The night was cold and Charlie Powers wanted to get home. But 10 years ago this week, Powers stopped at a convenience store to buy chewing tobacco. He held the door for a man leaving the store.
“How ya doin’?” Powers called out to the man. The man shot Powers in the face.
“I thought at first it was his finger at my head, then I realized it was steel, metal and the gun slid down, and he shot me right through the cheeks,” recalled Powers, who served 25 years as mayor of Fort Mill and now is 78 years old. “If he had pulled the trigger at first, he would have blown my head clear off.”
Powers did not know in that moment on Feb. 5, 2008, that the clerk in the store had been shot in the abdomen and lay crumpled behind the counter. The clerk survived. Powers was hospitalized, and went back to work several days later.
“I didn’t know then I wasn’t the first one Phillip Watts shot,” Powers said. “And I found out later I wouldn’t be the last, either. I didn’t know then this guy was so evil. Nobody knew who he was.”
The shootings of Powers and the clerk was the fifth of seven armed robberies by Watts from December 2007 to February 2008. In the first four incidents, Watts took only money.
Watts shot four people during the last three robberies. He shot a clerk at a Rock Hill fish market Jan. 28. Then Powers and the clerk in Fort Mill on Feb. 5. The last shooting on Valentine’s Day 2008 was just outside Rock Hill city limits in York County. Watts shot a customer at a check cashing store in the head, then in the back. The woman survived, but is disabled.
Watts’ identity was unknown until his string of crimes ended. Police said York County residents were terrified.
“These were senseless shootings in cold blood,” said Lt. Tim Hager of the York County Sheriff’s Office. “The victims all complied. We were lucky he had a small caliber revolver. If he had a bigger gun, we would have had four or five homicides.”
Maj. Steve Thompson of the Rock Hill Police Department, a lieutenant in 2008, said “Nobody was safe.”
High tech investigation
Technology and social media helped police catch Watts on Feb. 18, 2008.
In the Valentine’s Day shooting, Watts left DNA on a pen in the store.
Detectives from Fort Mill, Rock Hill and the York County sheriff’s office held a news conference Feb. 16 to say based on video surveillance and other evidence, one suspect was responsible for the crimes. No other details were released.
Hager said they knew it was Watts based on the DNA.
Police had a DNA match because Watts had been in the South Carolina juvenile justice system for years. He had been released at age 20 just weeks before the robberies started, records show.
Detectives from all three agencies combed social media -- in its infancy in those days -- and phone records. Police found Watts was from Rock Hill with family in Fort Mill. They tracked a car seen in surveillance video to Watts’ family. By Feb. 18, social media posts and phone calls showed Watts was at a townhouse in northern Rock Hill.
Hager and Rock Hill police Lt. Larry Vaughan went to the door of the townhouse. They knocked. A woman answered: “Do you know Phillip Watts?” Hager asked.
“The woman had that look that she knew,” Hager said.
Hager and Vaughan asked if Watts was inside. The woman hesitated. Hager and Vaughan grabbed the woman and pulled her out the door. The officers shut the door, rushed the woman to safety and called the SWAT team.
Steve Thompson, now a Rock Hill police major, was a commander of the SWAT team in 2008. He and the team were on the way back from a training session at Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie when they were called.
“We had been looking for him since Saturday when he was identified,” Thompson said. “What this guy had done was so cold-blooded, so callous. He cared so little about life. People were walking on eggshells.”
Thompson and Rock Hill police Lt. Don Doster, now retired, went to the door.
“We called for (Watts) to come out,” Thompson said.
The SWAT team went in and arrested Watts.
“We told him to put his hands up where we could see them, and took him into custody,” Thompson said. “It was a relief. All we cared about for so long until then was the safety of the community until this guy was caught. It was over.”
Police found the gun Watts had used.
Hager and other detectives interviewed Watts. He told them how he planned more shootings and robberies, Hager said.
“I sat across the table from him and he looked me in the eye and said if we hadn’t stopped him, he was going to York to continue,” Hager said.
Hager said in almost four decades of police work, he’s only come across three or four “truly evil people.”
“In 37 years of doing this, (Watts) is one of the most evil people I’ve ever dealt with,” Hager said.
Watts confessed to all the crimes, records show, and was charged with the string of robberies and shootings. He wanted a trial and got one.
Consecutive life sentences
In September 2008, a York County jury found Watts guilty of one of the early armed robberies at a store near Northwestern High School. Three months later, Watts pleaded guilty to another robbery in Rock Hill at the seafood market where he shot the clerk. In early 2009, he pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the rest of the shootings and robberies.
Watts was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms. Now 30 years old, Watts remains in a Columbia prison.
He has filed several appeals. All have failed.
Charles Powers has gone to every hearing where Watts tried to get out of prison.
“One time he admitted he thought he had blown the side of my head off, and that’s why he didn’t shoot me again,” Powers said, “and I thought at that time he was an evil person,”
On the 10th anniversary of the day he was shot, Powers went back to the store. He greeted the other victim who was wounded a decade ago. She declined to talk about what happened.
Powers said he talks about being a victim of such an “evil person” because “you got to try to get over it.”
When a teen girl was fatally shot last month at Fort Mill’s Peach Stand -- a place Powers goes each day with a crew of other retirees for breakfast -- emotions from his own shooting overwhelmed him.
“It sure brought it all back,” Powers said. “So senseless. Just like with Mr. Watts.”
Powers said Watts hurt many people, and terrified many more. Watts will be in prison for the rest of his life, Powers said, and can’t hurt anyone else.
“I just hope he’ll get some of that evil out of him while he’s gone,” Powers said.