Crime & Courts

Sheriff Lott declaring war on gangs, ‘punks with guns’ and ‘street justice’

Violent gang activity is on the rise in Richland County, Sheriff Leon Lott said Monday.

“We’re declaring war on gangs,” Lott said. “We’re going to come after them.”

There are some 800 gang members in Richland County, and just about all of them either have guns or access to guns, Lott said.

“There are just a bunch of punks out there with guns not caring who they shoot,” Lott said. Motives for such shootings include gang members feeling disrespected or believing another gang member “snitched” on them, he said.

“They all got guns, and they’re stupid. They don’t realize what happens you pull that gun out and start shooting.”

The sheriff, speaking at a news conference, said a gang member was charged late last week with murder in the shooting death of Khalil Harris, 21, of the Columbia area.

Marcel Thompson, 22, is now in the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center behind held without bond. Thompson is accused of shooting Harris “six times in different areas of his body with a handgun,” a warrant in the case said. Thompson is then accused of fleeing in a gold Camry, the warrant said.

Harris was shot to death in response to a July incident July in Newberry, in which two gang members from Columbia were killed, two were arrested and a fifth gang member took his own life, Lott said.

As is his custom, Lott refused to name the gang in the most recent Columbia shooting, or in the Newberry incident, saying he didn’t want to give it publicity.

However, the Bloods gang is usually cited in gang violence in the Columbia area. In the 2013 shooting of University of South Carolina student Martha Childress, Micheal Juan “Flame” Smith was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Childress, an innocent bystander, was paralyzed for life.

In September, Smith, a Columbia man identified as a Bloods gang member by police in court, was sentenced to 40 years by a Circuit Court judge after being found guilty by a Richland County jury. Smith said during trial he was shooting on a crowded Five Points street because someone else was shooting at him.

“Retaliation shootings are something we have to put a stop to,” Lott said. These include shootings in the house, shooting at a home, shooting at a car, shooting at people in the street, he said.

The sheriff said often, when his deputies investigate a shooting, the victim will say, “We’re not going to tell you anything. ... They say, ‘I’ll take care of it myself.’ ”

Lott and 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson are exploring ways to bring criminal charges against shooting victims who refuse to cooperate with law enforcement.

“We can’t have street justice,” Lott said. “That means, if you are a victim of a shooting and you’re in the hospital, when you get out of the hospital, you’re going to jail if you refuse to cooperate with us.”

Johnson declined specific comment other than to say he and Lott frequently work together on crime issues, “including discussion regarding probable cause and gang violence.”

Another tactic Lott said is that his department is asking gang members to inform on other gangs’ members.

“If you got problem with someone, fill this out, sending in the information,” said Lott, holding a piece of paper designed to make it easy to snitch on other gangs’ members. “Turn in a rival.”

Lott said, “When you get involved with gangs, either one of two things are going to happen – you are going to end of up in jail, or you’re going to end up in the cemetery.”