On February 6, 2018, at just about an hour before midnight, 10 gunshots broke the silence of a suburban neighborhood off Leesburg Road in Lower Richland.
Three nights later, six shots rang out, and the next month another 10 to 25 bullets flew, all in reported drive-by shootings on the same street, the 100 block of Crestmore Drive. No one was reported injured, and police could never track down who fired the shots.
A man whose house is on the street told Richland County Sheriff’s Department deputies that he lived in fear of a stray bullet flying through his home and killing a family member.
In July 2018 in Rock Hill, nearly 75 miles from Crestmore Drive, a bullet broke through a window in a woman’s house after two groups shot at each other on the street where she lived; at least 47 bullets were fired. Police found the bullet casings and a baggie of crack cocaine on the ground. No one was reported injured.
In the first month of 2021, a shooter killed 16-year-old Ryan Knight in Hopkins. The next month, about 20 miles away, 19-year-old Raeneshia Nixon was gunned down in northeast Columbia while in her car with her infant child.
What links all these shootings is the weapon. The same 9mm gun has been connected to the six shootings with what appears to be at least four shooters. It’s unknown how the gun fell into the hands of criminals. But its travels show how an irresponsible initial owner and an illegally possessed gun can perpetuate crime and threaten innocent bystanders.
“Stolen firearms are used disproportionately in the commission of crimes,” said Acting U.S. Attorney for South Carolina M. Rhett DeHart.
The combination of stolen and illegally owned guns and crime is proving more potent than ever in Richland County, police reports show. In five years, shootings have increased as more and more guns have been sold and stolen, and a street level black market to peddle them has expanded.
The gun that killed two teenagers, one a new mother — and that shot through an innocent woman’s house in an apparent drug deal and saddled a man with fear for his family — is still on the streets, investigators said.
More stolen guns, more shootings
While that gun’s whereabouts are unknown to police, it is known that the gun proved fatal earlier this year when bullets from the firearm shot into Ryan Knight’s chest.
Residents living on the 2100 block of Horrell Hill Road called deputies about 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 7 after seeing a person pushed out of a car and hearing gun shots, according to police reports. When a deputy arrived, he found Ryan shot, lying on his back and bleeding out on the road.
After weeks of investigating, deputies determined Knight was shot during a drug deal that turned into a robbery. Deputies charged a 17-year-old with attempted armed robbery and 21-year-old Tyawn Antwan Martin of Columbia with murder and possessing a gun during a violent crime.
Knight was a typical teenager, according to his obituary. He was a skateboarder, played video games, rooted for the Steelers and worked on cars with his dad. His parents, six siblings, four grandparents and five dogs were going to greatly miss him, Knight’s obituary read. In a heartfelt remembrance, a neighbor recalled Knight hanging out at her house with her younger daughter, going to the pool and doing cannonballs.
“You had such a golden spirit,” she wrote.
The gun that extinguished the golden spirit was connected to Raeneshia Nixon’s shooting by bullet casings, according to police reports. After Knight and Nixon were shot, investigators found casings near the scenes and sent them to a lab that compares special characteristics of casings, which are distinct to a specific gun.
The casings found at Nixon’s shooting scene matched those at Knight’s shooting and the four shootings in 2018.
Deputies charged a 15-year-old with murder in Nixon’s death. Whether there’s a connection between the 15-year-old and Knight’s alleged shooter and how the gun changed hands is still under investigation, deputies said. No one has been arrested in the four 2018 shootings in Rock Hill and Lower Richland.
A connection between the shooters and shootings seems unlikely because of ages, dates, locations and the addresses of a suspect. What’s more probable is that the gun was illegally traded or stolen. After a gun is stolen or illegally possessed, it has a high chance of being used by a person willing to commit other crimes, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study published in 2019. The study found that 56% of almost 300,000 prisoners who were surveyed used a stolen or illegally traded gun during the crime that landed them in prison. In Richland County, it is not uncommon for police to find bullet casings fire from one gun at related or unrelated crime scenes, Sheriff Leon Lott said.
A “gun gets traded so many times and it ends up in shootings,” he said.
In the last five years, the likelihood of a gun being stolen has dramatically increased. The number of reported stolen guns in Richland County rose every year from 2017 to 2020.
From January to October 2021, 1,318 guns were reported stolen to the Columbia Police Department and Richland County Sheriff’s Department, according to data compiled by The State. That’s on pace to surpass the 1,343 reported stolen last year.
If the pace keeps up, Richland County gun thefts will have increased by about 37% since 2018.
With gun thefts peaking, so are shootings.
As of October, 48 people had been shot and killed in Richland County compared to 35 all of last year. Of the fatal shootings this year, nine were self-defense, according to deputies. By the same month, the county had 160 non-fatal shootings compared to 144 in 2020.
