going to do what we need to make sure these people don't continue to shoot at each other and terrify (the) people of St. Helena," Stone said.
- Two charged in St. Helena nightclub shooting that leaves 2 dead, 2 injured, June 21, 2012
- Man wounded Saturday during drive by shooting on St. Helena, July 8, 2012
- Details of St. Helena murder murky, Oct. 6, 2011
- Dead man found in burning car, authorities suspect link to fatal shooting, Oct. 7, 2011