Originally created 09/21/96

DSS murders worst in three decades



The numbers are the same, but the horror is as different as a lake and an office complex.

Police pull three Columbia County men from a slightly submerged car in Clarks Hill Lake, each man shot to death. It is Saturday, Oct. 10, 1987.

Three Department of Social Services caseworkers are shot in their North Augusta office, each dying of a gunshot wound to the head. It is Monday afternoon, Sept. 16, 1996.

Three shots, three deaths, two dates - and a shared distinction as the worst mass murders in the Augusta-Aiken area in about three decades, authorities say.

"I think that's why everybody is so numbed and so shocked," said Capt. Bill Probus of the Columbia County Sheriff's Department.

The last of three funerals for the DSS victims is at 2 p.m. today, with services for caseworker Josie Curry at Mims Grove Baptist Church. James Riddle was buried Friday, after services for Michael Gregory on Thursday.

The three will be mourned in a memorial service Tuesday that's expected to draw hundreds, including South Carolina Gov. David Beasley.

In the meantime, one question forms on lips: Why?

Murder, by nature, is a senseless crime. But it's even more perplexing when it's as random as the DSS shootings, said Dean Rojeck, a sociology professor at the University of Georgia.

Police say David Mark Hill, 36, barged into the DSS offices around 2 p.m. Monday, grabbed Mrs. Curry, the first person he saw, and forced her to take him to Mr. Riddle, the caseworker investigating him. Mr. Hill shot both, police say, then shot Mr. Gregory when the caseworker unluckily walked into a nearby bathroom as Mr. Hill was washing up.

"The victims probably had nothing in common with the perpetrator and that's not normally how homicides take place," Dr. Rojeck said.

Normally, homicides happen when two people who share a common background have argued and one loses control, the professor said. Multiple murders are rarer, but usually involve that same scenario. In each case, generally, the people knew each other.

That's what happened in 1987, when James "Jamie" Tankersley began arguing with Rick T. Lavarnway and pulled a gun and fired as Mr. Lavarnway came at him with nunchukus, a martial arts weapon. Mr. Tankersley then killed James T. Harrell and William Reese, Mr. Lavarnway's friends, and dumped all three bodies in Mr. Lavarnway's car into Thurmond Lake.

Mr. Tankersley was found guilty of killing Mr. Harrell and Mr. Reese, but acquitted of murdering Mr. Lavarnway. He was given two consecutive life sentences.

"The only other thing we've ever had that comes close was the shooting at the Mental Health Center down on Highway 56," said Leroy Sims, Richmond County coroner.

The 1991 shootings at the Community Mental Health Center killed one and wounded four. Before Monday's DSS tragedy, it was the Augusta-Aiken area's most notorious office-place shooting.

Steven James Lawrence, a schizophrenic, was found guilty but mentally ill and sentenced to life plus 85 years. The man - who told one woman at the scene "I bet you won't mess with people from Canada now, will you?" -d is eligible for parole in 1998.

Five years after Mr. Lawrence's day of violence, the Augusta-Aiken area finds itself struggling to understand the slayings at DSS.

"This would be a rare occurrence, not just locally," said Richmond County Chief Deputy Ronald Strength said. "This is well out of the ordinary."