Gordon Highway area, Harrisburg tops in crime

All seemed normal when Deputy Dan Ferrel drove through the 1600 block of Gordon Highway on a recent weekday.

On one side of the road, Southgate Plaza looked quiet. On the other side of the eight lanes, a series of restaurants and small businesses appeared to have the usual customers.

In all, nothing unusual.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case in an area that last year had the highest number of robberies per block in Richmond County, according to 2008 crime data provided by the Richmond County Sheriff's Office and compiled by The Augusta Chronicle .

"Used to, we had no problems on the 1600 block of Gordon Highway," said Lt. Scott Gay, who supervises the sheriff's crime suppression team. "It was in the last 10 years the criminal activity has increased."

There were 23 incidents in which victims claimed to have been robbed in this area near one of Augusta's busiest roads. Ten reported attacks involved everything from broken bottles to handguns. Three were sexual assaults.

Across town, the crime numbers also looked bad but less concentrated in the Harrisburg community, the aging mill section of Augusta that saw more than its share of violence last year, including three homicides -- two within a block of each other.

A map by The Chronicle highlighting violent crimes that police consider the most dangerous shows Richmond County contains several areas and streets where trouble is prevalent.

However, multiple interviews with road deputies and sheriff's investigators indicate the small stretch of Gordon Highway's 1600 block and the broader Harrisburg community are two general areas that tax law enforcement resources and attention.

"We put a lot of resources over there (Gordon Highway) but we have other areas of concern too," said Lt. Gay. His deputies are responsible for increasing the police presence in neighborhoods when the crime activity drastically increases. "Between there and Harrisburg, they keep us pretty busy."

Speaking from his desk in the sheriff's office substation behind Southgate Plaza, Lt. Gay said everyone would be happy if Augusta didn't have any crime. On the other hand, he said, it makes lawbreaking easier to confront when you know it's likely to be concentrated in certain areas of town.

"In my opinion I think there are always going to be areas that are more conducive for the criminal element or for criminal behavior," he said. "So once you move them out of one place, they're going to move to another. I think that them being in a known criminal area is better off for us keeping tabs on them."

Lt. Gay and other law enforcement officers blame the higher crime numbers along that part of Gordon Highway on a number of older motels that attract customers with a tendency toward trouble.

Messages seeking comment from the owner of the Augusta Super Inn at 1602 Gordon Highway and the manager for Budget Inn at 1616 Gordon Highway were not returned as of Friday.

People were much more likely to talk in Harrisburg, a broader neighborhood that has its crime problems, but also has residents with longer and stronger ties to their community, who want to see things improve.

"It was a very good neighborhood," said H.K. McKnight, the founder of the Bible Deliverance Temple at the corner of Eve and Fenwick streets. "People had lived here all of their lives."

Dr. McKnight said his church's activity center gives the youth a place to go after school, but they work with children only up to age 12.

He hopes to reinstitute a Friday night entertainment program in the near future.

Dr. McKnight, who established the church in 1963, said he blames the neighborhood's problems on low-rent landlords who allow drug users and prostitutes to fill their properties.

Others see an advantage in keeping young people busy.

"I think there needs to be something for the kids to do," said a man who would only identify himself as Freeman, a barber at Johnson's Beauty and Barber Shop on Eve Street. "There are lots of abandoned houses around here and the kids just hang around."

He said Harrisburg has its problems but it is no worse than other pockets of Augusta.

He said he regularly cut the hair of 21-year-old Daniel McGee, who was shot dead on nearby Starnes Street in December, in addition to one of the men suspected of shooting him.

"I've seen them pass in here before," he said. "It kind of shocked me when I heard it happened."

Having attended school with many in the area, he said he thinks the problems stem from young people with nothing better to do than let small grudges escalate into violence.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.