Originally created 08/25/97

Dying at work



It was terrifyingly efficient.

Three bullets, three bodies and an office shattered by the tragedy.

No one was prepared for the September afternoon almost a year ago when a gunman walked into the North Augusta office of the Department of Social Services, leaving fear and chaos in his wake.

It was the wrong place at the wrong time for caseworker Josie Curry, who found herself looking down a gun barrel and faced with the demand that she lead the gunman to his family's caseworker. The short, fear-filled trip would lead to a gunshot to the head, the same type of execution that felled James Riddle in his cubicle.

A nearby co-worker, spattered with their blood, dropped to the floor, pretending to be dead in a desperate effort to survive. She would be luckier than caseworker Michael Gregory, who encountered the gunman washing up in the bathroom.

Mr. Gregory died on the bathroom floor. Mrs. Curry and Mr. Riddle lingered at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital before dying that evening. David Mark Hill, 36, was charged with murder in their deaths and is awaiting trial. He was angry, police said, because social workers put his 4-year-old paraplegic daughter in foster care.

Nationwide, work-related slayings fell 12 percent in 1996, but that meant nothing in the Augusta area, where police charged a single man with snuffing out the lives of three social workers and where at least five more people were killed in the work place in Richmond County.

In two other slayings, Richmond County officers arrested employees of the dead men, although the killings happened off the job site.

It was the highest work-related slaying toll in the past five years: five people were slain on the job in Richmond County in 1992.

"It's kind of unbelievable to me. I mean, now I believe it, because I've seen it happen, but I wouldn't have thought it would happen to anyone I worked with," said Laurie Hobbs, site manager at the North Augusta DSS office. "I think it made all of us more attuned to when people say things that are threatening."

Workers who handle money or who come in contact with the public - such as social service workers - are most at risk, according to a 1996 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. The same study showed that only a small number of slayings are committed by co-workers - despite popular misconceptions, fed by early '90s stories of berserk postal workers, that many work-place killings are committed by disgruntled employees.

Most people slain on the job are likely to be the victims of robberies, which account for about 75 percent of job-related killings. The trend holds true in Augusta, where 11 of 18 people killed on the job in the past five years were the victims of robberies in cabs, at stores and in pawnshops.

In Aiken County, at least five people have been slain in the work place since 1991, including a woman killed at her lawyer's office during a confrontation with an ex-husband, a pawn shop owner and three men killed at convenience stores.

Despite those figures, Mike McCormick said he wasn't worried about working at the Crackshot 4 pawnshop on Gordon Highway, where 63-year-old Beverly Williford was gunned down three years ago during a robbery. It was the third pawnshop slaying in two years: In 1992, Floyd and Marie Thigpen were shot to death during a robbery at their pawnshop on Old Savannah Road.

"Most criminals aren't looking for confrontation," Mr. McCormick said. "They want as easy prey as possible. If you look at the deaths that have happened, you're talking about a lone employee, or maybe two people, who are normally elderly. The Thigpens, they were wonderful people, but they were extremely trusting. You have to maintain your vigilance."

The pawnshop now takes such safety precautions as keeping at least two employees working, using video surveillance and setting alarms at night, he said.

That hyper-awareness is an important factor in combating work-place violence, whether it originates outside or inside the office, safety advocates said.

"A lot of employers are becoming more mindful of the fact that they need to address this problem," said Benjamin Ross, an assistant regional administrator with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "It needs to be looked at as part of the safety and health plan at a business."

After conducting nationwide studies, OSHA published safety guidelines last year for health-care and social service workers, a type of job where studies found a high incidence of violence. Guidelines for convenience stores and restaurants, particularly those that serve alcohol, should be published by early 1998, Mr. Ross said.

The guidelines encourage employers to involve employees in safety measures, to analyze the work site for potential problems and to develop plans for preventing and controlling violence - including teaching employees how to recognize and defuse dangerous situations.

That can mean an action as simple as greeting each customer who comes into a convenience store: Many potential robbers are uncomfortable if they think they might be recognized later, safety advocates said. Workers also need to learn how to defuse potentially dangerous conflicts.

