Story and photos by Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News
Atmore, Ala. - “I don’t know. They said momma’s an angel,” Ty’Quaris Rudolph says of his mother Carma Russell. “They told me I gotta go to school next week, but I can play with my cousins this week if I want to.”
A cousin calls out for Ty to help catch a neighborhood puppy Ty has named White. The first-grader looks around at the gathering of relatives, strangers and preachers sitting on folding chairs in the front yard. He fidgets with the Mardi Gras beads around his neck and struggles with the words he’s trying to say.
“We were going to church. We didn’t do nothing wrong. Momma said for us to go inside,” Ty says. “Momma got shot.”
It was 6:40 p.m. March 4 outside of Atlantic Beach Christian Methodist Episcopal Mission Church on 30th Avenue South in Atlantic Beach.
She was wearing white sneakers, beige pants, a red hoodie pullover shirt and a button-up jacket. She lay with the bottom half of her body on the sidewalk and the top half on the street. Her hair was parted and bloody by her right ear.
Her right hand was clenched by her face and her left was clenched just above her head. Her face was turned toward the town’s police station a few blocks west toward U.S. 17.
Her estranged boyfriend, Billy Nathan Lee, paced from her body to his van, parked in front of the church, with a gun in his right hand and a cigarette in his left.
Minutes passed. Lee placed the gun by her right hand. He had time to smoke two cigarettes before an Horry County police car’s lights rounded the corner.
Lee has been charged with her death and is expected to have a bail hearing this week.
Three of Russell’s four children were at the church the night she was shot - Ty, 7, De’Janea “De” Rudolph, 5, and La Andreas Russell, 15. Their mother stayed on the sidewalk rather than running to the safety of the church.
She stood facing down Lee while others huddled inside. Among them were the cast of mostly children and a few adult song leaders and narrators who had gathered to perform a play about the history of Atlantic Beach. A photographer from The Sun News was there to cover the play.
Among the adults there were the Rev. Windy Price, her husband Darnell, and their children. The Prices had taken in Russel and her children days earlier when she left Lee.
Ty and De clung to a nearby adult while people cried and yelled for the police. La Andreas Russell sat on the back pew and peeked through the slides in the blinds toward his mother. After the police left with Lee, he called his grandmother in Alabama on the church’s telephone.
A new home
On March 15, the plastic flowers on Carma Russell’s grave in Atmore’s Fairview Cemetery were scatter and styrofoam wreaths had been blown down. The red Alabama mud mounded over her white and pink casket was pocked with rain.
Two days earlier, the minster at Liberty Missionary Baptist Church yelled in a microphone to the packed church that a body is just a house of the soul and Russell’s soul had been lifted up to heaven. As the minister worked the crowd into a frenzy, Ty was tucked in the nest of his father, Terry Rudolph’s, arms.
Now, on this Wednesday afternoon, their family eats donated food off paper plates.
De wipes her swollen eyes and says she’s sleepy. She said she didn’t sleep the night before because she was scared.
She said she doesn’t know why she’s scared, but the thought of it brings tears to her eyes.
“I love my momma. My momma loves me,” she says.
“You get to go to kindergarten after we get our shots,” Ty tells her as he changes the subject and tries to convince her to play tag with four cousins.
They know the neighborhood.
They lived here with their mother and grandmother Jayne Russell for most of their lives. Rudolph, Jayne Russell said, lives a few miles north in a mobile home. Russell said her daughter and Terry Rudolph lived with her until Carma Russell asked him to leave more than three years ago.
Searching for a fresh start
Carma Russell was a certified nursing assistant at Atmore Nursing Care. The 31-year-old had met Lee on the internet and moved to Atlantic Beach in September.
Lee had been living on the Grand Strand at the time and settled in Atlantic Beach when Carma Russell moved to the area.
Jayne Russell said her daughter was trying to make a fresh start. Carma Russell came to Atlantic Beach simple because it wasn’t Atmore, she said, and Lee’s presence gave her a sense of security of knowing someone before moving away from the only home she’s ever had.
She said Carma Russell had been looking forward to making new friends, getting certified in South Carolina as a nursing assistant and establishing roots in a local church.
And it had started to work out for her. She was making plans to get her certification while working at a North Myrtle Beach Chick-fil-A.
Eventually, Lee moved into the same apartment with Russell and her three children (one son had stayed behind in Alabama with family members). And she’d become active in the Atlantic Beach church.
