But the logic behind Lovette and Atwater’s decision to come to Chapel Hill that night was not unique, and a Daily Tar Heel analysis of 10 years of Chapel Hill police records shows that about one-fifth of local robberies, murders, kidnappings, rapes and affrays come from Durham.
Despite the proximity of Chapel Hill and Durham, several demographic factors divide the neighboring cities.
With more than 233,000 residents, Durham’s population more than quadruples that of Chapel Hill.
In 2011, there were more than 1,700 violent crimes committed in Durham — while there have only been 850 arrests for violent crimes in Chapel Hill in the last 10 years. Violent crime encompasses several different levels of assault, robbery, murder, kidnapping and rape.
In Durham, the median household income is $47,394, compared to $58,415 in Chapel Hill.
And about 51 percent of Chapel Hill’s residents are UNC students.
The convergence of these factors — wealthier residents, concentrated student housing areas and a lack of personal connection to the residents — can make Chapel Hill a suitable target area for crime, said Al Kopak, an assistant criminology professor at Western Carolina University.
“If your consistent way of getting income is through robbing people, you’re going to go where you can be successful in robbing,” Kopak said.
“Suitable targets that make it more or less easier to get away with crime — that’s where they focus.”
Brian Curran was chief of the Chapel Hill Police Department at the time of Carson’s murder, and he served on the Chapel Hill police force for 25 years before retiring in 2010.
Curran said that during his time at the department, he often noticed Durham offenders in Chapel Hill’s arrest reports.
“A number of the guys we would have to deal with would try to come across as tough gang-banger guys, but they came to Chapel Hill because they felt safer here. If they showed the same kind of behavior in Durham, it wouldn’t go over so well,” Curran said.
“They felt like they could get away with it.”
He said before the efforts to revitalize downtown Durham, many residents would also come to Chapel Hill for the nightlife — and this sometimes brought an increase in certain types of criminal activity, like robberies or property crimes.
“We used to really worry about it at Halloween,” Curran said.
“Once the students left, we would still have thousands of people on the street, and a lot of them were just knuckleheads from out of town. It was hard.”
District Attorney Jim Woodall has been prosecuting felony cases in Orange County for more than two decades, and he said he believes most of the county’s crime comes from within.
But he said there have always been a few types of crimes — including robberies, property crimes, forgeries and assaults — that often lead back to Durham offenders.
Woodall estimated that about 25 to 30 percent of the robbery and assault cases his office is currently prosecuting have Durham defendants.
Of the 180 felony robberies and attempted robberies in Chapel Hill in the last 10 years, 33 were committed by Durham residents.
These numbers can be higher for property crimes, of which about 30 to 40 percent are from Durham, Woodall said.
“We’re so close to Durham,” he said. “I think its strictly proximity.”
Homicides in Chapel Hill are rare, but of the 15 murders or attempted murders in Chapel Hill in the past decade, seven of them were committed by Durham residents.
Though Durham offenders make up a larger percentage of Chapel Hill’s overall violent crime than any other group of outside residents, Woodall hesitated to identify this is a trend.
“There have been cases when defendants indicated they came to Chapel Hill because people have money. There’s been a perception that the student population is perhaps inviting targets,” Woodall said.
“But I’ve always said that the crime in Orange County is by and large homegrown,” he added.
An extremely rare case
Despite the closeness in both age and proximity of Carson and her murderers, the lives they led were worlds apart.
Carson, a Morehead-Cain scholar from Athens, Ga., was well-known throughout the University for her involvement, service and love of UNC.
On the night of her death, Carson had stayed home to catch up on studying.
With only a few weeks left in her term as student body president, Carson was stressed and trying to meet all of her obligations.
She was looking forward to graduation and taking some time off to travel.
“We were talking about taking a really long trip,” said Katie Sue Zellner, who was a close friend of Carson’s at UNC and worked with her in student government.
“She was so close to graduating and having some free time, which I think she really wanted.”
By the time Lovette and Atwater came to Chapel Hill on the night of Carson’s murder, both already had multiple criminal convictions.
Both had fallen through the cracks of the state’s probation system, entering into a cycle of repeat criminal behavior that intertwined the two with Carson in a random murder that is extremely rare for Chapel Hill.
“They originally were just looking for someone to rob, and they weren’t going to leave any witnesses,” Curran said.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said the department works closely with Durham Police to catch offenders that cross between jurisdictions.
But he also stressed the importance of reporting suspicious activity to police and following instincts.
“We really do have a very safe community,” Blue said. “Sometimes, because its so safe, we take that safety for granted, and we aren’t as careful as we should be. We all have a responsibility for our own safety.”
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