Mother, police remember Rock Hill officer on 20-year anniversary of his murder
09/22/2012 11:22 PM
09/23/2012 12:54 PM
There seemed to be police officers on every corner in Rock Hill on Sept. 25, 1992. Everywhere you turned, a badge was there.
Northwestern had just pounded Chester, 28-0, in a high school football game attended by thousands. More than two dozen police officers worked security at the football stadium on Cherry Road west of downtown.
Traffic poured out, officers worked at intersections all around the stadium to get the fans home.
Three of those directing traffic were Rock Hill officers Craig Alexander, Jody Long and Dart Raymes.
Just south of downtown, more than 50 local, state and federal agents were readying for a raid on gambling operations and alleged drug dealing near a lounge.
A State Law Enforcement Division helicopter was in Rock Hill that cool and clear night to help with what was called in those days the “Governor’s Raid Team.” The raid team, wearing bulletproof vests, was at the ready, stomachs rising into throats because every raid can be violent.
Coordinating the raid in a van outside the lounge was Capt. Charles Cabaniss, whose job with the Rock Hill Police Department was to put in jail those who would sell dope to kids, or beat up wives, or kill over money or drugs or for no reason at all other than evil.
Because the raid was vice, the SLED agent who investigated violent crimes in York County was sitting in a recliner at home after a long day at work. His name was Bruce Bryant.
Nobody in Rock Hill yet knew at 8:23 p.m. – as Northwestern’s fans roared and police readied to round up those accused of selling dope – that a couple of college sweethearts from Davidson College were being carjacked in Charlotte.
Nobody in law enforcement south of the state line knew that two men came out of the shadows outside a restaurant, put a gun in the face of the guy and his girl, and said, “I will kill you.”
The pair then stole the gray 1986 Buick Century sedan before speeding off, leaving the couple distraught and terrified.
No BOLO – “be on the lookout” – alert was sent over the police radio to officers in neighboring York County. Not yet.
Nobody knew that the carjackers had driven south and pulled into the parking lot of the old Galleria Cinemas in Rock Hill, near the mall.
The two men strode to the ticket counter with plans to rob the place. The clerk, in fear for her life, let the men in for free and prayed that she did not die that night. The men ran through the place, into theaters, then left.
Meanwhile, police and deputies were running their regular patrols. The night shift, at least 20 officers dispatched to domestic disputes, lovers quarrels, fights, speeders and other traffic problems.
Lone deputy on a lonely road
At the far eastern edge of Rock Hill – away from the lights of the stadium and downtown and all those police officers – a lone deputy cruised Dave Lyle Boulevard just west of Interstate 77.
His 12-hour shift was a few hours old. Daylight had turned to darkness.
Brent McCants, the grandson of a policeman in Lancaster named Doc Estridge, drove the police cruiser in the only job he ever wanted.
“I passed Brent that night, we were working, and I waved and he waved back,” said York County Sheriff’s Maj. Robbie Hudgins, then a deputy on patrol.
It was the last time Hudgins or any other officer saw McCants alive.
The next day, Hudgins would be the man to wipe McCants’ blood from the badge that he so proudly wore. It would be given to McCants’ mother, Myra.
Brent McCants, 23, after a hitch in the military, moved from his momma’s house in Lancaster to an apartment in Rock Hill after he joined the Rock Hill Police Department.
He came home from the service because his younger brother, Billy Dale McCants, had been in a crash in 1988 that left him with a brain injury and in a wheelchair. His father was killed in a 1978 industrial incident at the Bowater plant.
Myra McCants had to take care of a disabled son by herself as her older son protected the public from those who would maim or kill.
In August 1992, McCants went to work for the sheriff’s office as a patrol deputy. He was working a routine shift that Friday night, while so many other officers kept big crowds safe and prepared for the raid.
In 1992, there wasn’t a traffic light on Dave Lyle Boulevard at the intersection of the frontage road that led to the old lumber yard, just west of I-77 and the exit and on ramps for the highway.
That night, McCants had Dave Lyle Boulevard practically to himself.
Then he saw a car driving without lights on.
A ‘routine’ traffic stop
At 10:39 p.m., McCants radioed to dispatch that he had turned on his blue lights – the only blue lights on his side of the city.
Back then, there was no huge Manchester Village shopping center. There was no Target and McDonald’s and all the rest across Dave Lyle Boulevard, which today is busy at all hours.
McCants pulled the car over, because driving without lights at night can be dangerous, even deadly.
