GAFFNEY — A teenage girl on Saturday became the fifth victim of a suspected serial killer terrorizing this small S.C. town, further darkening a day planned for celebrations.
Abby Tyler, 15, died about 11:15 a.m. at a Spartanburg hospital after fighting for her life for two days, Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler said.
She was wounded and her father was killed Thursday as they worked to close the family’s furniture and appliance store near downtown Gaffney.
“A lot of (people) are bad scared. They’re keeping their doors locked,” said Ed Bolton, who sells fireworks from a trailer on S.C. 11 near Gaffney.
He said customers are subdued and more consumed with talk of the killings — and the killer at-large — than they were with July 4th festivities.
Investigators released few new details about the case Saturday, readying for a long night of responding to calls from people who mistake fireworks for the sound of gunshots.
Authorities told The Associated Press they can’t afford to let any lead in the case slip by.
“Every tip that comes in, we are sending out investigators and following any lead,” Gaffney Police Chief Rick Turner said at a news conference Saturday.
In addition to the Tylers, an 83-year-old mother and her daughter were shot to death Wednesday, and a 63-year-old peach farmer was found dead at his home a week ago.
County Sheriff Bill Blanton said investigators believe the killings are linked, and the search is on for a man is in his 40s, with salt and pepper hair, about 6-foot-2, and roughly 200 pounds.
Blanton said all the victims were shot, but he would not say how the deaths were linked. The shootings all occurred within about 10 miles of each other.
On Saturday, police cruisers filled the streets, as officers from across the state descended on the rural county of 54,000 people set amid peach orchards and farms.
Police set up checkpoints throughout the county and stopped any vehicle that looked remotely like the silver 1991 to 1994 model Ford Explorer that authorities believe the killer is driving.
Hundreds of officers are on the case, working as hard as they can even though they are physically drained, Turner told the AP.
“Some have been out here for well over 24, 48 hours, maybe even longer than that, with very little cat naps here and there,” Turner said.
Some residents canceled Independence Day holiday plans, and some were arming themselves. The sheriff has warned door-to-door salesmen to stop knocking and anyone who breaks down on the county’s rural roads to wait instead of walking to a house for help because he worries “people are going to start shooting at shadows.”
Wendy Phillips was afraid to go to work Saturday at Hardees, where she works the counter. When she got there, she was greeted by a poster on the door with a sketch of the killer, offering a reward.
“When I came to work I was a nervous wreck. I was shaking,” said Phillips, 33, who had been an elementary school student of Gena Parker, one of the killer’s victim.
Phillips wondered if she had served the man food — and worried that she still might.
The killings began a week ago Saturday when the wife of 63-year-old peach farmer Kline Cash found him dead in their home. Then last Wednesday, relatives found 83-year-old Hazel Linder and her 50-year-old daughter, Gena Linder Parker, bound and shot to death in a separate shooting at Linder’s home.
Dozens of local, state and federal investigators were assigned to the case. But a day later, the killer struck again, less than a half-mile from the sheriff’s office serving as the headquarters for the investigation, killing 48-year-old Stephen Tyler and mortally wounding his daughter.
Abby Tyler’s death heightened the mourning in Cherokee County. She would have been a junior at Gaffney High School.
Friends and relatives gathered Saturday at the Tylers’ home, a brick ranch in an affluent section east of Gaffney.
“The family is hurting,” said Ashley Wilson, 20, an acquaintance of Abby’s.
She described Abby as a nice girl: “She went to church and everything. She had a good life.”
The killings have also sparked anger. One man said he had a surprise for the killer: “It’s got a bang but it’s not a firecracker.”
Mostly though, people just want the killer caught.
“We’re knee-deep in the investigation,” Blanton said. “There’s fear and concern here and there should be concern.”
The Associated Press contributed. Wootson is a staff writer for the Charlotte Observer.