Church bus caught in crossfire

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Jessie Burchette and Hugh Fisher
Riders hit the floor as a loaded church bus got caught in the crossfire during a gun battle Sunday afternoon at Civic Apartments.
Two bullets struck First Calvary Baptist Church’s bus. Neither round hit anyone on board.
A woman with a pacemaker was checked out at Rowan Regional Medical Center after experiencing chest pains.
In the days following the incident, citizens are questioning whether police are doing enough to prevent violence in the city.
Charles Withers, a member of the church’s board of deacons, was driving the 15-passenger bus Sunday.
“Once we turned on Forney Street, everything seemed to be all right until we got to this particular house,” Withers said. “We saw several guys standing out in front of the house.”
When the bus was about 25 feet from the house, he said, a man stepped into the street, pulled a gun and fired into the air.
“Once he did that, one of the guys that was on the bus said ‘Duck down!’ ”
Withers ducked, and he said he didn’t see who was doing the shooting.
But two people sitting in the front of the bus apparently got a close enough look at a shooter to identify one of the weapons as a .38-caliber revolver.
According to police, the bus riders said “guys were shooting back and forth at each other,” with some in a gray Honda and black Mercury, one on the front porch of a house on Forney Street, and one man shooting from behind the bus.
The shots went on for what Withers said seemed like “several minutes,” though he said he was sure it seemed longer than it was.
The riders stayed calm. “I didn’t hear anyone praying, but they were probably praying silently,” he said.
When the firing stopped, Withers sped the bus back to the church at 400 S. Long St.
People who were on the bus told police there were as many as six shooters. Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm said investigators have several suspects and are working to make arrests.
Police responded shortly before 2 p.m. Sunday to a report of shots fired in the area of Civic Apartments, 715 Hall St.
Officers also went to the church, where many of the riders got off the bus.
Police found a bullet hole near the back of the bus with the bullet lodged in fiberglass. They also found a scrape mark which appeared to be made by a bullet grazing the vehicle from front to back.
Withers said the shooting scene isn’t a part of the regular bus route. He drove there on request to pick up a member who didn’t have transportation that day.
He said he knows the area well and used to work not far away. “I’ve never had any trouble before when I’ve been out there. I wasn’t expecting any Sunday, at all.”
But William Peoples, a member of Calvary Baptist, said he isn’t surprised the church bus got caught in a shootout.
“It’s not surprising. It’s not amazing to me,” said Peoples, a former president of the local NAACP and unsuccessful candidate for Salisbury City Council, in an interview yesterday.
He noted the shooting occurred within two blocks of where 13-year-old Treasure Feamster was shot to death in 2007, caught in the crossfire of rival gangs outside a party at the J.C. Price American Legion post.
“What has the police done? What has the City Council done? People still live in fear,” he said.
“There shouldn’t be a street in Salisbury that you would be afraid to walk or drive down. This was Sunday afternoon at two o’clock,” Peoples said. “It should never have happened.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Peoples said, he was in a store in the same area and heard a gunshot. Minutes later, a man walked into the store who had been shot near Monroe Street.
“We need more police presence. Why aren’t there more officers on the street?” Peoples asked. “Guns are all over this community. Look at the police reports in the paper, people stealing guns from homes … selling them on the street.”
He suggested the city call in the National Guard if it can’t provide more officers.
He said he’s also working to organize a community meeting to which top city officials will be invited. He will announce the date at a later time.
Peoples did attend Tuesday night’s Salisbury City Council meeting, where he brought up these issues to members and Mayor Susan Kluttz.
Council member Pete Kennedy asked Wilhelm to respond to Peoples’ concerns about the number of officers on duty.
Wilhelm said that there were one or two officers off and one or two were out sick, but the number of officers on duty was within departmental standards.
In an interview earlier Tuesday, Wilhelm said that part of Salisbury ó Old Wilkesboro Road and Brenner Avenue ó gets the same police presence as any other section.
“We have a limited number of resources,” he said. “We have the whole city to cover.”
He said if the City Council wants to increase the department’s manpower, more officers could be put in that area.
Still, he said, while the bus being caught in a crossfire is unfortunate, he isn’t sure having additional patrols would have prevented it.
“Short of having a police officer sitting right there, there is no guarantee that it wouldn’t happen,” he said.
Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call the Salisbury Police Department at 704-638-5333.
Post reporter Shelley Smith contributed to this story.