A 24-hour journey gives glimpse into who we are as Myrtle Beach
More than 4 million people saw a dark side to Myrtle Beach after a mass shooting that injured seven on Ocean Boulevard was caught in a viral Facebook Live video on Father’s Day. But that wasn’t the only shooting that weekend. There were five others within a three-day span.
In this year alone, there have been at least 20 shootings throughout the city, with guns being fired near a school, in neighborhoods, in a car a mile away from the police department, at oceanfront resorts, outside a crowded mall and in the heart of the city’s tourism district.
More than half of the calls ended without injury, but the one that ended with the most injuries seemed to catch the world’s attention, catapulting the tourism-dependent city of Myrtle Beach into crisis mode.
“It’s such a beautiful area and it’s really been known as a safe, happy family place. It’s a shame it turns into that (shooting) and it ends up on national news,” Myrtle Beach resident Louise Graves said after finishing a prayer walk downtown Saturday morning.
A group of about 30 parishioners, hailing from different churches and denominations, walked the boardwalk Saturday morning to the site of the mass shooting at Fourth Avenue North and Ocean Boulevard. There, they prayed.
They prayed for healing.
They prayed for peace.
“We’re fighting for our city, fighting for our families. We want this to be a home beach, really, where families can come and feel safe,” Graves said.
Twenty-four hours earlier, local house-flipper Dan Oliver paused to ponder the question of who Myrtle Beach is as he worked to restore an 80-year-old home that withstood hurricanes Hugo, Hazel, Floyd and Fran before crumbling under the inescapable pressure of time.
The Carolina Forest resident settled on this assessment: Myrtle Beach “is a bunch of fun-loving people that love the beach and love having family and friends down. … They want a nice, safe place to enjoy,” Oliver said. “I don’t know if that’s what we are at the moment, but I think that’s what homeowners want it to be.”
Are we a “family-friendly” beach town?
“I think … in most places and most cases, yes. I think the majority of the experience here are family-friendly experiences,” said Myrtle Beach city Manager John Pedersen. “There are, obviously, some places … where we aren’t where we want to be with that. That’s what I believe we have to work on, and sometimes, experiences that take place that aren’t family friendly taint the entire city.”
The news that “tainted” the city went national, but some say that violent crime here isn’t new.
Asked if downtown is still “family friendly,” Egerton Burroughs said, “I know it’s not.” Burroughs is a longtime member of Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc., a development firm that helped build Myrtle Beach into a resort destination. Over the last 70 years, he’s seen the city change, especially downtown.
“You don’t go down there at night, the boardwalk and different places,” said Burroughs, who started working at the beach at age 14 and spent several years chairing the Burroughs & Chapin board. Years ago, the atmosphere was different, he added.
The way we were
“Downtown used to be a family-friendly place,” Burroughs said.
But he noticed a change when Myrtle Beach Air Force Base closed in 1993, he said.
“When the air base closed, there was a great panic in the city and everywhere about all these jobs that were gonna be lost and what’s gonna happen out at the air base,” Burroughs said. “I think naturally, the city of Myrtle Beach focused greatly on that crisis, which everybody did. It was traumatic times. Thousands of people left and jobs were very hard” to find.
With all eyes turned to the empty Air Force base, a new element began to creep into downtown.
“There was not as much police protection. There was not as much emphasis on people keeping their buildings and things up. The focus was elsewhere,” Burroughs said.
Some of the mom-and-pop hotels that lined the strip left. Buildings were vacated and fell into disrepair.
“Things weren’t good, and it got to be a rougher crowd, rougher stores,” Burroughs said.
Drugs and crime became a problem, then — much like today.
“Horry County had the highest crime rate in South Carolina in 1998, 80 percent above the statewide average,” wrote Will Moredock, a former columnist for the Charleston City Paper, in his 2003 book, “Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.”
The county counted 486 violent crimes that year, including 10 murders or manslaughters, and 4,667 property crimes, according to Uniform Crime Report figures reported to the FBI. In 2014, the county had 875 violent crimes, including 16 murders or manslaughters, and 7,103 property crimes.
But the county had more than doubled in its permanent population during that time period. The city of Myrtle Beach swelled by more than a third of its base residents.
But in Myrtle Beach, the same numbers dropped from 431 violent crimes in 1998 to 427 violent crimes in 2014 and 5,178 property crimes in 1998 to 4,744 in 2014. Cases of murder, however, rose from four in 1998 to eight in 2014.
“Ten years before [the Myrtle Beach Pavilion amusement park closed in 2006], the business started changing. The families were leaving downtown, and the business — the family business dropped off every year, and a rougher crowd kept going down there,” Burroughs said. “It changed, and it didn’t happen last week. This was years ago.”
