Gunshots strike at heart of Fort Mill

FORT MILL -- First textiles died, and the jobs inside were buried, too.

Now, old Fort Mill -- the little town, not the subdivisions miles away near the state line that still get mail in Fort Mill but aren't in town -- might be closer to gone, too. Gone is the town where crime was some city slicker's problem.

Gunshots may have taken old Fort Mill closer to history Tuesday night. A shot through the former mayor's cheek and another into an immigrant woman chasing the American dream in a convenience store.

"The old Fort Mill that I have lived in all my life, where I used to know everybody and they knew me, is now gone," said Wallace Coleman, who ran a garage for decades on S.C. 160 in the heart of town.

Every morning the last few years before first light, Coleman would go to the Valero gas station on Spratt Street, colloquially called "John Boys" still -- even though it has changed hands twice since the old days when the name was John Boy's -- to drink coffee and shoot the breeze with the other regulars. He would chat with the Vietnamese immigrant family that ran the place with a smile. He went Wednesday and couldn't get in because of gunshots.

"The man is a great guy, as good as you will ever meet," Coleman said. "Great family. And for that, the lady gets shot."

I asked Wednesday's stupidest question, if Coleman was mad.

"Hell, yeah, I am mad," Coleman said. "What we have in Fort Mill now is people who will steal or worse. They shoot people."

Interstate 77 and proximity to good-money jobs in Charlotte and top-notch schools brought growth to the town of Fort Mill. The town more than doubled in population over the last 25 years, from about 4,200 to more than 8,500. There is a plan to annex an area this year that would almost double the size of the town. Yet, with that growth has come an unsolved murder of a convenience store owner last year, Tuesday night's senseless violence and a palpable sense of anger and distress on Fort Mill's quiet streets.

On Spratt Street -- down from the convenience store where Yen Nguyen, 54, was shot and where Charlie Powers, who gave a quarter-century of his life as mayor, was shot -- are houses and businesses. Some older residents on Spratt Street said Wednesday the shootings felt just like family got shot.

At another convenience store down Spratt Street, the crowd filed in through the morning and afternoon. The Valero store down the street was closed. Reason: Gunshots.

Wayne Richardson Sr., who has lived in Fort Mill for 47 years, said over coffee, "You never in your life thought Fort Mill would come to this."

Tim Greeley used to live down the street from the shooting. He said Wednesday he was at the store where Nguyen and Powers were shot just a couple days earlier.

"Forgot my money. Only had enough for a drink or Rolaids for my stomach," Greeley said. "The guy who runs the place, super nice -- him and his wife both are the greatest -- said to come back with the money another day and let me have both. I was on my way there today to give him the money for the Rolaids. But I can't, because she got shot."

In fairness, there are not gunshots every day in Fort Mill. Ken Starnes, a longtime Fort Mill Town Councilman, said Wednesday, "It is true that we used to be a sleepy little town. But more crime has come with more people."

Starnes said he had been with Powers and others downtown just minutes before the shooting and saw him minutes afterward when he was in the ambulance. Starnes hopes there is not a "knee-jerk reaction" to a problem that may not be as bad as some believe.

As the population has grown, the town has added police officers and firefighters, Starnes said. "Public safety is the top priority, paramount," concerning proposed annexation.

But reality on a cold Wednesday in Fort Mill was unsolved shootings don't leave townspeople clamoring for statistics on crime rates.

Before bed in the wee hours Wednesday, after the Tuesday night shooting had made the late TV news and his kid was tucked into bed, Dean Youhanic's wife asked him to do something he had never done in eight years living in Fort Mill.

"She told me to lock the door," said Youhanic, a mechanic who unsuccessfully ran for the Town Council last year. He said that more people unfortunately means more crime. "I came here from New Jersey where there was guns and violence and drugs. I came here for what Fort Mill was. Now, I have had to put in security cameras at the business."

Tasha Broderick works at Jack's House of Flowers, a few doors down from the store where Powers and Nguyen were shot. She's lived in Fort Mill every day of almost 30 years of life.

"This never happened when I was younger," Broderick said. "I would pop in at the store, get crackers or a cold drink, and the people were so friendly. I was there Friday. Then, a few days later, his wife is shot. Maybe that Fort Mill I used to know is gone forever."