Given the current trajectory, Richland County will have set four-year highs for stolen guns and shootings by the end of December.
The numbers tell little of the human costs. The gun that was used in six crimes took the mother from an infant child.
‘It’s tough for us to continually see’
Raeneshia Nixon was a mother for one month before she was shot to death. Her social media accounts are filled with posts and pictures doting on her infant daughter, her “beautiful creation,” Nixon wrote in a post with a photograph of the sleeping child.
Nixon posted about her “li’ mamma” with a picture of her daughter on Feb. 4 at about 4:15 p.m. People commented that the baby looked like her mother. It would be Nixon’s last social media post.
About an hour later, while she was behind the wheel in a northeast Columbia neighborhood, a teenager fired into her vehicle, according to police. A bullet shattered her window and went into her torso near her heart. Her infant daughter, an 8-year-old and a 16-year-old were in the car as Raeneshia drove away and crashed, investigators said.
“She was genuine,” Reggie Nixon, Raeneshia’s father, said in a social media post. “She was an awesome mother for the brief time.”
By the next month, Richland County deputies had charged a 15-year-old with her shooting and the 16-year-old who was with Nixon with obstructing the investigation by lying to investigators, according to police.
On social media, Reggie Nixon said Raeneshia gave a person a ride and that the person had lied about the reason they needed the ride.
“We knew our child and we both know that if Raeneshia had any idea that her, not to mention her baby brother, whom she loved so much, and her child would be in danger, this ride would not have been obtained,” Reggie Nixon wrote.
Sheriff Lott said that the shooting stemmed from an illegal gun deal turned into a robbery.
The illegal gun trade begins, in part, with irresponsible gun owners.
Fueled by paranoia of gun restrictions under a new president, social unrest and the pandemic, Americans bought a record number of guns in 2020. South Carolinians contributed to the record. Brady United, an organization that, in part, tracks gun sales based on federal data, estimates that from 2019 to 2020, sales increased in South Carolina more than 74%. Gun enthusiast website RobarGuns.com says that 2020 hit a four year high for gun sales in South Carolina.
“People go out and buy guns who never had an intention to get one in the past,” Lott said. “They tend not to be a responsible gun owner.”
The influx of nascent gun owners who don’t properly secure their guns makes the work of gun thieves easier than ever.
Over the last three years, Lott and Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook have frequently pleaded with the public to lock up guns, use anti-theft and firing devices, and to remove guns from vehicles when not occupied.
But the message is falling on deaf ears. The majority of stolen guns in Richland County are taken out of cars by teenagers and young adults who ignore laptops and other valuable items and just grab guns, Lott said. Gun owners who leave a firearm in the car may actually be putting themselves at more risk of being shot. Gun thieves are usually carrying guns with them while they pop handles on vehicles. Homeowners who catch the thieves are sometimes shot at, Lott said, and stray bullets threaten everyone in a house.
The thefts are feeding a growing number of street deals in which the guns are traded for cash or other guns. In the last three years, this black market has been expanding in Richland County, Lott said. But an illegal gun deal doesn’t always end with a handshake. Bullets often end up flying. Street gun deals often turn into stickups and shootings, driving up murder charges and other crimes in Richland County, Lott said.
Keeping young people from stealing guns and ending up in coffins begins with responsible gun ownership, Lott was quick to say. Gun owners have to stop leaving firearms in their cars.
The Columbia Police Department, the sheriff’s department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of South Carolina have made a concerted effort to charge and convict people caught with stolen guns this year.
In 2021, the Columbia Division of the U.S. Attorney’s office has indicted or obtained convictions in nearly 100 cases involving firearms-related offenses, and many of those cases involved stolen weapons, DeHart, the Acting U.S. Attorney, said in a statement. While the Columbia Division represents counties throughout the Midlands, “Richland County is certainly a major focus of our Columbia Division’s prosecutive efforts.”
Police are also confiscating illegally owned guns as much as they can. The Columbia Police Department said in October that it took 631 guns off the streets in 2021.
Another part of the solution is educating children on staying away from guns and violence, Lott said, and that has to be taught not only by teachers and police officers but parents as well. In homes across Richland County, parents have to teach their children that guns do not give them power, that guns aren’t the solution, and that guns don’t make them stand out among their peers. Kids grow up in a culture in which gun ownership and shootings are glorified, from video games to music, Lott said.
“Everything’s centered around that gun and how much power it’s going to give,” he said. “That sells video games and that sells music but that don’t sell real life.”
“Your readers are going to read this article but they don’t see the pain of having to tell a mom that your 14-year-old child is dead because they got shot or that your 14-year-old child has shot and killed somebody with a gun and now they’re arrested,” Lott said. “When you have a shooting, not only are you losing the life of that young person who’s been shot and killed, but that young person who shot and killed them has essentially lost their life too. It’s tough for us to continually see.”