Rising crime rattles old Augusta neighborhood

Melvin Roberts Jr. and his wife, Julie, longtime residents of Norton Acres, are joining many of their neighbors in Columbia County because they don't feel safe in their own neighborhood.

Julie Roberts' back door is protected on the outside by heavy iron bars and an alarm that will sound if anyone tampers with them.

 

From the inside she secures the door with a deadbolt and a heavy wooden plank that rests across the width of the door.

She also has a big dog and a gun to ward off intruders when her husband leaves for work.

But it's not enough.

"I don't feel safe. I don't feel comfortable," she said.

Roberts lives in Norton Acres, a blue-collar neighborhood just east of Deans Bridge Road, in between Wheeless Road and Gordon Highway.

The families who originally settled here in the '60s and '70s have mostly fled from what they're calling a surge in neighborhood crime over the past two or three years. Roberts and her husband are joining them in their flight to neighboring Columbia County.

While she's excited to move somewhere she feels safe, Roberts feels torn about leaving the home where she raised her daughters.

"It's sad and bittersweet," she said from a chair surrounded by the clutter of a house upended by transition.

The couple had hoped to travel after paying off their house in Norton Acres, but now they have a new mortgage in Columbia County. Still, it's the price they're willing to pay if it means their grandchildren can visit them at home again.

"We're prisoners in our own homes and that's what bothers us," she said.

Other neighbors, most of whom have already left Norton Acres, report similar problems, though not to the extent as Roberts.

Irene Stewart's house of 41 years on Lee Street burned down two years ago because of an accidental kitchen fire.

She moved into St. John Towers downtown as the crime in the neighborhood started to increase. Stewart said she's shocked by the reports coming back from her old friends.

"Just about everybody on the street has been broken into," she said.

While it was devastating to lose his childhood home, Stewart's son, Ralph, said "in all regards it was a blessing" that the home was burned down.

"She kept talking about rebuilding the place and we kept discouraging her," said Ralph Stewart, who didn't want his aging mother living in that neighborhood.

A builder he contacted about putting a new home on his mother's lot agreed. Ralph Stewart said he was told the neighborhood "was too far gone" for there to be any benefit gained by rebuilding.

Patricia Bennett rents out her childhood home, which she said was broken into two weekends ago. The house was burglarized twice while her son lived there, she said.

"When it was vacant and I was working on it, there were a lot of strange people walking back and forth," she said.

Bennett added, however, that crime can be found anywhere.

Laquita Boykins still lives in Norton Acres, but she wasn't home when someone kicked in her door recently. Her daughter and her grandson were inside, and scared off the intruder.

Boykins said she plans to reactivate her burglar alarm, but doesn't expect to leave her neighborhood.

"I love it," she said. "Still do."

While multiple burglaries of their home have discouraged the Robertses, nothing compares to the time Roberts was robbed at gunpoint.

On the evening of Dec. 31, 2009, Roberts returned home with her two grandchildren, then ages 2 and 5. Roberts was stepping out of her SUV when she felt a gun press hard into her back.

"Give me your purse and turn around," the robber said.

Roberts reached into the truck to grab her purse and turned to face the robber. She looked into his eyes and pleaded: "Please don't kill me."

The robber grabbed the purse and ran away. Roberts' grandchildren were screaming with fear, but Roberts decided the best thing was to lock them in the vehicle and go into the house to call for help. Her shaking hands could barely unlock the door.

"I don't want to go through that again," she said.

Richmond County sheriff's Capt. Scott Peebles said Norton Acres is one of several areas experiencing a rise in property crimes. But arrests have gone up significantly, particularly with the Burglary Task Force, Peebles said.

Road patrols do the best they can, but there are only so many resources available.

"You can't be everywhere at once," he said. "Other than standing guard 24 hours a day, you do what you can to keep patrols up."