First Posted: 1/15/2009
Families devastated by road-rage fallout
MAXTON - They were just words.
Harsh words to be sure, but just words … a series of syllables strung together in anger and tossed into the rushing air between two passing cars. Words that carried on the wind like poison arrows and started a chain reaction that led to shattered bones and shattered lives.
Some of what happened on March 21 is in dispute.
But this isn't: That day, in downtown Maxton, two cars nearly collided head-on - one driven by Ishmael Graham, the other by Carol Bethea. After their near miss, both cars turned into the parking lot of the Minute Man convenience store and their occupants traded verbal barbs. Those words were followed by bottles, and eventually a brick, thrown by the occupants of Bethea's vehicle through the rear window of Graham's blue Chevrolet. Scared, confused, desperate … Graham spun out trying to escape, running over Bethea in the attempt, nearly severing her leg.
Some say Graham hit Bethea on purpose; others say it was an accident. It depends on which family you belong to, which side of the fence you choose to stand on when you're down Maxton way.
The Maxton police charged Graham, 26, of 803 S. Austin St. in Maxton, with felony assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and misdemeanor injury to personal property.
It could have ended with a hand-off to the judicial system.
But it would escalate. As Bethea, 39, of N.C. 130, Maxton, recovered in a hospital bed at Carolina Medical Center in Charlotte, held together by pins and bandages, her family seethed and roiled over what they perceived as police inaction. Some complained to the media that Maxton Police Chief Paul McDowell didn't pursue Graham vigorously enough - he is, as Bethea's mother and aunt told a reporter for The Robesonian, related by marriage to the Grahams.
Again, just words.
But hard words are too often forged into hard acts.
On April 3, someone shot Graham in the back of the head seconds after he finished talking to a friend at the Lumbee Tire Shop in Maxton. The Maxton police say it was Bethea's 24-year-old son, Carlton Braddy. As of Friday, Braddy was on the run, wanted by police for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.
As for Graham, he's living what's left of his life in a hospital bed. And his hardship is even worse than Bethea's. After two weeks of hospital food, Bethea went home on Friday. She's still confined to a wheelchair and it's not known how much mobility she will reclaim.
Graham may never go home. With a portion of his brain blown away, Graham's doctors told his family the real question is not whether he will recover, but if he will live.
At least he doesn't have to watch as two families are blown apart.
C.W. Woods thought the “pop, pop, pop” he heard was just a busted air hose. That happens every now and then at the Lumbee Tire Shop, where he works for his father and the shop's owner, Clarence Woods.
Then he saw the blood pooling around the prostrate Graham.
“There was blood everywhere,” Woods said. “I just could not believe it. I was just talking to this guy. I was really shook up, so Daddy said to get some towels to see if he could stop the bleeding.”
Pressure was applied to Graham's head until the ambulance arrived.
“We wanted to try and stop the bleeding and hopefully save his life,” Woods said. “Even talking about it now I get upset. It's an odd situation to be in because I could've have been struck with one of those bullets.”
Woods said he saw Braddy in a car at the street and recognized him as the shooter.
“I knew both men, they were both customers of mine,” Woods said. “I never knew either one of them to be violent men, but I didn't know either one of them outside of the business.”
Graham's family and friends say Braddy's bullet may have hit the mark on April 3, but it wasn't the first one he fired in anger at what had happened to his mother.
Maggie Graham, of 803 South Austin St., is Ishmael's mother. She says in the two weeks since Bethea suffered her injuries, Braddy had shot at Ishmael at least twice. And she's got the bullet holes to prove it.
“He (Braddy) shot at Ishmael on two different occasions as Ishmael drove his father's truck,” Maggie Graham said. “All you have to do is look at the bullet holes in the truck to see that's true. I called the Maxton police both times to report it and nothing ever happened. I even called Chief McDowell at home … nothing happened.
“We've got guns for hunting,” Maggie Graham said. “And after he was shot at, Ishmael came to me and asked for a gun to protect himself. But I said no, that we don't handle our problems that way. Maybe I should have given him a gun.”
Jonathan Graham, Ishmael's brother, affirmed his mother's contention that Braddy fired on Ishmael before April 3.
“He (Braddy) told me point blank that the only way this was going to be settled was if they got either Ishmael or his mother,” said Jonathan Graham. “We told McDowell about this and he didn't do anything. He may be related to us, but we're very disappointed in him … how he's handled this.”
McDowell said police looked for Braddy after a shooting into occupied property charge was filed.
“We never found him and we still haven't found him after this second incident,” he said. “If we knew where the individual was, we would have apprehended him. If people have information, they need to bring it to us.”
The Grahams claim Ishmael expressed deep regret about the incident that left Bethea broken and hospitalized. They say he “cried” when he heard how seriously hurt Bethea was … saying he was just trying to get away from the rocks, bricks and bottles being hurled at his car that day.
Jessica Jackson, a friend of Graham's who was in the car when Bethea was struck by Graham's car, says they were on their way to see a movie when everything went so wrong.
Jackson says Bethea's car - with Braddy inside - drove by them on U.S. 74 business and people in the car started cursing them. Graham turned around and drove to the Minute Man convenience store parking lot to see who they were. When he pulled into the parking lot, she said at least 10 people surrounded their car and started throwing bottles and bricks at it.
“He tried to drive away and she was in the way and he hit her by accident,” Jackson said.
This account is refuted by Bethea.
She says Graham intentionally ran her over, that he backed up “two or three times” after hitting her the first time and ran over her again.
Despite her bitter recollection of the event, Bethea says, “I forgave him right from the start.”
She learned that her son has been accused of shooting Graham while being interviewed for this story.
“He would never shoot someone in the back of the head,” Bethea said. “I didn't raise my family that way. He would never go behind anybody's back and do anything like that.”
William Sims, another of Ishmael's brothers, says the senselessness of what happened is magnified because his brother is a good person who had goals.
“He graduated with a degree from Richmond Community College … he worked hard … he's a devoted brother and a peaceful man,” Sims said. “With all that's wrong in our community, here's a young black man who wanted to make a positive difference.”
Former Maxton Town Commissioner Geraldine McLaurin is related to the Grahams and is a pastor at their church. She says she tried to act as a “peacemaker” between the Grahams and the Braddys in the weeks leading up to Ishmael Graham's shooting.
She says she even counseled Carlton Braddy on the senselessness of settling a situation with violence.
“I had no idea he would go out and do what the police said he did,” McLaurin said. “He felt they weren't being treated right by the police. I told him the law would take care of it … to just give them time. It turned into such a senseless tragedy.
“Both sides feel the law let them down,” she said. “I say this is proof of what happens when the devil has his way.”