Bryant, now the sheriff of York County, believes McCants was planning to simply advise the driver that his lights weren’t on.
“A law-abiding citizen would have said, ‘Thanks officer,’ and I doubt Brent or any police officer would have given a ticket,” Bryant said.
McCants saw the car had New York plates and called in to dispatch to see if its registration was current. Then he got out of his police car.
This was long before pretty much every police car was equipped with a video camera. Before traffic stops were recorded, to show what happened in front of the police car for all to see.
No other eyes were there to see Brent McCants get out of his car.
The few steps toward the gray Buick were the last steps Brent McCants would ever take.
A horrible scene
Just 45 seconds later, two women driving by saw the police car with the door open. Mary Grant and Cathy Pittman saw two men. One was tugging on the gun of a policeman lying in the road.
The body of the policeman was lifted again and again – dropping with a thud again and again – as the men tried to pull the revolver from the holster.
The women saw the two men rush to the Buick and take off toward I-77.
The women stopped. One was the wife of another deputy. They saw the worst thing they ever could see – a deputy with blood all over him, the back of his head gone from the final shot.
His walkie-talkie was gone.
One of the women rushed to the police car and got on the radio.
“Mayday! Mayday! Officer down!” she screamed, and frantically gave the location.
It was 10:40 p.m. – less than a minute after Brent McCants pulled that car over.
An emergency medical technician coming home from a football game in Chester County saw the blue lights and the awful scene. He stopped and immediately started CPR. The man breathed into McCants’ mouth, the air forcing blood to come out of so many places.
The first policeman arrived at 10:41 p.m. to find the nightmare of every officer and every wife and child and mother of an officer. McCants was dying from six bullet wounds right in front of him.
That officer screamed into his radio for help.
By 10:43 p.m., police cars arrived from all directions, filling the intersection with headlights and blue lights.
The raid just south of downtown never happened, as every officer in cars and vans sped east on Dave Lyle Boulevard. An ambulance arrived, with a spotlight to illuminate the area.
The SLED helicopter, in town for the raid, hovered in the night sky with its big searchlight.
All lights revealed the same thing – a 23-year-old policeman, dying.
The search for killers
Cabaniss rushed from the raid downtown and took command at the scene. The officer shot was a county deputy, but the crime occurred inside the city limits.
Because McCants’ walkie-talkie was gone, Cabaniss ordered officers to use a different frequency so the suspects could not hear the police radio traffic if they were listening in.
Quick interviews with the two women gave the police a partial tag number, a New York plate with the numbers “313” and a description of the Buick. A BOLO dispatch was broadcast.
At 10:50 a.m., volunteer firefighter and security guard Tim Sanders heard the broadcast about the car as he was driving by the scene. Sanders used to work security at the old Walmart, knew many of the cops.
He wondered what somebody might do to get away after shooting an officer. He looked at I-77 and had an idea.
Sanders drove to the next exit to the north, Cherry Road. Behind the motel, then a Holiday Inn, just north of the exit he saw a gray car, New York plates. He saw two men run off into the woods.
He rushed to find a phone and call it in.
“The guy was a hero,” said Cabaniss. “He cared that night. He helped catch two killers.”
Police dispatchers gave the location of the stolen car. Officers from every agency in or near the city – most of those cops working football security and drug raids and patrol and more – converged on the motel.
Cabaniss, now at the motel parking lot, ordered a perimeter set up. Other officers arrived at the spot behind the motel in plain clothes, in personal cars, with guns and badges.
Between the motel and the crime scene on Dave Lyle Boulevard about two miles away and cops on the highways searching, more than 100 police officers were now looking for the suspects.
Bryant, then with SLED, was called to the scene to investigate, since the shooting involved a police officer.
This was not the movies, where a cop gets killed and his partner goes on a solo mission to find killers, creating havoc with car chases and more death.
These officers 20 years ago, with one of their own dead, put aside emotion, tears, rage and ego and did what they do – solve a case, and fast.
“The best coordination I have ever seen,” Bryant said.
By the time police got to the motel parking lot, the suspects were gone, but the car was still there.
“We were chasing ghosts up until then,” said Officer Dart Raymes.
Raymes had worked the football game and had stopped on the way home to back up another officer in a different assault case, when he heard that an officer had been shot.
“I went to do what I could do to help,” said Raymes, who now works in code enforcement for the city of Rock Hill. “Everybody did.”
Officers Craig Alexander and Jody Long had also left the football game. Both went home. The phone rang at Long’s house.
