A Newberry County strawberry farmer checking his irrigation lines Thursday afternoon spotted four Tennessee teens who had spent all day on foot, running from some 80 state and local law officers looking for them after one of their fathers was shot dead.
Todd Lever said he heard something in the woods, caught a glimpse of red and white T-shirts, and knew it must be the teenagers deputies had been hunting since early Thursday morning.
“I even hollered, ‘Freeze! Police,’” Lever said. “But they weren’t stopping.”
Lever said he fumbled as he dialed 911 on his cellphone and watched the four head into a dense thicket on his 100-acre farm.
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As officers raced down the gravel drive to Lever’s place, a SLED helicopter spotted the four in what Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster described as a swampy area alongside a creek.
They tried to hide in underbrush, Foster said, but once they realized they’d been seen from the air, stood still for their arrest.
Authorities identified the four as Zack Blanchard, 16; Daniel Richards-Birchfield, 15; Liam Lawler, 15; and Shelby Riley, 16.
Blanchard is suspected of shooting and killing his father, Robert J. Blanchard, at his Greeneville, Tenn., home before taking off with the other three for Myrtle Beach, Foster said. The elder Blanchard, 36, was found dead Wednesday night. His van was missing.
Authorities weren’t sure how much the other three teens knew when they left Tennessee for South Carolina.
“They were aware of what went on,” Foster said. “It’s just a question now of when they became aware.”
The four had been described as heavily armed after local authorities were told they left Tennessee with nine weapons, including handguns, two AK-47s, two shotguns and 200 rounds of ammunition.
Officers from at least nine agencies went door-to-door in the rural Keitts Crossroads community, eight miles east of Newberry, where the teens had been forced to abandon their vehicle.
Troopers stopped travelers coming and going on both S.C. 34 and U.S. 176.
School doors were locked and children were kept inside.
Even before dawn, the sounds of sirens and helicopters alerted people in the community to something gone wrong.
Lynette Caldwell said a neighbor must have called her at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to tell her to be careful. An officer knocked on her door later in the morning.
“I’m usually here by myself and nothing but woods – from here to yonder, far as you can go, woods,” she said, gesturing toward Sumter National Forest.
Caldwell said sometimes she complains about the neighbor’s barking dogs, but Thursday appreciated having them around.
Still, she was confident Foster would find the four.
“They sure done stepped in it, ’cause he will get his man,” she said.
Farther down the highway, Phillip Shultz said he’d talked by phone to a half-dozen neighbors several times during the morning.
“You never can tell what crazy people will do,” said the Navy veteran, stepping outside with his dog, Rambo.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Folk sat at the edge of the road in a four-wheeler, waiting for officers to finish searching an old rental house on his place.
He had a pistol in the glove box.
“I was in the Army and I was a military policeman,” Folk said. “So I’ve got a couple of guns in my truck and I’ve got one in my Gator. Just in case.”
The pursuit began at about 4 a.m., when an S.C. Highway Patrol officer noticed four teenagers in a vehicle at a rest stop on I-26, Foster said. It seemed suspicious, so he ran the tag. A report came back that the vehicle was wanted in connection with a killing in Tennessee.
The van took off – the girl behind the wheel – heading east on I-26 and into Newberry on Main Street, Foster said.
During the chase, a deputy was stationed at the crossroads of S.C. 34 and U.S. 176, where he put a tire-deflating device on the road, Foster said.
When the van came through about 5 a.m., it only made it about a quarter-mile farther before it wrecked into a cow pasture, Foster said. The four jumped out and ran, leaving behind long guns, ammunition and six cellphones.
“We believe they had nine guns, and we recovered four,” Foster said.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was checking to see whether any of the four juveniles had criminal records,.
Foster said the four had not been in touch with anyone since wrecking the van. Between the time of the killing and the pursuit, he added, there had been “a good bit of back and forth” by phone with their families and with friends of their families.
Police got a report from a resident who spotted the four about 7 a.m. Officers found three sets of footprints in the woods, heading in a wide semi-circle. Bloodhounds tracked the suspects to a swampy area.
From there, police spent the day searching a three-square-mile area.
Foster said he was concerned that, in a community where many people still don’t lock their doors, the four would find a vehicle with keys in the ignition or a house where they could hole up.
Instead, Foster would say later, the four must have followed a creek for about a mile-and-a-half through woods to the Lever Farm.
No guns were found on the four when they were taken into custody, Foster said; one said they had dropped them into a creek.
Lever – who acknowledged “I have a weapon with me most of the time” – said he was relieved the teenagers had been caught.
His wife, Lynette, a school nurse, said their 11-year-old daughter had been worried all day. Her school was locked and the children were not allowed outside.
The fifth-grader told her mother she got down on her knees in front of her whole class Thursday to pray for her daddy’s safety. “She said, ‘Mama, I didn’t care who saw me praying,’” Lynette Lever said.
“God heard that 11-year-old’s prayer.”