1993: Charlotte’s Deadliest Year
Twenty years after our city’s worst year for crime, the street names and neighborhoods have changed, but the wounds still hurt
Gary McFadden looks across a field at Nobles and Burnette avenues. The streets were named after the two slain officers.
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At the corner of Nobles and Burnette avenues in west Charlotte, concrete dust and red dirt coat the brick on the newly built roundabout. The sound of hammers and handsaws cuts the silence of a fall afternoon.
“This makes my head hurt,” Gary McFadden says, trying to find his bearings. He’s been here before. He made many visits in his two decades as a homicide detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. But it’s hard to recognize now. Gone are the squat, brick buildings with their peeling paint. Gone are the crowds in the courtyards—the young kids playing with plastic toys and the groups of boys just a few years older standing around with hard stares.
Boulevard Homes, “The Homes” to its residents and police, is no more. Only the street signs remain.
When crack hit Charlotte, it hit the Homes the hardest. The complex of one- and two-story apartments sprawling a half-mile from West Boulevard had one of the highest crime rates in the city. Officers didn’t like going in alone. Too many places to hide and get lost. Halfway into the development, their radios would cut out.
“You’re OK once you get inside your house,” one resident described life in the Homes to a Charlotte Observer reporter in 1993. “It’s just outside that’s scary.”
On the other side of the city, people didn’t think much about the Homes. It was just another place to speed past, doors locked, on your way to the airport. But for a few generations of Charlotte’s poor, it was home.
John Burnette and Andy Nobles spent a lot of time in the Homes, too. Assigned there as rookie officers, they set out to try a different type of policing: less barking orders and more listening. They helped grill at barbecues, brought diapers to mothers, played basketball with teenagers, and tutored neighborhood kids in reading.
The idea was to build relationships and foster trust. That’s one reason, police say, it was easy to catch the officers’ killer. Unlike with other murders, the neighbors would talk.
Around dusk on October 5, 1993, Burnette and Nobles chased a car theft suspect through the courtyard and into the woods. Five minutes later, both officers were shot in the head with Burnette’s own gun. They died at the hospital an hour later. By 1 a.m., Alden Harden was in custody, charged with their murders.
Their murders were the low point of Charlotte’s most violent year on record. Twenty years later, the events of 1993 still loom over lives throughout the city, and the memories are still painful.
McFadden’s voice slows and softens as he glances at the tree line. “John and Andy,” he says. “They cared.”
It was easy not to care in 1993. To numb yourself to the parade of names in the paper and on the evening news. The number of murders in Charlotte had tripled in 10 years, but the people dying were crackheads and dealers.
Not anyone you knew.
Burnette and Nobles changed that. People were scared before, but now they were angry. Community policing was too soft, some said. Charlotte needed tougher cops and tougher sentences. Fewer barbecues, more boot camps. “I don’t have the 20 to 40 years to prevent crime from the cradle,” one man wrote Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot. Another letter writer suggested sending in the National Guard to west Charlotte. One woman attached a cutout of an Observer article on the killings and scrawled in the margins, “When is this going to be stopped? I am angry & my heart hurts.”
Some blamed the projects and the people living in them. Others blamed the police.
For each murder there was a scene to secure and witnesses to interview. Then a mother to comfort or a family to notify. And then the mundane follow up paperwork and the court appearances. That’s not to mention the accidental deaths and suicides or the unsolved cold cases from years before.
And the police department did it all with just six detectives.
“Any way you divide that, really, we just weren’t functioning,” McFadden says. “We worked those crime scenes as basically a one-man unit half the time. We would come in at 4 on a Friday, work all Friday night and Saturday.
Go home Saturday afternoon, then be back in Sunday morning. The longest I worked without going home was 38 hours.”