Price said Russell attended religious counseling and had become a person determined to help the church grow and follow the lessons of the Bible.
Price said her new friend had decided to never put anything before her relationship with God, and that included her relationship with Lee.
A few days before the shooting, Russell had called the Prices in the middle of the night and said Lee had beaten her, the minister said. The Prices took in Russell and her children. In those few days, the families worked on getting the play ready for the weekend production.
Jayne Russell said she’d visited her daughter and grandchildren in February and was making plans to live with them.
They’d marked moving day as March 24, Jayne Russell’s birthday.
“I said there ain’t nothing for me here in Atmore,” she says.
“I lived here my whole life. Evette - I call her Evette - Carma said she was waiting for her tax check to come in and then I was going to move up there on my birthday. I was finally going to leave Atmore. Evette said, ‘Momma, you can come home any time you want, but I want you to live here with me.’”
Now, Russell will fix up her home to better accommodate the children. It’s import for them to be surrounded by family, she said, and Atmore is small enough so there’s family everywhere.
She clears her throat and blinks back a few tears as Ty breezes by.
“They don’t know. They’re scared, but this is their home - always has been. They know that. They’re all right here. They’re going to be fine.”
Everyone is trying to understand what happened.
Russell recalls her two-week stay in Atlantic Beach.
Lee had been polite and kind, she said. He called her “Momma,” which Russell said bothered her because she’d never asked him to and never wanted that. “I got four children, three children now. They call me ‘Momma.’ I’m not that man’s momma. It just seemed wrong for him to do that, call me ‘Momma’ like that from the first time I met him up there at the beach.”
Since her daughter’s death, she’s learned of Lee’s criminal record, including a 1975 sex crime and a 1995 conviction for burglary and larceny. He was released from prison last year.
Tensions between Carma Russell and Lee mounted the week before her death and she sought an eviction notice and restraining order against him, Price said.
In hindsight, Jayne Russell wonders if matters could have ended differently between Carma Russell and Lee if she had stayed longer.
“I wished I was there. I wished I’d stayed on when I was visiting them.”
A town divided by tracks
Atmore is just north of the Florida line and about 50 miles north of Mobile. The town is about twice the size of Loris and divided in four sections by railroad tracks. On the northern end of town is a reservation of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. There’s a state prison surrounded by acres of farm land. Crossing the tracks toward the sough are freshly painted two-story homes and the Atmore Country Club. Toward the east is Liberty Street.
The Russell’s live at the end of the paved section of Liberty Street.
The single-story homes are close on lots shaded with evergreens. Nearly every home has a blooming azalea bush.
Men gather on porches and women walk in pairs in the late afternoon.
A school bus stops and releases children dragging book bags.
On Main Street, a few white shop keepers refer to the area as “the bottom.”
But on Liberty Street, they don’t call it “the bottom.”
“They are funny that way. It’s always been like that around here,” Carma Russell’s brother Garrick Russell says referring to the town that is about half white and half black, according to the 2000 census. “But, this is where we’re from. You just live with it.”
The telephone rings every few minutes and Jayne Russell yells toward the kitchen for someone to take a message.
The television in the living room is loud enough to be understood in the front yard. Every few minutes, Carma Russell’s sister Anjanette Russell Crenshaw gets up from a chair in the living room to walk past piles of her sister’s belongings in the hall.
She opens the door to check on De, who is napping. The child is curled on a queen-size bed in the only spot free of her mother’s clothes and papers.
Out on Liberty Street, La Andreas Russell rides a borrowed bicycle, stopping occasionally to hug a younger cousin. Jayne Russell watches him and remembers her daughter.
“She was like that. She was always going from house to house, neighbor to neighbor. You couldn’t keep her in one place. She loved to visit and talk to everybody on the street,” she said. “She used to sit over there on the porch and do hair. She could do French rolls, ponytails, finger wraps and all that. Anything you wanted done, all you had to do was show her a picture and she’d do it. Then, just like that, off she’d go. She’d see someone she wanted to talk to and off she’d go.
“And loud? Lord, she was loud. She was the loudest thing on the block. You’d know when she was around - laughing and talking loud and making people smile.
“And that bingo place on the reservation, she’d always come away with money. She won a lot of money. She didn’t go away empty. But she was like that. She’d give you anything and everything. I told her many times she was too trusting and she shouldn’t give away so much to anyone who asked. She’d just tell me it was hers and if someone else needed something, she could give it to them. I know it made her feel good to make other people happy, but I wish she’d not be so trusting.”