Safety downtown was brought to the forefront one year ago Saturday when a couple on their first date were brutally attacked on Riverwalk Augusta.
The suspects, Kevin Richardson and Robey Moses, both 21, were found quickly, but the incident left a sense of uneasiness that had some questioning safety downtown. Moses and Dominique Hale were charged with the robbery of a man on Broad Street one day before the May 3 attack on Wesley Spires and Ashley Solesbee.
“It made us realize we needed more patrols downtown,” said Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Calvin Chew.
Solesbee, now 26, and Spires, 28, both of South Carolina, were ending their evening with a walk on the riverwalk about 11 p.m. when they were attacked with what police said was either a metal bat or a pipe and robbed while on a bench near the old Fort Discovery building.
After they escaped their attackers, Spires drove them to University Hospital. Both had facial fractures and head wounds, and Spires also had a broken hand. Solesbee was released from the hospital days after the attack, but Spires was put into an induced coma and remained hospitalized for more than two months.
Despite its rocky beginning, the relationship had a happy ending for the couple, who announced their engagement early this
year and are tying the knot Saturday. In an interview in January, they said they chose the anniversary of the attack for their wedding date to “turn a bad day into something wonderful.”
The couple denied another request for an interview and said they are “trying to stay out of media attention.”
The suspects remain in the Richmond County jail awaiting trial.
For police and city officials, it was as much a battle against a perception of being unsafe as a battle against crime.
At a community meeting held on the riverwalk a week after the attack, Augusta Commission member Corey Johnson said he was disturbed by the attack but that it was “nowhere near as bad as it seems.”
Commissioner Bill Fennoy said Thursday that he thought the attack was isolated and “blown out of proportion.”
“Augusta is a good safe place to visit,” Fennoy said. “I walk that area of riverwalk and ride my bicycle downtown, and I feel safe.”
An Augusta Chronicle analysis of more than a year of crimes reported to the sheriff’s office showed that the number of crimes reported didn’t differ much from other areas of the county with a safer reputation, such as
west Augusta. About 2 percent of serious crimes countywide – assaults, thefts, burglaries, robberies, damage to property and drug arrests – were in the downtown business district.
After the attack, the sheriff’s office immediately began putting a plan in motion to help curb and deter crime downtown, especially on First Friday, which sees a higher number of visitors.
“Our response was to flood the area with law enforcement,” Chew said. “Of course you can never stop crime from happening, but you can try to deter it.”
The sheriff’s office increased patrols downtown, and officers – including Sheriff Richard Roundtree and Col. Robert Partain, who took to the streets on foot – rode bicycles, golf carts and ATVs in an effort to increase law enforcement visibility.
Last month, Roundtree announced that his Safety Management and Response Team unit will be deployed in the downtown area.
The unit, which is made up of certified officers and community safety officers who are not certified, will be highly visible in their new uniforms and be the “eyes and ears” of downtown. The team is still in training and is expected to begin patrols later this month.
Tree pruning and light fixture repairs to the riverwalk have also occurred, which officials hope will increase visibility and reduce dark patches where people can easily hide.
Steve Cassell, the interim deputy administrator and traffic engineer, said Thursday that lights on the riverwalk are “better than they have been in years.”
Crews found blown bulbs, bulbs that put out little light and dirty domes that hindered the amount of light. Cassell said there is a possibility brighter, higher-wattage bulbs could soon replace current ones.
A long-awaited tree abatement and pruning project began in mid-April. The commission awarded a bid of more than $74,000 for the project on the riverwalk to Georgia Power.
Fennoy said there’s still a possibility of cameras being installed downtown in the future.
“I think anything we can do to improve safety will make citizens of Richmond County and surrounding areas feel safe about coming downtown,” he said.