An arrest has been made in connection with the death of Matthew Horne. Read more here.
A recent rash of deadly shootings has put Beaufort County on track to break a grim record -- the highest number of murders in at least 20 years.
Since Jan. 1, the county has already experienced seven murders -- the most in three years and one more homicide than the county sees on average in a full year. If the trend continues, the county would nearly double its 20-year high of 12 murders in 2012.
"We see probably more gun play today than I've ever seen in my career," Beaufort County Sheriff P.J.Tanner said last week. "That is something that should concern all citizens and it definitely concerns law enforcement."
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All of the murders so far this year were caused by guns, compared to three of the six homicides last year.
All but one occured in northern Beaufort County.
The Sheriff's Office hopes its School Resource Officer program will help combats the prevalence of guns, especially among teenagers. Deputies collect them during everything from drug arrests and assaults to traffic stops, Tanner said.
However, he said he doesn't see this year's series of murders as a trend. While he says investigators change their tactics daily, Tanner would not elaborate on any plans to adjust policing.
"Those numbers really don't mean anything other than, unfortunately, we had cases that are all independent that resulted in a death," Tanner said. "You have to take each case and analyze the incident individually."One of them, the death of Beaufort teen Kareem "Scooby" Major in Dale, was likely the result of a soured gun sale or trade, Tanner said. Geoni Najee Clark, 17, of Dale, was charged in that case, though investigators are working to charge others.
Seven years in the past two decades have seen more than seven murders, though none was as deadly as 2012.
That year brought the high-profile slayings of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton on Hilton Head Island, and Michael Douglas Morgan and Dante Kendall Bailey in the gunfight at St. Helena Island club Midnight Soul Patrol.
Of the incidents this year, three remain unsolved.
On May 5, Herman Gaston Jr., 34, was shot and killed while driving in his University Park community in Okatie, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office said.
That incident came just a day after 40-year-old Joseph Cochran, a Marine Corps veteran and father of four, was shot and killed by one of his two step-sons, Bryan Malonis, at his Burton home, the Sheriff's Office said.
No arrest has been made in Gaston's death, or in two other slayings so far this year: The March 20 shooting of 29-year-old Antonio Brewer in his car at a Port Royal apartment complex, and the April 30 shooting death of 20-year-old Matthew Horne of Dale at the Charles Lind Brown Neighborhood Activity Center in Beaufort.
Horne was the second person to die this year at the Greene Street basketball court and the third in the city of Beaufort.
"It's atrocious," Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said last week. "It's unacceptable."
Keyserling said he had considered holding a forum on the violence, but decided against it because he said such gatherings tend to draw too much attention to the negative, if they gain traction at all.
Instead, he plans to spread the word about positive activities local teens can take part in, starting with a youth council he's piloting this year.
The group is composed of four students from each northern Beaufort County middle school who have spent several months meeting for team-building activities and field trips. They've held a mock trial in a courtroom and visited Whale Branch Middle School and police and fire departments, Keyserling said.
The mayor said he decided to pay for the pilot program out of his own pocket after repeatedly hearing the same complaint from middle-school age kids -- that there's nothing for them to do in Beaufort.
"That is the point where kids start to realize they have decisions, and unfortunately one of the decisions is to be 'cool,' to carry a gun, to be a big shot," Keyserling said. "When posed with the option of having cash in their pocket and a gun in their pocket and being 'cool,' we can do things that get them away from those kinds of people and into positive experiences."
While Horne's killer remains free, Keyserling said he's confident an arrest will be made soon.
Tanner said the Sheriff's Office is aiding the Beaufort Police Department in the Horne case and in preventing more crime in the Greene Street area.
Cooperation between agencies has been one of the counties' biggest assets in reducing violence.
"We're working together to make Beaufort County a safer place," he said.
Maj. Ron Wekenmann of the Port Royal Police Department, which is helping the Sheriff's Office investigate the open Brewer case, said he is hoping for an end to the upswing.
That was the case last year, when the county had five murders by May 5 and only one the rest of the year.
"It could be just that we're having a bad year, just like some years we have more storms than others," Wekenmann said. "I hope it turns around. This is not something I want to see."
2015 Murder Cases
Through May 16
- May 5: Herman Gaston Jr., 34, of Okatie shot and killed in Okatie. No arrest.
- May 4: Joseph Cochran, 40, of Burton shot and killed in Burton. Bryan Malonis, 22, of Bluffton arrested.
- April 30: Matthew Horne, 20, of Dale shot and killed in Beaufort. No arrest.
- March 20: Antonio Brewer, 29, of Port Royal shot and killed in Port Royal. No arrest.
- Feb. 16: Detuan Jenkins, 19, of St. Helena Island shot and killed in Beaufort. Thomas James Caron, 18, of Lady's Island arrested.
- Jan. 9: Nicholas Degros, 30, of Beaufort shot and killed in Beaufort. Anthony Clyde Ellison, 38, and Jasmine Nicole Femia, 21, of Port Royal arrested.
- Jan. 7: William "Scooby" Kareem Major, 18, of Beaufort shot and killed in Dale. Geoni Najee Clark, 17, of Dale arrested.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.