Burroughs spoke to The Sun News while on vacation in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, where he said he could view news from Virginia, North Carolina and The Volunteer State. He said all three news markets were reporting on recent violence in Myrtle Beach, the gang activity that police have tied to the mass shooting and the city’s response in putting up barricades on Ocean Boulevard.
“This is going on almost every night up here on the television on news channels,” he said, adding that those states have been big drivers for tourism in Myrtle Beach in the past. “I could hear them now, they’re going other places.”
“People find out you’re from Myrtle Beach, they say, ‘Is it as bad as we hear on TV? Is it really that rough and dangerous?’ It’s very real,” Burroughs said. “It’s real to people out of town.”
Brad Dean, the CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, stood before city council during a packed June 20 meeting with a message of hope, but caution after the recent shootings.
“No amount of paid advertisement will overcome the amount of publicity we’ve had in the last couple of days,” Dean said. “I can message safety a lot better than I can message mayhem.”
The city responded to public uproar after the shootings by putting up barricades and increasing police presence on Ocean Boulevard.
After the fifth of six shootings from that weekend were reported, Gov. Henry McMaster announced a visit and pledged more support from the state.
And some city leaders began social media campaigns of their own, sharing images from tourists having a good time in Myrtle Beach.
“If you have to pick one word that describes the Myrtle Beach experience, it’s ‘fun,’ ” Dean said. “Now, different people have different definitions of fun, right? … On occasion we have visitors who their definition of fun exceeds the acceptable standards of behavior for the community and we’ve seen that for Memorial Day weekend, Bikefest, where some visitors come prepared to have their definition of fun, but not necessarily be respectful to the community.”
Three people died and seven were injured in eight shootings at hotels on Ocean Boulevard during the 2014 Memorial Day weekend, prompting then-Gov. Nikki Haley to call for an end to Bikefest. Grand Strand officials put several measures in place to try to curb the violence from that year, such as a 23-mile traffic loop, extra police presence and pedestrian barricades along the boulevard.
This year’s Bikefest was markedly different with no shootings reported on the boulevard and very little crime, unlike Easter week, when seven shootings were reported in five days or Father’s Day weekend with six shootings in three days. The weeks coincided with spring break and Senior Week for many schools.
“We welcome everyone to our city. We want people to come to the city of Myrtle Beach and act the way they need to act, not act as criminals,” said Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes. “We don’t want criminals coming to our city!”
City leaders have been quick to assert that most of the violence stems from a bad element invading the city from elsewhere. The June 18 mass shooting on Ocean Boulevard was committed by a 17-year-old male associated with “gang activity” from North Carolina, police said.
Former City Manager Tom Leath said he did not remember a prevalence of gun crimes earlier in his tenure leading the city administration.
“The city has changed inasmuch as society has changed. I don’t think that we’re any worse or any better than society as a whole,” said Leath, who started working with the city in 1985 and left his role to Pedersen in 2015. “(Visitors) come from all over, and they’re sort of a mixture of society and whatever ills society has, those visitors bring. Whatever positives society has, those visitors bring with them.”
But four of five suspects from shootings over Father’s Day weekend were from Myrtle Beach.
Who are we … really?
Ask 30 different people who Myrtle Beach is and you’ll get 30 different answers.
To Steven Mitulski, who moved here from the small town of Union City, Pennsylvania 10 months ago, Myrtle Beach is a melting pot of people who span the globe, but one way or another end up here — if only for a short stay.
To 18-year-old Christian Brinker, who came here on vacation two years ago and decided not to leave, the city has shown itself to be a proving ground of sorts.
“You come to the beach, you either make it big or you get dropped down to the bottom, to your lowest point,” said Brinker, originally of Reidsville, N.C. His father hit bottom after he came to Myrtle Beach and left with a drug addiction, he said. “But I ain’t falling. I ain’t going down.”
To Kesia Sams, Mike Underwood, Felicia Fleeman and Norman Underwood, of Tennessee, Myrtle Beach was a place to build their first sand castle (that resembled more of a giant ant hill) as the rising sun broke through the clouds around 6 a.m. Saturday.
To 20-year-old Milica (pronounced Melita) Vemic, a J-1 visa student from Montenegro who was working an Italian Ice stand on the boardwalk Friday night, the people she’s met in her first stop in America at Myrtle Beach appear kind and generous.
To Robyn Williams and her two little ones vacationing from Greenwood, S.C., Myrtle Beach was all about Family Kingdom on Friday night — the laughter, the thrills, the fun.
To Dennis Caruso, who moved to Socastee in 2005 and decided to take up pier fishing last year, Myrtle Beach is a piece of paradise.
“This is the best place on earth. That’s why I moved here,” the Connecticut native said.
And to the dozens of people that showed up to pray for Myrtle Beach on Saturday morning, this is home. In all its color and its character, this is a home a community seems determined to save.