An emotional Jimmy Thornton implored the Sampson County community to get behind efforts to solve a series of home invasions and robberies that appear to be targeting seasonal farm workers, many of Hispanic descent, one which has left a 4-year-old on life support.
“This should not be happening,” Thornton said during a press conference called Monday afternoon to seek the media’s help in getting the word out to Sampson residents, most particularly the Hispanic population. “But we can’t solve this on our own; we need the community’s help. It’s the people’s responsibility and obligation to let us know what is going on. We cannot do this alone.”
The Sheriff’s Department is offering a $5,000 reward for information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of those responsible and Thornton said he was seeking financial resources from the Governor’s Office to offer additional reward incentives.
Sheriff’s authorities, with assistance from the State Bureau of Investigation, are delving into multiple probes of crimes that occurred over the weekend, two of them Friday night and another Saturday, all involving seasonal farm workers and all involving the use of weapons.
The first, Friday night, around 10:30 p.m., involved the shooting of a 4-year-old who was in the bedroom with his parents when a gun-wielding suspect broke into the residence and attempted to gain entry into the room where the three were trying to barricade themselves.
The suspect fired through the door, striking the youngster in the head. The father gave chase but the suspect escaped in a waiting vehicle.
“It’s a senseless, senseless tragedy,” Thornton said, tears visible in his eyes as he described the scene officers found upon arrival at the Plantation Lane mobile home where the victims lived.
“These individuals aren’t from here. They were in our county trying to make a living and I honestly don’t believe they would harm a single person. Their plan was to leave to return to Florida today. Instead they are at a hospital watching their young son fight for his life.
“This should not have happened, and we must find those responsible and put them behind bars,” Thornton said.
“It is a sad day when an innocent 4-year-old is sitting in his bedroom and gets shot … it’s just terrible.”
Stopping short of naming the victims in any of the incidents, Thornton pointed to the only common thread investigators have at this point — the victims’ ethnicity.
“We aren’t calling this a hate crime,” said Capt. Eric Pope in response to media questions. “We don’t have evidence at this point that it is. It could be that many believe seasonal farm workers carry a lot of cash with them, that they don’t keep their money in banks. The money could be the target and not their ethnicity.”
But Pope and Thornton reiterated the common thread was the victims’ race, ticking of a series of four incidents just this past weekend alone involving farm workers being robbed or their homes invaded.
A second home invasion happened within 15 minutes of the Plantation Lane shooting, when three gun-wielding suspects broke into a 2285 Turkey Highway residence, in a Hispanic labor camp, stealing a television but not injuring anyone during the crime.
Then Saturday, on Wildflower Lane, another Hispanic family was robbed as the father was attempting to bring groceries in from the car.
“They, too, were just minding their own business,” Thornton stressed, “a family coming home from the grocery store.”
In that incident, suspects in what has been described as a green or black SUV were traveling on Wildflower Lane and apparently spotted the family, turned around and came upon the father. Putting a weapon to the father’s head, one of the suspects reportedly demanded money.
“The father was somehow able to convince them he didn’t have any money and, thankfully, the suspects left without hurting anyone,” the sheriff said.
Within 15 minutes of the Wildflower Lane incident, in the 2200 block of Turkey Highway, a Hispanic male on a bicycle was returning from shopping at Roses when he was approached by a male suspect who jumped out of an SUV and demanded money. That victim was not injured and the suspects fled.
The sheriff said he was imploring the public to assist if anyone knows anything. “People talk. I’m confident that someone in our community knows something, and I’m asking them to come forward. Call our tipline at 910-564-5261. Help us. We encourage people with information to help us put those responsible for this senseless tragedy where they belong.”
“The people responsible for these crimes don’t deserve to be on the streets; they need to be behind bars.”
Thornton pointed out that many in the Hispanic community are fearful of coming forward with information, some because of their immigration status, others because they are afraid of retaliation.
“Whether they are legal or not, they should share information if they have it. We can’t protect them or anyone else otherwise. There is absolutely no reason they can’t come forward. If they don’t share it, these kind of incidents will not stop. These people will keep right on doing this until they are put away.”
Thornton said seasonal farm workers and other Hispanics are a “key element” within the Sampson community and that it was of “utmost importance” that law enforcement doing everything within its power to protect that part of the community like other residents.
“But we can’t always do that if we don’t get their help. Their reluctance to talk often hinders us. But we’ve all got to work together to resolve these type problems.”
A sign of the times
Calling it “scary times,” Thornton pointed to the number of crimes now being committed with weapons. “It’s a sad truth … weapons are involved in about every incident these days. In every incident this weekend that we’re talking about, weapons were involved. Individuals were wielding those weapons, threatening people with those weapons, using those weapons.
“We are living in very violent times, and having a firearm to protect yourself is a good idea, particularly if you know how to use it. I wouldn’t recommend it if you didn’t,” the sheriff stressed.
But the violence, he said, should not be happening in the 21st century. “There’s just no need for this, but the reality is, that’s what we are facing.”
And once again he turned to the community. “My officers, my detectives are working diligently to solve these crimes. They’ve put in a lot of hours and we’re not stopping, but we must have some help from the community. I can’t say it enough, we need their help. Someone out there knows something and we want them to come forward so we can put a stop to these senseless crimes.”