By Sarah Nagem
Kameesha Powell wasn’t a big fan of parties. When she wasn’t at her job at a yarn factory, she could often be found braiding someone’s hair – a hobby and business venture she started in high school, according to her uncle, Eric Greene.
But 21-year-old Powell, perhaps feeling festive for the Fourth of July weekend, attended a gathering over the summer in the small Columbus County town of Chadbourn.
Investigators have not released details about what led to the eruption of violence at the party in the early-morning hours of July 3. Police have only said they found three people dead and another injured near a small building off Broadway Road.
Powell was among the victims. Five months later, investigators have not made an arrest in the case and her family is looking for answers.
“That’s the question: Why?” Greene said.
The triple homicide rocked Chadbourn, home to about 1,600 residents and the North Carolina Strawberry Festival, which drew thousands of people each year before the coronavirus pandemic.
Some say violence is too common in this rural southeastern North Carolina community, which is also reeling from the arrest of former police chief William Spivey.
A Columbus County grand jury in May indicted Spivey on 88 felony charges, including drug trafficking, after investigators said he stole drugs, guns and thousands of dollars in cash from the police department’s evidence locker.
Spivey’s arrest tainted the town and eroded trust in law enforcement, according to residents and activists.
“That did put a real cloud over the police department,” said Timothy Lance, pastor at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church near Chadbourn.
Lance, a retired Army chaplain and teacher in the Columbus County school district, helped organize a march through Chadbourn in September to urge an end to violence. The event came shortly after one person died and two others were injured in a shooting just outside Chadbourn.
While the town has seen multiple homicides this year, it had one in 2019 and one in 2020.
North Carolina and the country have seen a rise in violent crime, often marked by the use of guns. In 2018, Columbus County had a violent crime rate of 395.1 per 100,000 people. That’s higher than the statewide rate of 357.5.
Lance said several factors have likely led to a spike in gun violence in Chadbourn. Some parents work multiple jobs, he said, and “kids are left to do whatever they want.”
“I don’t accept this excuse, but part of it is poverty,” Lance said.
More than 46% of Chadbourn residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. That’s more than double the rate in Columbus County and more than triple the statewide rate.
Mayor Phillip Britt said he doesn’t think most people feel unsafe in Chadbourn, and the town council has approved spending for additional police officers and a camera system in hopes of deterring crime.
The town is also in the early stages of planning to revitalize downtown. A Chadbourn native who now lives in Florida recently opened an entertainment venue in town that is expected to bring in performers from across the country.
“The stigma that gets put on Chadbourn is that it’s a violent place to live, and that’s extremely inaccurate,” Britt said.
But Greene, who does not believe his niece was an intended target in the shooting, said Chadbourn is plagued by drugs and also dealers who try to gain a “kingpin” status of power and respect.
“That’s the kind of mentality we have in Chadbourn,” he said.
History of trouble
Chadbourn’s first strawberry crop, in 1895, failed.
But farmers found success the following year, and before long carton after carton of succulent berries were shipped out of town by rail cars, earning Chadbourn the nickname “Strawberry Capital of the World.”
“The decade from 1897-1907 made Chadbourn and brought Columbus County to the front as an agricultural community in North Carolina,” according to a 1954 article in The State.
As Chadbourn grew, so did the tobacco market and job opportunities. There once was a cotton mill, a cotton gin and a planing mill.
Those jobs are long gone, leaving Chadbourn a shell of what it once was. The town’s population dropped by more than 15% between 2010 and 2020.
As the town continued to shrink in recent years, it saw a lot of turnover in leadership positions. There have been six police chiefs in as many years, and about as many town managers.
A decade ago, the then-town manager, who was driving the police chief’s vehicle, was charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer when a Highway Patrol trooper stopped him for speeding. The charges were later dismissed.
About five years ago, a former public works employee sued the town after he said the interim town manager took a picture of his buttocks while he was repairing a water main break, according to media reports. The town reportedly settled the lawsuit for $50,000.
In 2017, the town’s police chief at the time, Rene Trevino, was fired less than a month into the job. Officials said he violated the town’s social media policy through sexually explicit posts.
Spivey’s arrest last spring made headlines across the state. He is also accused of stealing thousands of dollars from a fund meant for the family of a boy who died of leukemia.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation is looking into a fire that destroyed the home of Spivey’s spouse in October. Officials said the fire, which occurred the day before the house was to be sold as a foreclosure, was suspicious.
In September, the Chadbourn Town Council voted to install tracking software and a security camera system in the police department’s evidence room.
“I think we need to concentrate more on how to keep this from happening again,” Britt said of the charges against Spivey.
Discord among elected leaders
The town council has also stirred controversy over the years about which roads should get repaved and when. At times, the discussions have had racial undertones: The town is divided by railroad tracks that split some Black and white neighborhoods.
