NORTH CHARLESTON — Indiscriminate gunfire briefly turned baseball diamonds into battlefields the night of April 25, causing children and parents to huddle in dugouts and belly-crawl across the field seeking safety. 

A parent’s video of the terrifying moments soon spread across social media, drawing outrage and condemnation from community members and galvanizing local, state and national leaders. 

No one was injured in the shooting, but the nearly minute-long video of children seeking cover amid crackling gunfire at Pepperhill Park became another grim example of the way gun violence has disrupted the everyday lives of South Carolinians in recent weeks. From mass shootings to isolated homicides, the bloodshed has spread through nearly every corner of the state. 

The shooting also reignited a long-simmering debate over the proper balance between public safety and civil rights in North Charleston. The state’s third-largest city has long struggled with violent crime and is on pace to record another record year of homicides. Eleven people have been slain in the first four months of this year. 

North Charleston police officials said three guns were recovered after the Pepperhill Park shooting, but no arrests were announced April 26. Witnesses told police a brawl involving several teens in the parking lot led to the shooting. 

At a press conference, Mayor Keith Summey announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of suspects involved in the crime. He said police officers would be patrolling parks during future children’s events to help calm the community. 

Assistant Police Chief Greg Gomes said the department would need the community’s help bringing the shooters to justice, saying the video from the baseball game showed the seriousness of the crimes.

“If that doesn’t pull at everyone’s heartstrings, I don’t know what will.” 

Chaos on the field

North Charleston police officers were dispatched around 8:45 p.m. to the park at 7695 Brandywine Road in reference to shots fired, spokesman Harve Jacobs said. The park, located in a residential neighborhood on the city’s north side, was hosting several youth baseball games at the time. 

Lori Ferguson captured the gunfire on video as she filmed her 8-year-old son, Sylas, on the pitching mound. Rapid-fire gunshots can be heard as kids on the baseball field look around, startled, before ducking and running.

“I thought, ‘Well, God, why is somebody setting off fireworks right now,’” she recalled. “And then all of a sudden, it was the Fourth of July. Boom, boom, boom, boom.”

An officer was traveling on nearby Palmetto Commerce Parkway when he heard about 20 rapid gunshots coming from the field, according to an incident report.

“It sounded like it was the Fourth of July,” Lori Ferguson, pictured with her children Kyser Ledbetter, 5, and Sylas Ledbetter, 8, said at their mattress store in Mount Pleasant while speaking about the Pepperhill Park shooting that occurred during a youth baseball game on April 25, 2022, in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Ferguson saw sparks in the distance as bullets collided with metal. She frantically scanned the park to find two of her other children — one who was on her way to the bathroom, another who was off playing with a friend.

“You just scramble as fast as you can to make sure everybody is safe, but you don’t know which way (the gunfire) is coming from,” Ferguson said. “And I just see Sylas in the pitching mound, laying on the ground, wondering what the heck to do.”

She remembers feeling completely helpless.

Children and coaches belly-crawled from the field while others huddled in a dugout. A boy in the batter’s box lingered at home plate, seemingly confused by the gunfire, while the catcher fled toward the dugout. The third-base coach signaled for players around him to lie down. 

The shooting lasted for approximately 34 seconds. 

Witnesses told officers a group of teens in several vehicles had pulled into the parking lot and begun  fist-fighting, the report states. The suspects then started shooting at each other before fleeing the area.

The incident had nothing to do with the park, youth athletes, parents or coaches, said North Charleston Police Department spokesman Harve Jacobs. He described the shooting as a “heinous and reckless act.”

“We will leave no stone unturned in bringing these suspects to justice,” he added.

Detectives at the scene interviewed one “subject” who arrived in a white Toyota Highlander. They searched the Toyota and a red Ford Focus, the report states.

At the press conference, Gomes said officers found a gun in a vehicle in the parking lot. Two more guns were found near the park, seemingly discarded by the combatants as they fled the area. 

Investigators will conduct ballistic tests to determine whether the guns matched shell casings found at the scene. They’re also trying to recover DNA samples from the weapons, Gomes said.

At least three cars in the parking lot were damaged by gunfire, he added.

Bullet holes are seen in a Nissan Murano in the parking lot of Pepperhill Park, where a shooting occurred during a youth baseball game the night of April 25, 2022, in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Ferguson, who didn’t get a good look at the shooters, was on the ground for about 10 minutes shielding her 3-month-old son until an official from the city’s Recreation Department told her it was safe to leave.

As her family ran to their car, Ferguson wondered why she couldn’t hear police lights or see sirens. She saw officers at the end of the parking lot, putting up yellow crime scene tape. But no one came to check on them, Ferguson said.

“I just was confused as to why my kids wondered where the police were to help them,” she said.

The city responds

Nikki Shealy’s 10-year-old son was on the field when the gunfire began. Shealy, who was not at the game, got an alarming text from her husband: “We just survived a mass shootout. We’re all OK.” 

Games at Pepperhill were canceled for April 26 and April 27. Shealy and Ferguson said they didn’t feel safe bringing their kids back to the park.

“I’m so shaken,” Shealy said. “A lot of parents are shaken.”

North Charleston police officers responded to the parking lot at Pepperhill Park at 8:44 p.m. April 25, 2022, in response to shots fired. Witnesses indicated that multiple vehicles pulled into the parking lot, where a fight took place, followed by gunshots. Several youth baseball games were underway at the time and no injuries were reported. Brad Nettles/Staff

TJ Rostin, director of the city’s Recreation Department, said he understands folks’ fears. His staff is meeting with police officials to develop a safety plan for the parks and playgrounds.

The plan will be distributed through social media and the department’s email list once it’s finalized, Rostin said.

The Police Department is working with the Dee Norton Children’s Advocacy Center to provide the affected children, parents, coaches and volunteers with “resources necessary to assist them in dealing with such a traumatic event,” Jacobs said.

Police officers will be patrolling the city’s parks during future children’s sporting events — part of a renewed effort for a more “proactive” approach to policing, Summey said at the news conference.

The mayor claimed at the press conference that gun violence was rising because officers haven’t been conducting pretextual traffic stops, a controversial practice where officers use, for instance, a broken taillight as an excuse to stop and search a vehicle for illegal items, such as firearms. 

How to help children with trauma

The Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center released information April 26 for how children and families can address trauma in light of several high-profile shootings in the Palmetto State.

Shootings and other violent acts can disrupt a child’s sense of safety and cause sadness, grief, helplessness, anxiety and anger, the North Charleston resource center said.

The center offered the following guidelines:

Start with yourself. Talk with your loved ones and other adult relatives and friends about how you are doing and focus on what you and others in the community are doing to keep your children safe.

Begin the conversation. Talk about the shooting with your child. Avoiding the conversation can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Listen carefully; try to understand how your child remembers the event and how they are feeling.

Maintain an open conversation. Encourage your child to ask questions and answer those questions directly. You might not know all the answers and it is ok to say that. Let them know you are available to talk when they are ready.

Help children feel safe. Traumatic events can disrupt a child’s sense of safety. Assure them you and other adults in the community are doing everything you can to keep them safe.

Limit media exposure. Limit your child’s exposure to media images and sounds of the shooting, and do not allow your very young children to see or hear any TV/radio, or social media shooting-related messages.

Monitor for possible reactions. In the immediate aftermath of dangerous events—even when children did not experience them themselves — they may have challenges with paying attention and concentrating. They may become irritable or defiant. Children and even teens may have trouble separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at home or close by them.

Seek professional help. The Charleston community has excellent resources, including the National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center, which operates a Crisis Text Line that offers free 24/7 support for individuals struggling with emotional crises. Text the message “COPE” to 741-741 to speak with someone now.

The city employed the stops and other strategies after a surge in gun violence landed North Charleston in the early 2000s on a list the nation’s most dangerous cities for three years running. The tactics quelled crime but also brought complaints of racial profiling and unfair treatment of minorities — particularly of young, black men. 

