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‘It could have been anyone.’ USC students on edge after Samantha Josephson’s death

Messages of condolence pour in for Samantha Josephson family

University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson was reported missing Friday. On Saturday, Josephson’s father posted on Facebook that Samantha “is no longer with us but she will not be forgotten.” These are some of words that followed.
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University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson was reported missing Friday. On Saturday, Josephson’s father posted on Facebook that Samantha “is no longer with us but she will not be forgotten.” These are some of words that followed.

The University of South Carolina’s campus was noticeably tense on Monday as students returned to class one Gamecock short.

The news of Samantha Josephson’s death came so quickly overnight Saturday, some students said they didn’t know she had been missing.

Freshman Virginia Clyburn, 18, said she had five missed calls from her father and three from her sister on Saturday morning. She called her dad, and he told her what happened: Police had found the body of a 21-year-old USC senior who was on track to graduate in May and enter Drexel University law school in Philadelphia.

“It’s been scary,” Clyburn said.

Some students have decided to stay out of Five Points, a part of Columbia heavily patronized by students — and the place where Josephson was last seen getting into the back seat of a Chevrolet Impala.

“Some of my friends that normally go out, they’ve been on a hiatus,” said Tessa Cox, a sophomore from Myrtle Beach.

She said she doesn’t go to bars much, but she walks alone after dark sometimes. In the past, she’s tried to reassure herself that she’s safe by pointing to the well-lit paths and emergency “blue light” phones that dot campus. But fear lingers.

“It could still happen to me, going from one place to another,” she said.

Her professional sorority for women in STEM meets Sundays. She would usually walk home from that meeting by herself, but yesterday, she said, her friends wouldn’t let her.

Josephson’s death brought to the surface the uneasiness many women on campus had felt.

Rachel Payne, a junior majoring in experimental psychology, said she was already worried about her safety.

“I didn’t feel totally safe on campus, but now I feel even less so,” Payne said. “It’s really scary to be a woman, especially with this recent incident.”

Multiple students said they felt OK on campus, but feel less safe in Five Points.

“It’s hard because I work a block from there so it’s kind of scary because it could have been anyone,” said Ali Sherrill, a freshman public health major and hostess at the Five Points bar and restaurant Pawley’s Front Porch.

For Jackson Goins, a sophomore from Atlanta, the tragedy made him think of his girlfriend, who attends an out-of-town university, he said.

He asked her to stay with others when she’s out at night, he said, because danger can show up anywhere.

“People wouldn’t expect something like that to happen in Columbia,” he said.

Goins said when he’s been out in Five Points before, he followed “the buddy system,” but the inconspicuous nature of Josephson’s disappearance stood out to him when he watched surveillance footage in the news.

Josephson was surrounded by people, on a main street, and to onlookers she looked like she was just getting into an Uber, he said.

“It seems like such a regular thing,” Goins said.

According to police, Samantha Josephson was last seen by friends between 1:30 and 2 a.m. Friday at 715 Harden St. in Five Points. Surveillance photos provided by Columbia Police

And while the buddy system may sound easy in theory, it’s not always practical, said Natalie Elser, a sophomore studying criminal justice and psychology.

“Sometimes when I go to the airport, it’s just me,” Elser said. “I can’t always avoid getting in an Uber alone.”

Some USC women say they’ve already made efforts to be safe when going out, way before they heard about Josephson’s death.

Clyburn, who is from Charleston, said she and her friends regularly share their locations with one another, and say when they expect to be home from dates, nights out or other events. They try to stay in groups and be alert, as much as possible, Clyburn said, but nothing seems like enough.

“It’s really messed up that no matter the precautions we take, something really scary can happen,” she said.

Another student, senior China Massop, said she told her family she was considering getting a permit for a gun because she didn’t feel safe.

“I know I can be targeted,” she said.

As a young, black woman, she fears for her safety, but she said she also worries about backlash against black students after Josephson’s death. Once police named Nathaniel David Rowland, a 24-year-old black man, as a suspect, Massop said she heard about racist slurs and anti-black sentiment being shared on social media.

She said she used to go out in Five Points, but she doesn’t want to go back.

Over the weekend, with the news of Josephson’s alleged murder still in her mind, Clyburn said she looked through courses to register for next semester. When she came across a self-defense class for women, she said, it made her pause.

“I thought about it harder than I usually would,” she said.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.
Lucas Daprile has been covering the University of South Carolina and higher education since March 2018. Before working for The State, he graduated from Ohio University and worked as an investigative reporter at TCPalm in Stuart, FL. There, where he won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his political and environmental coverage.