Crime & Courts

Woman’s bravery, high technology lead to accused home invader’s arrest

It took police a quick three days to make an arrest in a horrific, random home invasion in West Columbia last month. But now, some are wondering why the alleged assailant was out of jail in the first place.

The woman – police are calling her heroic – was shot numerous times while protecting her 6-year-old daughter from rape by the invader. But the woman managed to secure a vital clue toward the man’s identity. Then, detectives used modern crime-fighting technology – rapid DNA matches and cell-phone locating methods – to seal the ID of the man and track his location.

Nathaniel Hunter, 31, who was denied bail Wednesday in a Lexington County courtroom, has a record of arrests and convictions dating back to 2002 but has never been sentenced to prison.

“He’s the worst of the worst and should never get out of jail again,” said West Columbia Police Chief Dennis Tyndall.

The woman, facing death, fought back, even though the gunman was trying his best to kill her.

“She lifted his hoodie off his back during the scuffle as he was trying to escape, and he was shooting in the meantime,” Tyndall said.

Certainly, her maternal instinct kicked in, Tyndall said.

“You just protect your children with whatever you have, even if you don’t protect yourself,” he said. “Yes, she was brave, heroic, and she was going to fight, even if she had to die.”

Police have not released the woman’s name. In court Wednesday, prosecutor Suzanne Mayes said she would not reveal the woman’s name, either.

During the bond hearing, after hearing Mayes cited a lengthy list of Hunter’s crimes and alleged crimes, Circuit Judge William Keesley wasted little time in denying bond.

“I find that you pose a danger to the community,” Keesley ruled.

Mayes called Hunter a “predator” who stalks people. His charges from the April 14 home invasion – against a woman and child he didn’t know – are first-degree burglary, attempted child rape, attempted murder, kidnapping and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.

During the April 13 break-in, the intruder made the woman’s 6-year-old daughter hide in the closet, Mayes said. When the woman told him she was having a menstrual cycle, he announced he would rape the child, Mayes said.

“He pointed the gun at the child and made her take off her clothing, Mayes told the judge.

“When he did that, the mother lunged toward the defendant and he said, ‘I’m going to kill you’,” Mayes said.

During the struggle, the intruder fired at least five shots, and the woman was struck in the chest, hand, abdomen and upper chest, Mayes said.

The intruder fled. The bleeding woman and her child, both without clothes, made their way to a neighbor’s. The woman was taken to Palmetto Richland, where she remained in intensive care for several days. She is still recovering.

When detectives found the hoodie, they turned it over to the State Law Enforcement Division to see if the agency’s lab could get a match from a national DNA database. Tyndall called SLED, expressing concern that an intruder who struck at random might be a serial home invader who would strike again.

SLED Chief Mark Keel agreed to give the DNA search high priority. Within days, SLED had a confirmed match – that of Hunter.

Law enforcement then came up with Hunter’s cellphone and used cellphone location technology to find out where he was. SLED put its fugitive task force – agents who specialize in hunting wanted suspects – on the job. When Hunter was located three days after the attack, he hopped in a car and led agents on a high-speed chase on Interstate 77 before he was caught.

Hunter’s record includes:

•  A 2003 Richland County conviction for possessing burglary tools. He was given a suspended sentence.

•  A 2004 arrest for destruction of property. Those charges weren’t resolved.

•  A 2006 Columbia Police Department arrest for criminal domestic violence. There was no resolution to that charge.

•  A 2007 arrest in Fairfield County for murder, possession of burglary tools and possession of a weapon during a violent crime. Those charges are pending, and Hunter was out on a $16,666 bond in that case at the time of the home invasion in West Columbia.

•  A 2010 arrest in Lexington County for committing a lewd act on a child and indecent exposure. He pleaded guilty to indecent exposure and was given a suspended sentence.

•  A 2013 arrest in Richland County for indecent exposure. At the time of the home invasion, he was out on a $5,000 bond.

“We consider him to be an extreme danger to the community and a flight risk. He is facing life in prison,” Mayes told Keesley.

Hunter’s lawyer, Dayne Phillips, told Keesley that Hunter has family in the community and has always shown up on time for prior court appearances. As for the Fairfield charges, that case is a circumstantial case and there’s not enough evidence to bring it to trial, Phillips argued.

Phillips said Hunter has a work-study job at Midlands Technical College.

However, a Midlands Technical College official said later Wednesday that Hunter is not a student at the college. He did work there in a low-level student recycling job from May 2011 to July 2013. Background checks are not required for such low-level, part-time jobs.

“I think he’s entitled to get a reasonable bond,” Phillips said.

Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield told The State newspaper the Fairfield murder case has “factual and legal issues” that prevent it from being brought to trial. He declined to elaborate but said he hoped it would be resolved soon.

During much of the hearing, Hunter – shackled in so many chains they jingled when he walked – hid his face from photographers with a piece of paper and said little.