"If an individual is involved in a conflict, they need to know when to disengage, when to walk away and seek assistance," Mr. Ross said.

In the wake of the DSS shootings, officials tightened security at the office, installing coded door locks and additional security cameras. Clients are interviewed in a separate area of the office now, rather than in the space where employees work, Ms. Hobbs said.

"I think probably one of the most important things we did was to talk to the staff and bring in individuals who talked about safety procedures," she said. "We have a security committee, people can make recommendations if they see a problem. We instituted drills to practice what you should do in a dangerous situation. And we're quick to call police if someone starts making threats.

"It's a different way of doing business for a social agency, but I think the staff have really come together to try to react, without over-reacting."

National work-place slayings in 1996:

Robberies and other crimes: 726 (80 percent)

Co-worker or former co-worker: 75 (8 percent)

Customers or clients: 54 (6 percent)

Relatives

Husband or ex-husband: - 20 (2 percent)

Other relative: - 11 (1 percent)

Other acquaintances: - 26 (3 percent)

Total: 912

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Work-place killings in Richmond County during the past 5 years:

1992

Karin Emma Williams, 24, was shot Feb. 6 while working as a clerk at a Broad Street motel. A co-worker originally told police he found her dead, then said he accidentally shot her while showing off a gun and faked a robbery to cover up, but he was charged with murder and armed robbery.

William Bentley, 50, was shot and left slumped in the driver's seat of his cab after being robbed by a fare on Nov. 25.

Floyd Thigpen, 63, and Marie Thigpen, 48, were both shot during a Dec. 8 robbery at their Old Savannah Road pawnshop.

Tommy Lee Norton, 46, was robbed and beaten to death while on duty as a security guard at a Gordon Highway motel on Dec. 21.

1993

Barbara L. Deep, 44, was shot Jan. 6 during a robbery at a Central Avenue uniform shop.

1994

Mary Colley Stewart, 37, was robbed and killed May 12 while working late at the Department of Family and Children's Services office on Fenwick Street. Her body was left in the trash Dumpster behind the building, taken to the Richmond County landfill and dismembered in the trash before investigators realized what happened to her.

Beverly Williford, 63, was shot during a May 18 robbery at a Gordon Highway pawnshop.

Ronald Ray, 52, was killed during a May 19 shootout when two men tried to hold up his Old Savannah Road tire shop.

Kevin Brown, 28, was shot Nov. 20 during a robbery at a Washington Road pizza shop after he opened the door for someone he mistakenly believed to be a delivery employee.

1995

John W. Crawford, 45, was shot Sept. 8 by a tenant at a rental house during an argument.

1996

Thomas Eugene Schweitzer, 33, was shot four times April 13 while on the job at a 13th Street auto supply store. Police said the killer, who turned the gun on himself, had been involved in a romantic relationship with Mr. Schweitzer, and family said the man was mentally ill.

Thomas H. Cochran, 64, was found dead near his fish and tackle shop on Arthern Road on May 10. He had been shot at least once in the jaw, and police believe he may have been killed by two people he ran off his property for illegal parking.

Marcellus Howard Jr., June 28

Darrell Xavier Rouse, 25, was shot Aug. 8 in the front office of his Walton Way car detail shop after three men came to the shop to get some money one of them said Mr. Rouse owned him.

Stan White, 64, was beaten and dumped in the Savannah River Sept. 2. Police believe he was attacked at a local law office during an argument with an attorney who was later charged with murder.

Patricia Silva Rhoades, 44, was shot Sept. 7 at the Peach Orchard Road bar where she worked. Police later arrested her ex-husband, who had spent three days in jail on a domestic violence charge and was released a day before Ms. Rhoades was killed. Two other people were injured in the shooting.

1997

Cynthia Smart Moore, 41, was at work at the Senior Citizens Center on 15th Street when she was shot July 8 by her common-law husband, who then committed suicide, police said.

Michael Stephenson, 29, a Richmond County Board of Education safety officer, was shot July 15 at Jamestown Elementary School after he responded to an early-morning burglary alarm.