Abduction from Wal-Mart Lot Raises Concerns on Parking Lot Security

In Deanna Francis' only encounter with Branden Basham, he had a gun pointed at her daughter's side.

Neither of them was harmed, but the experience has changed forever her level of comfort, especially in parking lots.

"He took away any sense of safety I had," she said.

Basham was convicted last week in the carjacking and death of Alice Donovan, who was abducted from the Conway, S.C., Wal-Mart in 2002. His co-defendant, Chadrick Fulks, has been sentenced to death for his part in that crime.

The case put a spotlight on parking lot security and carjackings, a crime some experts say is on the rise nationally.

Carjackings occur more in parking lots than anywhere, day or night, said Chris McGoey, of California-based McGoey Security Consulting.

Unlike what happened in the Donovan case, most don't involve injury, according to a Department of Justice report. That's because carjackers usually just want the vehicle, McGoey said.

More than 90 percent of the cases involve men committing the crime on women.

Stores usually consider security improvements after they have had repeated crime problems, he said.

Officials at several Myrtle Beach-area businesses, including Colonial Mall-Myrtle Beach, Coastal Grand Myrtle Beach mall and Wal-Mart stores, declined to release specifics about their efforts, citing security concerns.

"We always work to adjust our safety efforts," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sharon Weber. "We never want to be complacent on safety."

A U.S. Department of Justice report released in 1999, the most recent report available, showed carjacking rose to an average of 49,000 a year nationwide between 1992 and 1996, up from 35,000 a year between 1987 and 1992. Guns are used in 70 percent of the carjackings, the report said.

Carjackings in South Carolina rose from 169 in 2002 to 172 in 2003, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.

None was reported in Horry or Georgetown counties in 2003, compared with six and one, respectively, in those counties the previous year.

Carjackings usually occur on a person's entry into a parking lot or as they are ready to exit, McGoey said.

"They catch you at the driver's door," he said.

Protecting parking lots
McGoey said one reason for the rise in carjackings is it's often easier than stealing an unoccupied vehicle. And parking lots are the preferred location because plenty vehicles are there, he said.

Stores use a variety of methods to improve safety, but the most common are video surveillance, private patrols and improved lighting, McGoey said.

In most stores with cameras, the images often are not monitored live.

No one was monitoring cameras at Wal-Mart when Donovan was abducted.

"Stores have been going back and forth about what to do," he said. "Using patrols costs more, and they almost never see a crime occur."

But they have proved effective at reducing parking lot crimes, including carjacking, because of their visibility, McGoey said.

"We think it's best to have someone monitoring the tape, because if you see something happening, you can have an impact," said Sgt. Trevor Shelor of the Charleston Police Department.

Police departments around the state said they use various methods to help stores secure their parking lots, including extra patrols and offering suggestions about possible security improvements.

Lt. Rodney Sarvis said Conway police officers patrol several businesses, including Wal-Mart and Coastal Center on U.S. 501. The department also offers security tips to local businesses.

Columbia police post signs at local malls stating that the parking lots are patrolled by city police.

Police in Greenville and Charleston said most businesses in those communities have security cameras or private parking lot patrols.

Francis said she feels fortunate to be alive after meeting Basham on Nov. 17, 2002.

He approached her daughter Andrea Francis at their car, with her mother a few steps behind. He held a gun to her and tried to force himself into her car, while asking for directions to another city.

When Deanna Francis reached the car and noticed the gun, she told Basham to go inside Wal-Mart for the directions. He walked away.

Now Francis always talks to someone on her cell phone when walking to or from her car, just in case something happens, she said.

"People are oblivious in parking lots," McGoey said. "They might open the trunk unaware of what is behind them, and that kind of thing is the essence of a carjacking. The victims almost always say 'I didn't see him coming.'"

Francis said she never noticed Basham until it was too late.

In addition to their convictions in the Donovan case, Basham and Fulks are accused of carjacking 19-year-old Samantha Burns in a West Virginia parking lot and killing her. Burns parents said that incident was not recorded on video because the mall in Huntington, W.Va., had no cameras.

Video evidence at Basham's trial showed him carjacking Donovan in a manner similar to what McGoey described.

He got into Donovan's car just after she pulled into a parking space, held her at gunpoint and forced her to drive.

Basham faces the death penalty in that case. Jurors will begin deliberating his sentence Oct. 12.