Eight days after almost dying twice from a .40-caliber gunshot wound, Martha Childress entered an Atlanta rehabilitation center to learn how to live after being paralyzed.
The University of South Carolina freshman’s mood has swung from hope to fear since she was struck by a stray bullet while waiting at the Five Points fountain for a taxi. Talk about returning to classes by January has been punctured by the 18-year-old’s recurring nightmares of hearing the gun blast, her stepfather, Ron Johnson, said Monday in his first interview since the shooting.
“This might have taken away Martha’s legs, but not her brain or heart,” Johnson said in a news conference on the patio of Jake’s on Devine in Five Points. “She realizes she has a long road ahead, but she also realizes, perhaps, there is a reason this all happened and, perhaps, something good will come out of this.”
Childress’ shooting spurred calls for change in the Five Points entertainment district, the scene of several high-profile crimes in recent years — including shots fired, beatings and robberies.
Johnson and a family advisor, Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch, Monday introduced their recommendations to make Five Points safer, called “Martha’s List.” Johnson and McCulloch favor legal remedies that keep serial criminals in prison, like the man charged in Childress’ shooting, over proposed earlier bar closings and making the area open to pedestrians only on weekend nights.
They also called for USC to restart a shuttle service to carry students from Five Points back to campus.
“It’s more than just Martha,” said Johnson, a Greenville real estate developer. “It’s about this town. It’s about these students. It’s about my friends who have children contemplating coming here. ... Like you, we want Five Points restored to what we all think it should be. This senseless violence has got to stop.”
Columbia city officials are looking for help from state and county law-enforcement agencies while devising plans to curb gangs.
Meanwhile, USC administrators said they are considering re-establishing the shuttles, which were halted three years ago because students were not using them. Instead, the school made a deal with taxi companies to offer free rides within a five-mile radius of Five Points, but students have complained about long waits.
Childress, from Greenville, almost started walking back to campus about 2:30 a.m. Oct. 13 after waiting for a taxi for 30 minutes. She didn’t leave the fountain because she had told her parents that she would take a cab back to her dorm if she went to the entertainment hub, Johnson said.
“She was doing what she promised,” he said.
In addition to the shuttles, USC is looking into expanding the cab program and paying for additional lighting and emergency call boxes in Five Points.
“We want to keep the momentum on this,” said USC president Harris Pastides, who released his own set of recommendations last week after calling Five Points unsafe after midnight.
One of those recommendations called for having more social events on campus.
USC student groups are holding a concert called “Not So Thirsty Thursday” from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday on the fields near the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center to support Childress and call for safety in Five Points.
“We’re trying to clear out Five Points for one night to make a stand for Martha,” Courtney Dotherow, a freshman who is one of Childress’ sorority sisters, said during a student forum outside the Russell House student union on Monday.
Students at a forum suggested police enforce loitering laws in Five Points and USC hand out wristbands identifying students. Johnson, Childress’ stepfather, attended the student forum, sitting behind Pastides and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
The mayor spoke to Johnson after his earlier Five Points news conference.
“Don’t let this die. Martha is just the latest tragedy,” Johnson told Benjamin.
Childress was not the intended target when a shot was fired during an argument among a group of men, authorities said.
Police arrested Michael Juan Smith at the scene in connection with the shooting. Smith had avoided long sentences in Richland County courtrooms on two burglary charges in recent years and was released on parole in February after serving 10 months of a two-year sentence for a violating his probation, authorities said.
Johnson said he remained angry about his stepdaughter’s shooting, adding she almost died twice — in the ambulance and on the operating table.
Childress still needed a chest tube to aid her breathing Monday, but doctors said her injured kidney and liver are healing as she was transferred Monday to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Johnson said.
“I happen to think it’s a God thing that she has been able to recover as fast as she has,” he said.