SALISBURY — Clad in blood-red county jail garb, the man who became a poster child of gang violence after he was accused of killing a 13-year-old girl during a 2007 gang shootout, apologized to the teen's family in court Tuesday.
Reginald Terrell Leach turned and addressed the handful of Treasure Feamster's relatives in a relatively empty Rowan County Superior Court after accepting a plea arrangement. But he stopped short of admitting guilt.
“I can't take responsibility for doing something I didn't do, but I can take responsibility for my part that actually led up to it,” Leach told the Feamster family. “I apologize for my part.”
The 22-year-old entered an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to avoid admitting guilt while acknowledging prosecutors could secure a conviction. He was sentenced to 100 to 129 months in prison.
Prosecutors said Leach had a handgun outside the J.C. Price American Legion Post and fired several rounds in a gang shootout in March 2007.
Treasure Feamster, a Knox Middle School student, was trying to leave a teen party at the Legion Post when she was shot.
The party ended after an argument inside turned violent. Several people unloaded shots outside. Police say Feamster was caught in the crossfire and fatally shot. Officers arrested Leach nearly a week later.
Authorities said the argument at the party started between rival gangs. Witnesses who attended the party said they heard people inside the Legion Post shouting “Eastside” and “Westside.”
Feamster's death thrust Salisbury into the national spotlight as city officials and authorities began focusing on gang violence.
Some of the programs remain in place today as a deterrent to gang involvement. Some officials say there's still work to be done.
Holding a few nondescript papers and recalling witness' statements given to police, District Attorney Brandy Cook described the few seconds of hell that hung in the air as alleged gang members fired back and forth on March 16, 2007.
More than a hundred people, mostly teens, had attended the party. When it got out of hand, security guards forced the crowd out into the parking lot.
But outside may have been the worst place possible, Leach's attorney Darrin Jordan said.
“Before they were allowed to come in, they had to surrender their weapons,” Jordan said. “Where they surrendered their weapons was on the side of the building. ... They would hide them in the bushes and stuff.”
One witness told authorities they saw Feamster and another girl just before the gunfire broke out.
“Treasure was crying because someone had hit her in the eye,” Cook said, quoting a statement. “The witness then heard gunshots and everyone ran for cover.”
Officers found Feamster lying in a field adjacent to the American Legion building. She was surrounded by a group of people and had a gunshot wound to the chest.
She was pronounced dead at Rowan Regional Medical Center just minutes later.
In the days following the shooting, authorities charged several other Salisbury residents with related offenses at the party.
Alvin Deon Harrell and Elbert Leon Chambers both served time in state prisons for inciting a riot.
Demarcus Antonio Richards and John Calvin Sifford, charged with accessory after the fact, and Patrick Antonio Hailey, with inciting a riot, have pending cases.
Cook called the investigation “frustrating” after several key witnesses changed their stories as investigators dug in.
“Most of those witnesses changed their statements on what they had observed,” Cook told the court.
She said it factored into the offered plea arrangement.
It was the second plea hearing Leach has attended. In 2009, he was expected to accept a similar deal but bolted at the last second.
“I didn't do it. I'd rather go back to my cell,” he said in court at the time.
The Rowan County District Attorney's Office was going to reduce the first-degree murder charge to second-degree murder and consolidate a rioting charge and an unrelated gun charge.
On Tuesday, Leach pleaded to felony voluntary manslaughter, felony inciting a riot and felony possession of a firearm by a felon.
Because of prior charges, he will receive credit for a little more than four of the six years he spent behind bars since the shooting.
'Mr. Jordan, I didn't kill that little girl'
Jordan, Leach's attorney, painted a different picture of a 16-year-old boy — primarily raised by his grandmother — who had spent virtually no time with his father.
Leach's dad remains in jail for second-degree murder, Jordan said. He's been there for more than 20 years.
When the 16-year-old Leach allegedly pulled the trigger in 2007, his then-girlfriend was a little more than a month pregnant with his daughter.
“He hasn't had anybody, had a father figure, at all in his life,” Jordan said of his client.
The attorney said Leach agreed to the deal because he wanted to see his own child outside of the guarded walls one day.
“Now his daughter is right at 6 years old,” Jordan said. “A daughter that he's never held. He's only seen her through prison visits.”
Noting he had taken the case well after the start, Jordan said he's seen remorse from Leach, but his client has maintained his innocence.
“He has told me on numerous occasions, 'Mr. Jordan, I didn't kill that little girl, but I feel responsible because I was out there that night doing what I shouldn't have been doing,' ” Jordan said.
Improving on improvement
Feamster's death was met with public outcries to halt gang violence in Salisbury.
Following Leach's remarks, Police Chief Rory Collins told the court the shootout changed the way Salisbury looks at gangs.
“This situation did have a major impact on the community,” Collins said. “We have a pretty strong emphasis on gang activity that really began as a result of this scenario.”
“I can't imagine a sadder situation,” Superior Court Judge W. Erwin Spainhour replied.
The courtroom remained relatively quiet with the occasional mumble from a family member. Feamster's mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
Standing beside Jordan, Leach spoke calmly, his head cocked to the left.
The Feamster family did not speak at the hearing. They could not be reached for comment afterward.
In a statement following the hearing, the DA said witness cooperation, changed statements and the circumstantial evidence played into the plea decision.
“In making the difficult decision to accept a plea to felony voluntary manslaughter in this particular case, the state conducted a professional and objective assessment of the competent and admissible evidence,” Cook wrote.
“Our office worked closely with Treasure Feamster's parents as well as with the Salisbury Police Department. We hope this disposition will help bring some closure to the family of Treasure Feamster.”
After the shooting, then-Mayor Susan Kluttz hosted a series of “gang summits” for residents ready to get involved.
The city mandated a curfew for children. Area churches also began new summer and after-school programs.
Last fall, Kluttz said Salisbury can still improve.
“We've done a lot, as far as prevention and awareness,” Kluttz said. “But I think there's a lot that still needs to be done.”