These methods drew even harsher criticism after the April 2015 death of Walter Scott. The 50-year-old Black man was fatally shot by Michael Slager, a White North Charleston police officer, after he fled on foot following a traffic stop over a busted brake light.

Black community members said during listening sessions for a race-bias audit of the North Charleston Police Department that they were being unfairly targeted by police officers who conducted the stops. Some residents said they were stopped simply because of the neighborhood they were in, or the car they were driving. 

Summey maintained that pulling over cars isn’t considered “profiling” if the vehicle is “breaking the law.” 

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor supported bringing back the practice. 

“We support law enforcement,” he said at a news conference. “We support whatever they need to do to cut down on the violence.”

Local, state and national leaders weigh in

In response to the shooting, local leaders decried the “revolving door” of the criminal justice system.

City Councilman Jerome Heyward spoke at an April 26 news conference, criticizing judges for granting bail to offenders who are a “danger to our community.”

“The judges have that option — just deny them bond and let them sit (in jail). It’s more important to put them back out here with us?” Heyward inquired.

Pryor agreed, saying he’d personally call each magistrate judge to “find out why they are setting these bonds so low for these repeat criminals.”

The state constitution bars judges from denying bail for defendants, except when they are charged with certain violent crimes, including murder, first-degree burglary and certain drug-related offenses. 

Jonathan Thrower speaks with other community members about gun violence in the North Charleston area at the community resource center on April 26, 2022. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The shooting has drawn national attention. Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton rebuked Republican state officials on Twitter for not doing more to address gun violence.

“Republican state legislators and governors could be a part of the solution to stop gun violence,” the former first lady said. “But they’d rather sell out children’s safety for campaign contributions from the gun lobby.”

Former congressman and Democratic candidate for governor Joe Cunningham echoed Clinton’s criticisms.

“Instead of implementing common-sense reforms that are nearly universally supported, South Carolina’s leaders instead focus on bulls*** culture wars and nonexistent threats, all while our children and their parents live in fear of gun violence at something as innocent as a Dixie Youth baseball game,” he said.

Gov. Henry McMaster said in a tweet he stood with Sen. Dick Harpootlian and other state legislators who’ve proposed no bonds and mandatory minimum sentences in circuit court for illegal gun possession.

“Send me these reforms and I will sign them into law,” the governor said. “Law enforcement needs help keeping illegal, stolen guns out of the hands of juveniles and criminals.”

The latest in a worrisome trend

Monday night’s shooting was part of a worrisome pattern of high-profile incidents of community gun violence that have rattled residents of the Palmetto State.

A 12-year-old boy was shot and killed by a classmate March 31 at Tanglewood Middle School in Greenville County. 

On April 16, nine people were shot and six others injured as patrons fled a shootout at Columbiana Centre, a bustling shopping center in Columbia. The following Easter day, an early-morning shooting at a club in Hampton County left another nine people injured. 

In the Pee Dee city of Florence, the mayor pleaded April 25 for people to place their trust in law enforcement after a weekend of gun violence left four people dead.

Gun violence has been rising nationally, contributing to a spike in homicides in America’s urban areas. It’s a particularly worrisome trend in North Charleston, a city that has struggled for years to curb the bloodshed amid gang warfare and drug trafficking. 

The city’s Police Department recorded 97 people shot in 2017 compared with 120 victims last year — a 24 percent increase in shootings.

Aggravated assaults involving firearms, a catch-all category for crimes that involve guns but may not end in a shooting, rose 82 percent during that period, from 247 offenses in 2017 to 451 last year.

The city tallied 36 homicides in 2021, the highest death toll in years.

North Charleston police officers have already reported 11 homicides this year. Thirteen total killings have been recorded across Charleston County.

North Charleston police most recently responded to a fatal shooting April 24 at a home in the Dorchester Terrace neighborhood.

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office identified the victims on April 26 as 16-year-old Kay’sean Jones and 19-year-old Elijah Jefferson.

The North Charleston residents both died from gunshot wounds. Police are investigating their deaths as homicides.