‘I’m scared:’ Shock, grief after killing at Fort Mill’s all-American Peach Stand

Police respond to shooting at The Peach Stand in Fort Mill

Fort Mill police are investigating a shooting at The Peach Stand in Fort Mill, South Carolina Tuesday afternoon. Police said a woman was killed and a suspect was taken into custody.
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Fort Mill police are investigating a shooting at The Peach Stand in Fort Mill, South Carolina Tuesday afternoon. Police said a woman was killed and a suspect was taken into custody.

Shock, grief, fear. Emotions likely to accompany any shooting death. More so, some say, when it happens at a place that’s known for so much else.

“And at the Peach Stand,” said Jeff Helms, police chief in Fort Mill and one of the dwindling number of residents who have been in town longer than the store. “That’s iconic Fort Mill.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Peach Stand employee Karson Bailey Whitesell, 19, was shot and killed at the store.

Christopher Benjamin Mendez has been charged with murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, in Whitesell’s death, police said Wednesday.

Arrest warrants were served late Wednesday afternoon, Fort Mill police Maj. Bryan Zachary said in a release. A bond hearing was conducted afterward, and bond was denied on both charges.

Mendez was to be transferred to the York County Detention Center, Zachary said.

Details about the incident continue to come in from law enforcement, as do community reactions.

Randy Turney of McConnells commented on Facebook that his in-laws were in the store when the incident happened, and that police asked them not to give details because the investigation was ongoing. Turney said he knew the situation was serious from his mother-in-law’s call.

“All I know is, she called me and she was scared,” he said.

The store on S.C. 160 was closed Wednesday morning, but a woman who stops by every day, between taking children to nearby schools, paused to pass a few minutes.

“You wouldn’t think it would happen here,” she said. “And this is sort of the ‘it’ place to be, for those of us who live around here. It’s sad and scary.”

The Peach Stand — the original produce stand, just across the highway from the main store, dates back to the 1930s — has been in Fort Mill since 1980. In those nearly four decades, the store has grown to include a restaurant, butcher shop, bakery and ice cream counter. It sells local fruit and vegetables, and supports farmers who produce it. It sells Springs Farm peaches, strawberries, blackberries and other produce.

The store also is a meeting place. For years, when Fort Mill only had one high school a country block down the road, students would drive to the Peach Stand for a soda or snack before practice started for sports and other extracurricular activities. People meet there still.

Charlie Powers, who served as mayor in Fort Mill for 24 years, is about as synonymous with the town as is the place he stops by every morning.

“I just go there early in the mornings and drink coffee, meet with folks,” Powers said of the Peach Stand. “Tell our stories.”

Powers said what happened shouldn’t be a reflection on the people there.

“It’s a great place,” he said. “Those kind of things can happen anywhere. They’ve happened at churches. It used to be the safest places in the world, were churches and schools, and you see what’s happened.”

Powers says the crime has something to do with Fort Mill’s population growth in recent years.

“It’s just one of those very, very pitiful situations that happened,” he said. “That’s the world now. It’s not Fort Mill, just because it’s close to Charlotte or anything else. Whatever’s wrong, I don’t know. I don't know what’s wrong with people’s thinking.”

Powers has more experience than most understanding how hard an incident like this is to get over. A decade ago, Powers walked into a gas station in Fort Mill; a man having just robbed the place shot him in the head, after Powers held the door open for him. Both Powers and the store clerk, also shot, survived.

“It’s a devastating situation,” Powers said. “It’ll keep you awake at night, wondering what’s wrong with people.”

On Wednesday morning, a couple of women dropped off flower bouquets at the store entrance and quickly left. Jeanna Allstun, a regular customer, said she stopped by to buy Amish bread. She said she did not know about the shooting.

“I pop in once a week, or every couple of weeks, to pick up a little treat and see what’s new on their shelves,” Allstun said.

Customer George Hermann, formerly of Fort Mill, drove from Charlotte to offer condolences.

“When I lived here, the Peach Stand was a local stop for us,” he said. “The Peach Stand was like passing something special.”

Hermann said the store was “a point of reference whenever we had company,” and he would always give directions to the store.

“It would be like something happening at your local church because the Peach Stand was always looked upon very highly by the residents,” he said, “and it’s just unbelievable.”

Helms said the shooting at the Peach Stand was hard for his department, officers only a day removed from attending the funeral of Det. Mike Doty of the York County Sheriff’s Office. Doty was killed and three other officers wounded after responding last week to a domestic violence call in York.

Fort Mill and other officers saw people offering support for miles along the processional route, children waving flags and adults crying, an outpouring of support for law enforcement.

“And then you think, OK, now maybe we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Helms said. “And then this happens.”

In his 35 years in law enforcement, Helms said he can’t recall so much happening in so short a span.

“I don’t even know how to describe the last 48 hours,” he said Wednesday morning.

Mayor Guynn Savage said the entire community is hurting, including first responders “raw with emotion” before they ever received the Peach Stand call. She, like Powers before her, believes the town and business shouldn’t be defined by the act of violence.

“Unfortunately events like this are no longer unique,” Savage said. “We see acts of violence too frequently in today’s world. We’re not immune. There’s no area that’s immune.”

The mayor was impressed, grateful for and humbled by the outpouring of support for law enforcement the week prior to the latest shooting. She expects more support now.

“I don’t think it’s indicative of where we’re living,” she said of the violent act. “I think it’s a symptom of the world we live in, not of where we live in the world.

“We do live in a very special place as well. Not one that’s immune to violence, but certainly one that knows a close community of caring, giving. That when something like this does occur, they reach out to one another.”

In a statement, Peach Stand general manager Ron Edwards said the store would remain closed through Thursday.

Online reaction

As word spread of shots fired at the Peach Stand in Fort Mill and that Whitesell was killed, people online expressed fear, sadness and shock.

Bailee Moore tweeted she was “trying not to cry” and she’d never heard of an incident like this in her hometown “I’m scared to live in.”

Jessica Jinx of Fort Mill shared a similar sentiment, tweeting she was “absolutely heartbroken.”

Another Twitter user, @realdadinstands, was “utterly sick (and) disgusted” by what happened at the Peach Stand, a place he called “the definition of American community.”

Others tweeted they live near the site, or shop there often, and couldn’t imagine a shooting happening there.

Facebook reaction was similar, including Jack Davenport’s account of having been in the store. Something he called a “very scary situation.”

Hattie Keyes called the Peach Stand “one of those beautiful places with beautiful people that SC boasts about.”

Some commenters recalled having just joked with the victim recently about store prices or having done her hair. Others recalled time spent at the store, a place Mike Glazier called “probably the safest place in Fort Mill growing up.” If the Peach Stand isn’t safe, he posted, nowhere is.

Mike Kalasnik said “this is what I’ll think of” every time he passes it now.

Joe Cronin, who recently left Fort Mill after working as planning director, said he couldn’t believe the incident happened “at the Peach Stand, one of the most recognizable institutions in Fort Mill” and a favorite place to visit.