Investigation: Suspect was out on parole, probation for burglary

jmonk@thestate.comOctober 15, 2013 

  • Public session on crime

    Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is inviting the public to a Wednesday session to discuss ways of dealing with violent crime and repeat offenders. The meeting is set for 5 p.m. on the third floor of City Hall, 1737 Main St.

The 20-year-old man accused of firing the shots early Sunday in Five Points that left a University of South Carolina student paralyzed already has spent time in prison on a felony conviction and was out on both parole and probation at the time of the shooting, law officials said Monday.

According to the S.C. Department of Corrections, Michael Juan Smith had been released on parole from state prison in February, after serving 10 months of a two-year sentence for violating probation. Smith was on probation in that case after getting a suspended sentence for second-degree burglary.

“He’s a hoodlum that’s been plaguing our county with burglary for some time,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Monday.

“He’s a flat-out hoodlum criminal. All our guys know him.”

Smith is charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a violent felony, unlawful carrying of a pistol and possession of a stolen pistol in connection with the Five Points incident. It happened just before 2:30 a.m., Sunday in the 700 block of Harden Street.

USC freshman Martha Childress, 18, of Greenville, was hit by a stray bullet in a flurry of gunfire after two men began arguing, Columbia police said. She had been waiting for a taxi.

She was not the intended target, police added.

Early Monday morning, Smith appeared before Columbia City Judge James Guignard in the secure Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center courtroom. The judge heard Smith’s record, facts about his probation violation and the latest charges in Sunday’s shooting.

“There is no bond,” Guignard pronounced after a 20-minute hearing.

Columbia interim police chief Ruben Santiago said Monday there were 12 city of Columbia police officers in reflective vests in the heart of Five Points at the time of the shooting, along with another 10 or so on the perimeter, Santiago said, adding officers were able to arrest the suspect quickly.

Santiago told reporters Monday afternoon that immediately after Smith was taken into custody, he made “spontaneous utterances” to an officer that implicated him in the shooting.

“I’m sorry I did not mean to shoot,” Smith allegedly told a city officer, according to an incident report.

Video footage from some of the more than 100 surveillance cameras in Five Points captured the suspect and Childress at the moment of the shooting, police said.

Police are investigating leads on the weapon the suspect is said to have used – a stolen .40 caliber Glock 27 semi-automatic, Santiago said. The Glock holds 12 rounds, and two were missing, a police report said. At least one shell casing believed to have been fired from that Glock has been recovered from the scene.

Police also tested Smith’s hands and clothes for gunshot residue and forwarded the results to SLED. Results were not available Monday night.

Meanwhile, law officials Monday released more details about the shooting.

According to city police investigator Emmit Gilliam, who spoke at Monday’s bond hearing, Childress was waiting by the Five Points fountain in front of Starbucks when Smith “got in some type of altercation with some other guys.” At that time, Smith was about 30-40 yards away on Harden Street, near the Exxon Station, Gilliam said.

“The defendant pulled out a weapon, a stolen .40 pistol, and fired it back toward the victim, hitting the victim,” Gilliam said

Seconds later, Gilliam said, an officer saw Smith running toward him “holding something.”

“We have witnesses as well, who saw him pull the pistol out and fire the weapon,” Gilliam told the judge during the hearing.

Also speaking at bond court was Jim Carpenter, a Greenville lawyer who is Childress’ uncle.

“The bullet entered her shoulder, ripped down through vital organs and lodged in her spinal column,” said Carpenter, underscoring the brutality of the crime just before he told Guignard the family wanted the judge to deny bond.

“She immediately fell, and had it not been for the good work of the EMTs and the doctors, she could very easily have died on the operating table early Sunday,” Carpenter said. “She is lying there fighting for her life. Absent a medical miracle, she will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life – all because of this shooting by this man.”

Carpenter told the judge that Smith “showed absolutely no regard for human life ... He is a danger to the community and should not be released at all.”

Sheriff Lott said, if asked, he would be glad to assist Santiago by putting members of the sheriff’s gang unit in Five Points. These are officers specially trained to spot and handle hardened criminals.

Santiago said he will consider Lott’s offer, but added that his officers are well-trained. An example of that is the quick arrest of Smith, he said, adding, “We are focusing on violent crime in Five Points.”

Santiago said police will try to educate people in Five Points more about potential dangers in the area and to be more mindful of their personal safety. Police also will try to get the word out to criminals that if they commit a crime in Five Points, they will be caught on cameras.

Despite Sunday’s shooting, a beefed-up police presence in Five Points in recent months has kept violence down, Santiago said, adding the shooting appears to be one of those crimes impossible to prevent.

“This was one of those things we feared the most,” Santiago said. “One of these things we say, ‘God, I hope it never happens.’ This poor young lady was at the beginning of her life.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin announced a public session Wednesday for anyone who wants to discuss ways of dealing with violent crime and repeat offenders. The meeting is set for 5 p.m. at City Hall.

Benjamin said answers lie in getting the police department and leaders in Columbia’s business and faith communities to sit down together. He said he has been in touch with the police chief, sheriff, solicitor, federal prosecutors as well as university and Five Points Association leaders.

Meanwhile USC spokesman Wes Hickman said university officials were meeting with Columbia police and administrators as well as business leaders to form a response to the shooting. They should have a better of idea of what needs to be done and who needs to be called on later in the week, Hickman said during a Monday afternoon news conference.

“Everything’s on the table at this point in the conversation,” Hickman said.

USC student body president Chase Mizzell, also appearing at the news conference, said students must be able to socialize and study in safety, he said.

“It’s now evident that the status quo is no longer sustainable,” Mizzell said. “This requires action.”

City police have been working with the U.S. Attorney’s office to waive gun cases from state court into federal court, where offenders often receive stiffer sentences.

Councilmen Moe Baddourah and Brian DeQuincey Newman, both of whom represent portions of the Five Points area, said the latest shooting has stirred them as well.

Baddourah, a mayoral candidate in the Nov. 5 election, called for the use of more police dogs in Five Points that can sniff weapons and guns.

Newman said city leaders need to get to the root causes of violent crime.

“We need to spend more time as a community delving deeper into the issue,” Newman said, without offering a specific suggestion.

Clif LeBlanc and Noelle Phillips contributed to this story. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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