“Craig told me Brent was shot and he came and got me,” recalled Long, who would be a pallbearer carrying McCants’ casket and later left the department to do defense contracting overseas.
“We were on the same shift with Brent at Rock Hill (police department). Baker shift. We all knew him. Great guy.”
Alexander and Long drove north on Eden Terrace, then turned onto Red River Road just west of where it intersects with Cherry Road, north of the motel. They saw a man in a jogging suit. He sprinted across the road toward bushes and woods on the other side of the road.
Alexander leaped out and tackled the man, Long remembered, as Long got on to the radio tell other police what they had. Raymes pulled up immediately, and another officer named Kent Pruett did, too.
“The guy was hung up in the briars, stuck, and Craig and Jody had their hands on the guy,” Raymes remembers like it was yesterday, because for a policeman, it was yesterday when another officer is dead.
“We all had him – and that’s when the gun was down in his pants leg.”
Raymes gave Alexander his handcuffs during the quick take-down and at 11:47 p.m. – 68 minutes after Brent McCants was shot six times – Dwayne Eric Forney, who had been robbing and stealing all that night and many nights before, was in police custody.
But as the night of Sept. 25 turned into the early morning of Sept. 26, the other guy was still out there.
Cabaniss rushed to the scene where Forney was caught. He told the rest of the officers from so many departments to keep their heads, to keep looking – to do the job all had been trained to do.
“We had to manage emotions and manage an investigation and the officers that protect the public every day of their lives acted that night in a way that would make everyone proud of those who wear a badge,” Cabaniss said.
Officers took Forney to the Rock Hill Police Department, where detectives and Bryant interrogated him.
Forney at first denied everything, but Bryant and others did not stop.
Soon he was admitting all the crimes, all the horror – except that he blamed the other guy for shooting the policeman.
At just about the same time, a bloodhound tracking dog handled by Deputy Randy Clinton picked up a scent in the woods behind the motel. The dog bayed and officers sprinted, forming an umbrella around the area.
Underneath a log, a fallen tree, trying to hide, was Mar-reece Hughes, a career criminal just out of prison a week earlier.
Deputy Buddy Devinney leaped upon Hughes’ legs while other officers handcuffed him.
Hughes blurted out: “I didn’t shoot anybody!”
It was just after 2 a.m., and Hughes was whisked to the police station and placed in another interrogation room.
In that room, Cabaniss and other investigators were the worst nightmare for anybody who ever committed a heinous crime and thought they could stonewall the cops.
Cabaniss – with a mustache and eyes that made everybody say he looked like Dale Earnhardt – did not yield.
Hughes denied, denied and denied before finally admitting all the crimes just as Forney had.
Except, of course, Cabaniss recalls, Hughes said it was Forney that shot Brent McCants.
“They blamed each other,” Bryant remembers. “These two had executed Brent McCants. They were both involved. They did it, period.”
When McCants approached that night, Bryant and Cabaniss said, Hughes and Forney were “hell-bent” on not going to jail for having stolen the car they were in.
“They knew they were going to kill him when he walked up to that car,” Bryant said. “We will never know, 100 percent, but I have no doubt one had Brent’s attention and the other fired on him.”
Cabaniss, who spent more than 30 years at the Rock Hill Police Department before retiring a few years ago, said : “These two planned right then after they were pulled over, conspired, because they decided they weren’t going back to jail.”
Forney and Hughes went from armed robbers to killers in less than 45 seconds. Not only was McCants shot while outside the car, knocking him down, he was shot while on the ground.
A bulletproof vest could not protect Brent McCants from two men who had a stolen 9mm pistol.
“He goes down, Brent, Deputy McCants, and like vultures they approach his probably lifeless body and try to steal off his body,” Bryant said.
That’s when the two women drove up and witnessed the tug and thud of Brent McCants’ body on the street.
A minute later, at 10:41 p.m., the first policeman showed up to broadcast the horror to all who had a police radio.
All except Myra McCants.
A mother’s ‘nightmare’
Myra McCants did not hear about the death of a police officer on her son’s police scanner. She had turned it off, put it in a closet, and had gone to bed.
It was at 1 a.m. Sept. 26, when police officers showed up at the Lancaster home of Myra McCants.
Just two days earlier, a Wednesday, McCants had come by to see his mother on his day off and moved a tree that fell in a neighbor’s driveway.
“I told my son that day to be careful in his job and how much I loved him,” Myra McCants recalled.