About 62% of Chadbourn residents are Black, while the latest town council had two black members and four white members, including the mayor.
Following the November election, the new council has three Black and three white members. The newly elected members – Shannon Britt, who is the mayor’s wife, and Rashad Roberts – were sworn in Tuesday evening.
Roberts, who is Black, previously served on the board for more than a decade before stepping away four years ago. He said he decided to run again partly because he thought some council members had personal agendas, particularly when it came to repairing roads.
“There are certain areas of town … that have never had their roads paved,” he said. “Of course, if you’re making decisions and you’re only making it to benefit you and your people, then it’s going to be racially divided. Let’s do what’s right for everyone who lives in the town.”
Mayor Britt said his wife and Roberts are already familiar with the workings of the town, and he’s hopeful for more harmony.
“I think we’ve got a council now that can come together and work together,” he said.
SBI leading the case
Lance, the retired educator, helped form the group Unite Chadbourn, which aims to bring nonprofit groups together and work on ways to bring jobs to town. Kids need positive things to do, he said.
“We don’t have YMCAs, we don’t have Boys & Girls Club,” Lance said. “We don’t have anything to keep the children’s attention.”
Lance said he knew Powell from their time at Chadbourn Middle School. He worked as the in-school suspension coordinator while she was a student there.
He described Powell as “a very happy kind of person” who often made jokes about his bald head.
“That was her way I could tell she had love for me as a teacher,” Lance said.
Powell graduated from West Columbus High School in 2019 and later worked at National Spinning in Whiteville. But her real passion, her uncle said, was hair.
Greene opened a barber shop in Chadbourn at the end of June, just days before his niece’s death. Powell started braiding friends’ hair in high school, he said, and she was so talented that he considered asking her to work with him at the shop.
“I was so afraid to mess up someone’s hair,” Greene said, describing how he waited until he was a bit older to start his career. “That’s how much more comfortable she was doing hair. It was like second nature to her.”
The SBI is leading the case into the death of Powell and the two other victims, 27-year-old Deonde Qwabe and 26-year-old Mack Darren Jenkins Jr.
Powell’s mother, Tracey McFadden, said she is angry the investigation is taking so long. If her daughter had been white, she said, investigators would be under more pressure to solve the case.
“I think it would have been a whole lot different, a whole lot faster,” McFadden said of the investigation.
A spokesperson for the SBI did not return a request for comment this week.
Greene said he is confident investigators will ultimately find the killer. It’s a small town, he said, and people talk. “I just want to give the SBI room enough to do their job.”
Brighter future ahead?
Greg Thompson loved growing up in Chadbourn.
“When I was a kid, I thought the whole world revolved around the Strawberry Festival,” he said. “It’s Chadbourn’s claim to fame.”
Thompson moved away, became an Austin Powers impersonator and started an entertainment company in Florida. But Thompson, now 58, returned to his hometown regularly – and he didn’t like what he saw.
“It broke my heart for 30 years … to drive through Chadbourn and see what it had become compared to what it used to be,” Thompson said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“I never heard anyone say, ‘We can be more than this,’” he said. “A lot of people have bought into their own downfall … their own doom and gloom.”
Thompson was adamant that someone needed to take action to bring back the Chadbourn he adored. Finally, he said, he decided that someone could be him.
Last year, Thompson bought a downtown property that once served as a farm supply store. He renovated the space to make way for Brown Street Station, which marked its opening this month with a dueling piano show.
Thompson said he plans to bring in impersonators and other entertainers to perform at the venue, hopefully attracting audiences from across southeastern North Carolina. The space can also be rented out for private parties.
Thompson said some people told him he was crazy for opening in Chadbourn, about 60 miles from Wilmington. But he was determined to do his part to breathe new life into the town, where he started a traveling clogging team when he was 14.
Chadbourn’s location along U.S. 74 gives it potential to grow. If more restaurants came to town, Thompson said, travelers coming and going to the beach would have a reason to stop.
The town hopes to revitalize the downtown area, Phillip Britt said. He wants the town council to consider which properties are worth saving and which could be torn down.
“We’ve just really got to look and see where our options are,” the mayor said.
In the meantime, the town has other concerns, including the need to hire a permanent police chief and town manager. The jobs are currently filled on an interim basis.
Police departments around the country are struggling to hire new officers in the wake of protests calling for police reform. It can be especially tough to find qualified officers in a small town, Phillip Britt said.
“With everything that’s gone on, ask yourself, ‘Would you beat the door down to be a police officer right now?’” he said.
Sitting in Greene’s barber shop in downtown Chadbourn, McFadden said she and other family members continue to ask investigators for updates on the case of her daughter’s death.
“Every time we call, they say, ‘We’re still working on it,’” she said.
Greene said he decided to speak publicly about his niece in hopes of bringing more attention to the case. “We’re going to do anything in our power to get this done.”
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem