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A year after Rock Hill teen killed by police, her family's pain remains

In front of a house on Rock Hill's East Main Street, the 600 block just east of downtown, there are flowers attached to a crepe myrtle tree.

The artificial flowers have been there, changed every so often, for exactly one year. Today there are two sets of flowers, attached with metal clamps.

"As long as I am alive, there will be flowers there," said a grandmother named Ricky Williams. "I will never understand it as long as I live. What really happened there."

Behind that tree, on the lawn, a year ago today is where 15-year-old Yvette Williams, Ricky Williams' granddaughter, died. Yvette -- pronounced "Y-vet-a" -- was shot by two Rock Hill police officers after she pointed a gun at them.

The shooting happened just minutes after Yvette had robbed a store down the street with that gun. It happened after the officers told Yvette, many times, to put the gun down. The gun turned out to be a BB gun, but nobody but Yvette Williams knew that on June 4, 2009, when she pointed that gun at police.

It was just a person pointing a gun that looks like a 9-millimeter handgun that kills people every day. It was pointed at the cops who protect the public every day of their lives.

The shooting of a black teen by two officers -- one black, one white -- happened in the early afternoon and spawned immediate rumors that Yvette Williams had been shot in cold blood, or in the back as she fled.

Police even talked to alleged eyewitnesses, said Rock Hill Police Chief John Gregory, who gave statements which were "outright lies" told to inflame the community in outrage against the police.

However, the shooting was captured on video from police cars responding to the scene. Prosecutors and State Law Enforcement Division investigators ruled almost immediately after the shooting that the two officers who fired at Yvette Williams had acted correctly that day.

Police and prosecutors even showed the video to some members of Williams' family, the funeral director who buried her, her pastor, some in the media and the president of the Rock Hill NAACP.

The video was conclusive, all in law enforcement and leaders in the black community said: Yvette Williams' death was tragic, but police were not at fault.

'Not the child I knew'

But Williams' family has not stopped wondering why the troubled teen -- she was part of an anti-gang initiative at a church at the time -- would rob the Park Grocery convenience store, then walk west along Main Street toward downtown with a gun.

The family -- despite the awful video of Williams holding the gun, pointing the gun, and finally, terribly, being struck by bullets -- does not believe police had to shoot Williams.

The Williams family has hired a private investigator to look into the incident, but declined to offer any other details, said Yvette's grandmother Ricky Williams, and her mother, Michelle Williams Taybron.

The family believes, a year later, that someone put Yvette Williams up to the robbery.

"I am not justifying what happened at the store, but it was not the child I knew," Ricky Williams said of her granddaughter.

"They, the police, could have gone about it another way," said Taybron.

Ricky Williams said she has lost faith in the police after what happened.

"She was just a child," Ricky Williams said.

However, Gregory said, police were sure that day a year ago -- after looking at the video from the store and the video from the police cars -- that Yvette Williams had committed the robbery and then confronted police who were responding to the robbery.

"After seeing the video, it is obvious what happened," said Gregory, who had celebrated his sixth anniversary as Rock Hill's first black police chief just two days before the shooting. "It was tragic. I wish it had been different.

"But it is clear that the officers did what they were trained to do, what they should do. I don't minimize the tragic part, but officers did what they should have done."

And despite widespread speculation, Gregory said, detectives could not confirm that anyone put Williams up to the robbery or that anyone else was involved in any way.

As for the BB gun, Taybron and Ricky Williams both said this week that after returning home that awful day that Yvette died, they learned that the BB gun Yvette Williams used belonged to Taybron's son, Yvette's brother. It was normally used for target practice.

'Fabricated stories'

The video clearly showed Williams pointing the gun and refusing to drop it after being ordered to surrender. She was shot again after pointing the gun at police for the second time after she was on the ground, and again after police and prosecutors said she tried to reach out for the gun that had fallen from her hand.

The officers who fired at Yvette Williams -- Carlos Culbreath and Claude "Mac" McCarley -- returned to normal duties weeks after the shooting and remain fine officers, Gregory said.

"It was traumatic for them," Gregory said.

After the shooting, police, clergy and civil rights leaders heard complaints about the shootings that turned out to be false, Gregory said. Those allegations were made by people who claimed to be eyewitnesses but turned out not to be witnesses to the shooting.

"People maliciously fabricated stories to incite the community about this incident," Gregory said. "The video vindicated what happened. The video stopped a lot of malicious rumors. We were dealing with facts."

Prosecutor Kevin Brackett, who shared the video of the shooting with two members of the Williams family, local ministers and the NAACP, said this week, as he did a year ago, the officers acted appropriately under the circumstances.

"There is no question the shooting was justified," Brackett said.

But, like Gregory, Brackett said justification does not take away the human element of a teenage girl's death.

"The fact that the shooting was justified does not make it any less of a tragedy," Brackett said.

State Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, is also a funeral director. He handled the funeral arrangements for the Williams family, tried to ease their grief a year ago.

King also saw the video, watched as Yvette Williams pointed that gun at police officers before she was shot.

"It is heartwrenching to see someone take their last breath," King said. "There were no words then to comfort the family. My heart still goes out to the family and the officers.

"This was a very tragic thing on every side."

Reliving the trauma

The pain that the Williams family endured remains. In the family kitchen is a portrait of Yvette that hangs on the wall.

"I look at it and cry," said Yvette's aunt, Cathy Caldwell.

Ricky Williams and Michelle Taybron relive that awful day almost every day.

Yvette, called "Y" by family, "kept walking off," said Ricky Williams of the days leading up to June 4, 2009. That day, Yvette left again, she said. The family had cut off Yvette's cell phone service, she said, so they could not reach her by phone.

So, Ricky Williams said, she and another family member went looking for Yvette. First to Willowbrook Avenue not far from where Michelle Taybron's husband, Yvette's stepfather, lives, then to Sunset Park where teens hang around.

They ended up just east of downtown on Main Street, where Ricky Williams said she saw a police roadblock and recalled saying to herself: "Someone done got killed."

That someone ended up being her granddaughter.

Yvette had a tattoo on her right arm with her late grandfather's name -- George -- on it, which was used to help identify her at the hospital, said Ricky Williams.

Afterward, the family had to deal with so many people knowing that Yvette had been shot by police.

They still deal with it.

"If the law could do it another way, I know they would," said Yvette's mother, Michelle Taybron.

'Come on, Y...'

The family and some friends will gather tonight near the grocery store that Yvette Williams robbed a year ago today.

Holding candles, they will walk west from the store along the sidewalk, past 12 houses.

They will retrace the last steps in Yvette's life, to the spot where she died -- to that crepe myrtle where her grandmother makes sure the flowers stay fresh.

Then they will go home.

Ricky Williams wishes each day that her granddaughter were alive to walk up the three steps into the front door of her home.

"I want to say, 'Come on Y, you are here,'" Ricky Williams said.

But she can't say that. Because Yvette Williams, age 15, died a year ago today.

A teenage girl robbed a store, pointed a gun at police after repeatedly being told to drop it, and died when police shot her because she would not do as she was told.

That is the anniversary Rock Hill has to deal with today.

It is no celebration.

Andrew Dys * 803-329-4065 | adys@heraldonline.com

Vigil tonight

The family of Yvette Williams is planning a candlelight vigil and walk at 6 p.m. tonight on the sidewalk of East Main Street, heading west from Keels Avenue to the spot near Stonewall Street where Yvette died.

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