It was the last time she ever saw her son alive.
Late that Friday night, McCants had put her disabled son to bed.
The knock at the door woke them both up.
“There was this preacher policeman, and he told me that my son was dead,” McCants recalls. “I just started screaming right there at the door. It was a nightmare that was real-life. I tried to wake up from this nightmare but it would not stop. It was real. I was awake and my son was dead.
“It was like half of my heart was ripped right out of my chest.”
Before that terrible night, Myra McCants already knew death. In 1978, her husband, Brent’s father, was killed in an industrial accident at the Bowater plant.
She also knew near-death. Her younger son was crippled, in a wheelchair after a crash.
But this was her whole son, her future, her life, murdered.
Myra McCants cried and cried all through the night. She cried at the funeral a few days later.
She cried during the trials when Hughes and Forney were both found guilty. She cried when Forney’s mother asked her not to hate her, too.
McCants embraced that woman and said, “You did not kill my son, your son did, and I do not hate you now and I never will.”
McCants cried in 1993 when Hughes – awaiting his trial for the execution-style shooting of her son – was indicted for killing another York County jail inmate with a smuggled knife. Hughes stabbed another inmate that day, too. That guy was left with a limp for the rest of his life.
The guy Hughes is alleged to have killed in jail had his head just about cut off.
Hughes always claimed he didn’t shoot Brent McCants. Hughes blamed Forney. Forney blamed Hughes.
Many who know the case believe both shot McCants: One first to knock him down, then the other the execution.
“That Hughes is a cold-blooded killer, mean as hell,” Myra McCants said. “Forney is a killer, too. You call people what they are. Killers.”
She cried when Forney received life in prison, and Hughes received the death penalty.
But because life did not mean life in those days – but really a chance at parole after so many years – Forney will in a few years be eligible to seek his freedom. Hughes has been in and out of death row for more than a decade, after lawyers claimed he was crazy.
Hughes asked in 2000 to be executed, was deemed not fit to want to die, then he changed his mind.
Twenty years after the death of Brent McCants, Hughes has not been executed.
“My son received the death penalty,” says Myra McCants. “No trial. No lawyers. Death.”
‘Don’t forget my son’
For 20 years, though, McCants has refused to let the murder of her son be her own death penalty.
For the first years after the murder, she would plant daylilies, elephant ears, roses and more at the spot in the median of Dave Lyle Boulevard where her son died.
She would be out there in all seasons, in all weather, armed with an old-fashioned sling blade – cutting down brush and weeds as drivers wondered what the heck was going on.
“This is the spot where his soul left him, where I am closest to Brent even to this day,” Myra McCants said.
When Manchester Village was developed on both sides of the street years after her son died, there became far too much traffic for Myra McCants to be in the middle of the road with a sling blade tending rose bushes.
So Tony Berry, Manchester’s developer, built a memorial grotto – “The Deputy Brent McCants Memorial” – on the Tinsley Way access road, next to Books-A-Million.
Granite blocks also were placed there for the other officers who died in the line of duty in the decades before.
For a decade, Myra McCants has come, on the anniversary of her son’s murder and at other times, and placed flowers at the memorial. She cleans it, clears away beer bottles and liquor bottles, and shines the plaques with her sleeve.
It was to that memorial that she came on Friday.
McCants placed a balloon that read simply, “Remember.” She brought yellow flowers because “yellow means love.”
She walked out to the spot at the road where her son was shot, six times, 20 years before.
“Brent wanted to help people,” McCants said. “He was a policeman because that’s all he wanted. And because he was a policeman, those two rotten sons-a-b----es shot him. And then, when they stood over his body, they shot him some more.
“They killed my boy right here where these cars are driving by, and people are going home to kiss somebody they love.”
As she said it, into the parking lot of what is now a busy shopping center, at the next access road, a York County sheriff’s SUV rolled by.
Traffic whizzed past, cars and trucks in an endless stream of life and police work.
Right at the spot of death.
“Sometimes it seems like people don’t remember,” McCants said. “I just hope people don’t forget my son.”
Myra McCants crossed the road and walked back to the memorial. She said a prayer for her son and for every police officer.
She prayed for the officers who caught the men who killed her son, the prosecutors who put the killers in prison.
She prayed for that man who found the car behind the motel that night 20 years ago, and cared enough to call police. She prayed for the two women who stopped and made the “Mayday” call.
Then – because murder took all she had 20 years ago – Myra McCants drove home alone.
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