By Sarah Nagem
Update: Investigators arrested Joshton C. Locklear, 20, of Pembroke on Tuesday, according to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. Locklear was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony conspiracy in the deaths of Randi D. Hunt, 20, and Hezachi Oxendine, 15, on Sunday.
“I want to personally thank those residents that assisted and those that later made contact with our office and cooperated with this investigation,” Sheriff Burnis Wilkins said in a Facebook post. “With team work especially in cases such as this, we can bring some semblance of closure to grieving families.“
A crowd gathered for a birthday party over the weekend near Pembroke in Robeson County. Then, shortly after midnight, the festivities turned deadly when gunshots rang out.
Two people – 20-year-old Randi D. Hunt and 15-year-old Hezachi Oxendine – were shot and killed just after 12:30 a.m. Sunday, according to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office.
With lots of people there to witness the shootings, it might seem like an easy-to-solve crime for law enforcement. But the problem, according to Sheriff Burnis Wilkins, is that no one is talking.
Through posts on his own Facebook page and the sheriff’s office page, Wilkins pleaded for anyone with information to talk to investigators – not just for these latest homicides, but others as well.
“As with a few previous shootings in this county, we have a crowd of people on scene that witnessed this act that need to come forward with the truth,” the post reads. “The fact is, the truth will prevail in this case and suspects are known. Do not become involved in this case as an accessory before or after the fact.”
Law enforcement officials and activists say criminal investigations in Robeson County are often hindered by an unwillingness to talk to police.
The problem isn’t unique to Robeson, which had the highest violent-crime rate per 100,000 residents in North Carolina in 2020. But some say it is especially common here because of a history of corruption in the sheriff’s office and also fear of being labeled a snitch or facing retribution.
“That is ingrained in a community, from parents saying, ‘Don’t get involved,’” said Rogena Deese, coordinator for the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council of Robeson County.
Shelia Price, an activist who runs a popular Facebook group calling for justice for missing and murdered people in Robeson, said some people are still hesitant to talk to sheriff’s office investigators.
After years of speculation regarding corruption, then-Sheriff Glenn Maynor and more than 20 other sheriff’s employees were charged as part of Operation Tarnished Badge in the early 2000s. State and federal investigators said the sheriff’s office took part in drug trafficking and stole drugs and money during traffic stops on Interstate 95.
Price, who wants an outside agency to investigate murder cases in Robeson, said people who witness crimes or know details about them worry about becoming victims themselves.
“People are scared of dying, too,” she said. “It’s sad but true.”
‘Loyal to the streets’
Wilkins expressed frustration about people “being loyal to the streets” after a 34-year-old man, Quintin L. Mitchell of Lumberton, was shot and killed Jan. 8.
“Here is yet another senseless murder in which some on scene witnesses refuse to cooperate,” Wilkins said on Facebook. “When we live in a culture of persons refusing to cooperate or provide untruths to investigators, crimes such as this and many others in our county like it will continue to go unsolved.
“The common characteristic here is witnesses being non-cooperative and being loyal to the streets and not towards one’s family who seek answers and the truth,” he continued.
Investigators made an arrest in the case two days later. Jeffery T. McCray, 30, of Lumberton was charged with first-degree murder, the sheriff’s office said.
Investigators have not made any arrests in the death of Marqueise Coleman, a 19-year-old known in the St. Pauls community as a stand-out student and athlete. Coleman, who had signed to play football at Fayetteville State University last fall, was shot and killed July 29 in front of several witnesses.
“I think it’s heartless that they’re not talking to the police to tell what’s going on,” his mother, Tanisha Coleman, said at the time. “They’re walking around like, ‘Hey, it’s all right.’ But it’s not all right.”
In an interview late last year with the Border Belt Independent, Wilkins said some people worry they will be considered a “rat” if they talk to law enforcement.
“They’ve got that kind of mentality,” he said. “But we’re living in different times. If that was your family, you’d want somebody to speak up.”
Wilkins said some victims who survive gun violence have the same way of thinking. One teenager who was shot and injured in Robeson County refused to cooperate with investigators, he said.
“He knows who did it,” Wilkins said. “Once he sees he’s going to live, ‘I got it. I don’t want to talk about it.’”
Johnson Britt, now a defense attorney, said he first encountered a family’s unwillingness to talk when he was prosecuting a homicide case as the Robeson County district attorney.
Three men charged with beating a woman to death were found not guilty by a jury, Britt said. The woman’s teenage son then told Britt the men had confessed to him.
“I’m like, ‘I’ve met with y’all and met with y’all and begged you for information … and you haven’t said a word,” he recalled.
Robeson County is one of the most diverse counties in North Carolina, with a mix of Native American, white, Black and Latino residents. Johnson said it’s important for law enforcement to consider race when investigating crimes.
“There’s a hesitancy to talk to people of other races,” he said.
Now, investigators are still looking for clues about the deaths of Hunt and the 15-year-old boy over the weekend. Wilkins said Tuesday that shortly after the Facebook posts were about the case were published, some people reached out to him.
“A lot of the information that was provided was very helpful,” he said.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office at 910-671-3170 or 910-671-3100.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem