Teen shootings stain Savannah’s renown for Southern charm
Wayne Edwards had music on the radio and two girls in the back seat when he pulled to the curb to pick up a friend wanting a ride to a Saturday night party.
But another teenager outside the cinderblock home where Edwards’ car stopped wasn’t happy to see him. They had a tense encounter, possibly involving threats, on the street a week earlier. Now they swapped words again through the car window. Then the teen raised a handgun and fired five shots at Edwards as he sat behind the wheel.
Edwards, 17, took a single bullet in the back. When police arrived, he was dead from rapid blood loss.
“It’s still hard after three years,” said Wayne Blige, the father of the teenager slain on Aug. 16, 2014. “You know what happened, but you still don’t know why.”
Edwards wasn’t killed for money or shot over drugs. The evidence pointed to violence sparked by tough talk and bluster. In Savannah, a tourism magnet known for Southern charm, his death becomes part of a larger, bloody statistic: Teens here are killed or injured by gun violence at rates far higher than most other cities.
“Juvenile violent crime is off the charts,” James Durham, the acting U.S. attorney based in Savannah, said during a recent community meeting on crime.
An Associated Press analysis of cases compiled by the Gun Violence Archive found 57 Savannah teens injured or killed by guns from January 2014 through June of this year. With the exception of Chicago, the analysis showed that the rate of teenage gun violence in smaller- and mid-sized cities such as Savannah, Syracuse, New York, or Wilmington, Delaware, is much higher than in the nation’s most populous cities.
The Gun Violence Archive gathers its data from media and police reports, making it difficult to directly compare any two cities. But Savannah more than stood out when using the nonprofit’s numbers to calculate teen shooting rates. Savannah’s rate was more than double those for the vast majority of U.S. cities with 50,000 or more people.
“It’s getting worse,” said Barbara O’Neal, who started the group Mothers of Murdered Sons in Savannah after her son, 20-year-old Alan O’Neal Jr., was shot dead in a 2011 robbery attempt. “They’re still shooting. And they still don’t care.”
It’s a side of Savannah rarely noticed by the 13 million visitors each year who make this coastal city of 146,000 one of Georgia’s top travel destinations. Lured by Savannah’s time-capsule collection of antebellum homes and manicured public squares, tourists spent an estimated $2.8 billion here last year.
Beyond the picturesque 2 square miles of Savannah’s downtown historic district, the scenery gives way to neighborhoods reeling from poverty. Daniel Lockwood found homicides and aggravated assaults clustered in areas flanking the historic district when he mapped Savannah crime by census block for a 2007 research paper.
Lockwood, a retired professor of criminal justice at Savannah State University, said crimes occurred on “practically the same streets, the same blocks” year after year.
Most Savannah shootings involve victims or suspects age 20 or younger, with guns often used to settle personal arguments, said Savannah-Chatham County police Capt. Lenny Gunther. Many feuds begin on social media.
“It goes from the laptop or the phone to a shootout in the street,” Gunther said.
This summer, the violence spilled into Savannah’s tourist-friendly historic district a few hours after crowds turned out for Fourth of July fireworks. Gunfire from a slow-moving SUV wounded three people near a sidewalk bench shortly after midnight. Bystanders scrambled for cover.
Fleeing police, the SUV slammed into pedestrians crossing a street — injuring five — and crashed into a light pole. Two passengers in the vehicle died, as did a pedestrian, 30-year-old Scott Waldrup, who worked as general manager of an upscale downtown restaurant.
Police identified the driver as 17-year-old Jerry Chambers Jr. A year earlier, Chambers had been charged in a robbery and shooting outside a local mall, but he was acquitted in juvenile court. Now he’s charged with murder.
“I don’t think people feel secure about coming downtown right now because I don’t think they know how this happened,” said Melissa Swanson, who owns The Rail Pub not far from the July 5 shooting scene.
Several groups in Savannah are trying to intervene. Youth Intercept, overseen by the local district attorney, dispatches volunteers to the emergency room to meet patients being treated for gunshot wounds. Young victims are offered assistance with medical bills and other services such as mentoring programs or GED classes.
Youth Intercept director Sheryl Sams says the organization has its share of successes — roughly 75 young people who have graduated from the program since 2010. But she estimates only about one-in-three young victims accepts any help.
“We have a kid who’s been shot three times and his mom finally tried to enroll him, but she hasn’t done all the follow through,” Sams said, adding the mother and son stopped answering phone calls and knocks at their door. “He’s 14 now and he’s been shot three times. To them it’s a way of life.”
In a sign of hope that the intervention programs may be having an effect, Savannah went 49 days without a homicide in March and April. It was the longest stretch between killings in two years.
Others saw the recent drive-by shooting and fatal crash downtown as a stinging setback.
“When people are being shot in the middle of the business district downtown, there is no clearer message that something is not working,” said Karen Guinn, president of Savannah’s Downtown Business Association.
Beverly Trotter’s grassroots organization, Youth City Savannah, has no office space. She can’t afford it, and she tends to stay on the move. Trotter tries to divert teens from crime and violence by giving them better things to do.
She arranges rides to the library and odd jobs mowing lawns or unloading moving trucks. Sundays are reserved for group trips to church. Recently she scored 25 teens a free scuba-diving lesson.
In August 2014, a new face turned up at one of Trotter’s gatherings. It was Wayne Edwards, a few days before he was killed.
“I just wanted him to meet her,” said Blige, the teenager’s father. “Just show him that you can make mistakes and you can learn from your mistakes.”
As a young teen, Edwards was expelled from school and arrested for shoplifting. A juvenile judge sentenced him to probation for assaulting a sibling, for what their father says was an accidental injury.
Joandre Robbins, 18 when he shot Edwards, was convicted of murder and received a life sentenced in 2015. Robbins’ attorney argued he opened fire because he feared Edwards was reaching for a gun. After the shooting, a police officer found a gun belonging to Edwards in his girlfriend’s purse.
Blige insists his son was on a better path. By the summer of 2014, he said, Edwards was taking GED courses and talking to a Marine Corps recruiter about enlisting. He applied for a job at a Wendy’s restaurant the day he was slain.
“He was always trying to do better, to change his life around,” Blige said. “He wasn’t a bad kid.”