ROBESON COUNTY, NC (WMBF) - Imagine trying to raise your children in a community where, statistically, 123 young people per 100,000 die by violence every year. That's the reality in Robeson County, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina. It's a youth death rate that's more than double the rest of the state's rate. And we learned it's just the tip of the iceberg for Robeson County.
Robeson County, North Carolina is home to the Lumbee Tribe, the largest group of Native Americans east of the Mississippi, with a rich history that dates back more than 400 years.
Today it's a mixed community along the Lumber River with children and families, mostly working to stay afloat. In the last decade the rural county lost almost 9,000 manufacturing jobs. One third of the population lives below the poverty line.
What really plagues this community is its murder rate. Twenty-three people for every 100,000 will be murdered in the county, as compared to about seven per 100,000 statewide, according to Department of Justice Statistics.
"Last year I think we had 17 homicides and this year we've had 34," said Lt. Reggle Strickland, the lead detective in the Robeson County Sheriff's Offices' Homicide Division. Strickland, whose own sister and niece were murdered in the county back in 2009, has seen a lot.
In the fall of 2014, it seemed like Robeson County was on the news for murder almost every other day. Several murders took place in less than two weeks.
During a triple homicide, in a wooded swamp area behind McLoud Drive on November 30, 2014, the bodies of 43-year-old John Christopher Freeman, 34-year-old Teddy Ray Maynor, and 34-year-old Mitch Oxendine were found. Oxendine died at the hospital but not before telling police the three were robbed for marijuana. It was a drug deal gone wrong.
Police later arrested this guy 22-year-old Casey Collins Locklear for the crime and charged him with three counts of first degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon.
"I'd say there are about 60 cases we are working on actively," said Strickland.
During another outrageous murder in November of 2014, police say Billy Jackson bludgeoned his 75-year-old mother and 54-year-old brother to death with a knife. It was a double homicide that took place in the 2000 block of Highway 20 East.
"It was like a jealousy-type situation," Strickland said. "Gary had stayed away from the family for a bit and had recently returned."
Strickland says drugs, poverty, domestic violence, and gangs are all reasons why the murder rate in the county is so high. In 2012, there were 13 murders in the county. In 2013, there were 10 murders in the county. And the 2014, numbers by the Department of Justice haven't officially come out, but the sheriff's office says Robeson County saw 34 murders.
There's a group out of the University of North Carolina who is trying to attack the problem by targeting youth. Teen Court is a place where teens who have committed offenses less than a class A misdemeanor, like disorderly conduct, fighting or possession of marijuana, can get a second chance.
Thanks to a $6.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention created teen court along with a parenting program, and a program for middle school kids to deal with anger. The goal of these programs is to determine the cause of violence in the county and trying to put an end to it. Organizers believe focusing on youth is the key.
"I call it the snowball effect," said Shaun Barefoot, the Teen Court Coordinator. "You see something small and it starts with behaviors that parents may not take seriously, like taking something out of your purse, or taking a piece of candy that belongs to another child, but that behavior builds as you grow."
Fifteen year old Shyena Sampson recently attended her exit interview. She went through the program for a disorderly conduct charge for fighting. Sentenced to community service and seminars, among other things, Sampson says thanks to Teen Court, she'll think twice.
"Do I really want to get into trouble with a possible record on the line?" Sampson asked. "Naw, I don't want a bad record. I want to make it out of high school."
The program is now in its fifth year, and organizers are collecting and analyzing the data. They say it's difficult to know whether they're making a long-term difference but day-to-day, they see a change.
"We constantly get calls from school administrators and SRO's [school resource officers] who say they see a change after a couple of weeks, which is awesome," Barefoot said.
As for the entire Robeson Community, the sheriff says he's in the process of putting together a program involving local, state and federal law enforcement officials. The sheriff wouldn't go into detail, but says it's a program they plan to unveil sometime in February.
The office is anxious to get it going, but says ultimately it can't do it all, and to truly get a hold of the violence in Robeson County, it's going to take community involvement.
"Until the community gets involved, the government gets involved and local agencies and get programs setup to help keep youth off the streets and solve crimes, it's going to continue to get worse," Strickland said.
While this past fall was a particularly busy one for the homicide division, some hope did come for the community. The sheriff's office says while pounding the pavement trying to solve crimes, they managed to take 47 guns off the streets.