A spilled beer started the fight in the early morning hours of March 28, 2010.
A gunshot ended it.
The bullet also ended the life of 23-year-old Aaron Bouknight.
Four years later, no one has been arrested in the shooting death.
“It’s very hard. I’ve been praying and asking God to touch somebody’s heart,” said Sandra Branch, Bouknight’s mother. “Somebody still knows something.”
After the shooting, police had few clues, and conflicting accounts given by witnesses hampered the investigation. In hopes of generating leads, the Columbia Police Department’s cold case investigator, Mark Vinson, has released new information about the suspects’ car and a slang reference one made during the argument.
Bouknight and three friends had been celebrating another friend’s enlistment in the military. They were at Club Dreams, a former nightclub across from City Hall along Main Street that would close a year later after a second shooting.
Bouknight and his friends were walking to their cars around in the parking lot between City Hall and the Richland County Judicial Complex. Bouknight was carrying a cup of beer.
What happened next is murky, based on different stories given to investigators by the witnesses.
A sport utility vehicle drove too close – or at least appeared to drive too close – to the young men as they walked through the parking lot, Vinson said.
Either the SUV’s passing caused Bouknight to spill the beer or, as some reported, he threw the beer at the SUV, Vinson said.
Either way, three men in the SUV jumped out and an argument started. Two of those men pulled guns; one had a rifle, and the other, a pistol, Vinson said.
The argument appeared to be over, and Bouknight and his friends went back to their cars. Bouknight was sitting in the front passenger seat of his friend’s car but facing backward as he talked to someone in the back seat.
The SUV drove by again, and one shot was fired from the semi-automatic rifle. The bullet hit Bouknight in the head, Vinson said.
The men with Bouknight gave different descriptions of the suspects’ SUV. One man thought it was a GMC Yukon. Two said it was a Ford Explorer. No one remembered the license plate number. The SUV most likely was burgundy or dark red. One person said it was light-colored.
Bouknight’s friends said they had not seen the suspects before. During the argument, at least one of the suspects made a reference to either “Bedrock” or “The Rock,” Vinson said.
The Bedrock is sometimes used as a nickname for the Bethel Bishop public housing complex off West Beltline Boulevard. The Rock often is used as a reference to Rock Hill, Vinson said.
After the shooting, investigators canvassed Bethel Bishop for leads but came up empty. They also consulted with gang investigators in Rock Hill, but that, too, did not lead anywhere.
Bouknight’s mother wonders if a “no snitch” policy has kept anyone from talking about the killing.
It is possible the three were from out of town and never knew the bullet fired from their SUV killed someone, Vinson said.
But it is strange that no suspects’ name has ever been submitted to the police, he said.
“You’d expect that one of them might eventually say something,” Vinson said. “We need a name.”
Bouknight was not a troublemaker, his mother said. He had one arrest for a misdemeanor alcohol violation, according to Richland County court records.
He lived at home, and his mother had been urging him to find some direction. She encouraged him to join the military until he decided what he wanted to do as a career.
On the night of the shooting, Bouknight’s younger sisters also had been at the club. They told their mother that he had been acting silly and dancing with everyone. He had escorted them to their cars so they could make their parents’ 2 a.m. curfew.
By the time the sisters arrived 45 minutes later at their parents’ Gadsden home, their cellphones were ringing. The news was bad: Their brother had been shot.
Bouknight’s sisters woke their parents, who rushed to Columbia to figure out what had happened.
“I didn’t know where I was going that night but I knew I was going to find my baby,” Sandra Branch said.
Her son, though, already was dead. His friends had tried to rush him to a hospital, but Columbia police officers had pulled them over.
It was the third time in less than two months police had found a dead person in a car. The cases, though, are not related, Vinson said.
Four years later, Bouknight’s mother still cries for her son. The lack of justice makes his death more painful, she said.
“Give us something,” Branch said. “I just want peace.”