Two high school friends reunited for the weekend, with one, now a USC freshman, showing off her new campus to her out-of-town guest.
But the night ended tragically for the young women, when the freshman was struck by a random bullet while waiting for a taxi near the iconic fountain in Five Points. Martha Childress, 18, is paralyzed from the hips down, after a .40-caliber bullet lodged in her spine, said her uncle, Jim Carpenter, who is serving as the family’s spokesman. She also suffered damage to her liver and a kidney, but doctors were optimistic those wounds would heal, he said.
Childress graduated in the spring from J.L. Mann High School in Greenville. She earned a 4.0 grade-point average there and chose to study at the University of South Carolina, her parents’ alma mater, Carpenter said. She had declared international business as her major and was pledging the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority.
“She’s a very hard worker,” Carpenter said. “She’s a good girl.”
Now, plans are on hold as the family begins dealing with a drastic change in their lives, Carpenter said.
“She’s a fighter,” Carpenter said. “She does not want to be thought of as a victim. She’s determined to fight this thing. It’s very traumatic when you’re 18 years old and you’ve had this life-changing event.”
Columbia police have arrested 20-year-old Michael Juan Smith on five charges, including assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. He is being held without bond at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.
Smith allegedly was arguing with another man when he pulled a .40-caliber Glock handgun and fired at least two shots, according to police reports. One bullet struck Childress, who was an estimated 30-40 yards away from the shooter, said Jennifer Timmons, the Columbia Police Department spokeswoman.
Security cameras in the area recorded Smith firing the gun from the area near the fountain and an Exxon gas station, Timmons said. And, the cameras filmed Childress as she collapsed near the intersection of Greene and Harden streets, she said.
The video shows police running toward the fountain and the reactions of others standing near the fountain.
“Some people ducked,” Timmons said. “Some people were oblivious.”
Childress had been to Five Points to give her high school friend, a Clemson student, a taste of the nightlife that USC students enjoy, Carpenter said. The two girls joined some of Childress’s new college friends and had eaten at the Pita Pit on Greene Street.
As far as the family knows, Childress had not been drinking, Carpenter said. Police investigators also have not found any indication that Childress was intoxicated, Timmons said.
The women were ready to go home and were waiting near the Five Points fountain for a taxi.
Childress’ mother had instructed her daughter to take cabs home if she went to Five Points. The parents did not want their daughter walking late at night to her dorm room, Carpenter said.
“She was doing what her mother had asked her to do,” Carpenter said.
Childress’ mother, Pam Childress of Greenville, and her father, Chuck Childress of Easley, attended USC in the 1980s. Carpenter earned a law degree from USC during the 1980s as well. All had spent time in Five Points, Carpenter said.
“You didn’t think a thing about safety, and safety wasn’t an issue,” he said. “It was a rite of passage.”
The shooting was on students’ minds Monday as they began a short week of classes before heading into fall break Thursday.
Student body president Chase Mizzell said, “Our student body has expressed extreme shock and sadness over the violence that has hit.”
Mizzell said he was discussing possible responses with other student leaders. Opinions are varied, he said.
Several hundred students, mostly from the campus Greek community, gathered for a prayer vigil on a lawn near Greek Village. They formed small groups to thank God that Childress was alive and to ask that she be healed. The vigil was organized by the Zeta sorority and led by Braxton and Shelley Towery, a husband-and-wife ministry team for Cru, a campus religious organization.
Afterward, the Zeta members stood together and shouted, “We love you, Martha,” for a videographer.
For now, the family is not ready to talk about the crime problem in Five Points.
Instead, they are focusing on what needs to be done as they prepare to have a daughter in a wheelchair, Carpenter said.
Childress mostly has been sedated, he added. But the student has been told that she is paralyzed.
Childress’ Clemson friend has spent time at the hospital but only Childress’ mother and an aunt, who is a physician, have been allowed to visit, Carpenter said.
A group of USC friends, some of whom had been with Childress in Five Points Saturday night, brought flowers, stuffed animals and cards to the hospital. When the girls learned they could not visit Childress in person, they went outside the hospital and filmed a video of well wishes.
The family said they appreciated the quick response of the Columbia police officers and emergency medical technicians, Carpenter said. And, they are thankful for the skilled surgeons who repaired the damaged organs, he said.
“We are hopeful and believe her fighter’s heart is going to help her a lot,” he said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.