How a Paternity Fight Led to a Mass Shooting in a Trailer Park
Many mass shootings are intimate executions carried out by men who target the women and children closest to them. This is how one of them rocked a community.
A memorial to Betty Mungin, 55; Alexis Mungin, 29; her unborn twins; and her daughter Armani Mungin, 8, outside the trailer in Ravenel Mobile Home Park, where they were shot and killed in May 2016. All photos by Justin Cook
You can see the pain in 27-year-old Quiwanna Mungin's face as she thrusts the walker out in front of her, the way her hands shake as her grandmother lights her cigarette. She won't talk about the father of her seven-month-old son Kayden, or the day she was shot and the man was arrested. But witnesses at the Ravenel Mobile Home Park outside Charleston, South Carolina, that stormy May afternoon still see it in their dreams, how darkness fell and rain bolted down and the stray cats all disappeared.
First, it was quiet. Then there were screams.
"Go check on my baby! My momma!" Mungin can be heard howling to her neighbor on the dash-cam video as a Charleston County Sheriff's deputy kneels in the fresh mud to cuff her ex-boyfriend, Kenneth Ancrum, beside his 2006 white Lincoln. "Your son shoot all of us!"
Minutes earlier, Mungin had walked into her family's blue, single-wide trailer to find Ancrum, 23, holding their baby boy in one hand and his black .40-caliber Glock in the other. Her 55-year-old mother, Betty Mungin, was dead at the man's feet, and her pregnant sister, Alexis, lay facedown in the kitchen in front of her eight-year-old niece, Armani—the two of them shot to death at close range. An autopsy later showed that Alexis's unborn twins, Taylor and Tyler, had been viable when their mother was killed, raising the official body count to five and making this the single deadliest mass shooting to hit Charleston County since the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church last June.
"I didn't plan to go to these people's home and kill these people," Ancrum, a three-year Army veteran, told me when I visited him in a North Charleston jail last month. Minutes earlier, I'd watched the man joke with other inmates in striped jumpsuits as they took turns trading hand gestures with me, licking their lips and flashing toothy grins through the visiting room window. But his bravado faded the moment he sat down, his muscular six-foot-two frame slumped over the phone that connected us, his forehead resting inches from the video screen projecting my face.
"My baby mama went and changed her phone—none of this shit would have happened if she hadn't," Ancrum insisted when I pressed him to explain why a 29-year-old woman lay sealed in concrete beside her mother and her little girl, a tiny fetal twin cradled in each arm. "I was looking for her, so we could talk. She was keeping my son from me. She caused all this shit to happen."
The term "mass shooting" often inspires visions of chaos, of armed men raining bullets indiscriminately on schools or nightclubs or blighted urban streets. The public imagination paints them as capricious storms of violence that appear as quickly as they churn through the news cycle. Above all, we perceive them as public, the victims at best acquaintances of the killer, and at worst random targets of a deep, faceless hate.
But the majority of mass shootings are private acts, neither random nor unpredictable. In fact, close to 60 percent of those that kill four or more people unfold just as this one did in Ravenel on May 17—not gangland feuds or terrorist attacks but intimate executions carried out in quiet homes by ordinary men who murder the women and children closest to them over slights as insignificant as a new phone number or a custody hearing.
At a quarter past noon, police reports show that Ancrum and Mungin sat down with caseworker Melissa Hartz at the Department of Social Services child support office in North Charleston. They were hashing out a payment schedule for their then four-month-old son, who was already smiley and round the way we think of happy babies, with a thick head of curly black hair.
Ancrum had signed an acknowledgement of paternity for Kayden at the hospital. But once the conference began, he denied the boy was his son, demanding a DNA test that derailed any further talk of support. "I was just being a man," he told me in jail. "I didn't have any doubt. I just wanted to make sure."
"Good," Mungin snapped, according to police records. "I want the test also, so now everyone will know!" She stormed out, leaving Ancrum to wait for the buccal swab.
Ancrum left the child support office on River Road just after the sample was taken at 12:44 PM. By 1:27, three generations of his son's family were dead.
Mungin later told police Ancrum first shot her in the leg as she turned to flee moments after finding him with the bodies in the trailer. Ancrum abandoned the infant on an inflatable mattress by the door and gave chase. Mungin was shot again as she ran through the tangle of brush separating her yard from her neighbor's, in the hand and stomach. Witnesses describe Ancrum pursuing her until she fell where the neighboring lot meets the road, taunting her with his gun drawn as she lay in the dirt begging for her life.
"I went and looked out my back window right here, and he was walking around her, holding the gun like this [with the muzzle angled at the ground], talking trash to her," said one neighbor, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution from Ancrum's family. The neighbor called 911 and rushed to help Mungin when the man left to get his car. "She couldn't even speak. She was just going like this," the neighbor added, beckoning across the now-empty yard. "I'll never forget that. Somebody's trying to call for help and can't even speak."
Before he could reach her, Ancrum's car pulled up between them.
"He told me to hang up your phone, get in your house, you ain't got nothing to do with this," the neighbor said. He watched helplessly as Ancrum dragged Mungin into his car and began driving toward the trailer park's main exit—only to surrender coolly and without protest when deputies arrived seconds later. He sat silent and impassive until Detective Barry Goldstein read him his Miranda rights.
According to the detective's report, Ancrum replied with just one word: "Lawyer."
The spillover from misogynist violence to mass shootings is a nationwide problem, but the Mungins were particularly vulnerable because of where they lived. South Carolina leads the country for femicide, and women are killed by men here at more than double the national rate. Across the country, statistics suggest the majority of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands, boyfriends, baby daddies, or exes. Stats also indicate that more than 70 percent of those women died by bullet. A woman is five times as likely to be killed by her abuser if he has a gun, and 20 percent of domestic homicide victims aren't the killer's intimate partner, but their children, families, first responders, and bystanders. What's more, according to one Everytown for Gun Safety analysis, about 15 percent of mass shooters between 2009 and summer 2015 had a prior domestic violence charge.
In Charleston County, guns like the one that killed the Mungins are ubiquitous. There's a whole shelf of Glocks for sale at the Money Man Pawn shop on Savannah Highway, where police records show Ancrum bought his, and you'd be pressed to find one that sells for more than $600.* Other handguns were on sale there for as little as $160.
Governor Nikki Haley and the legislature know their state is uniquely deadly to women. A handful of reforms even muscled their way through the State House after a Pulitzer Prize–winning Post and Courier investigation exposed South Carolina's femicide crisis. But critics say the few protections that actually work aren't evenly applied. In particular, a simple lifesaving tool called a lethality assessment Charleston City Police use might have flagged Mungin for protection in the summer of 2015—but the Sheriff's Department didn't begin rolling it out in their crime-plagued rural county until sometime this year.
Meanwhile, the local electorate has become so hostile to gun regulation in the wake of the shooting at Mother Emanuel that merely supporting a bill to limit abusers' access to weapons helped rout a 38-year Republican veteran of South Carolina's legislature. Though the sheriff's department vigorously denied it, the local fire chief echoed nearly every person I spoke to in Ravenel when he said black residents don't feel police do enough to protect them—and that packing heat is the only way to feel safe from your neighbors.
"It just didn't make any sense why we would allow people convicted of beating their spouse to own a gun. Somebody had to stand up and say that," State Senator Marlon Kimpson told me, rocking back from his desk as the early afternoon sun glittered through his office window from off the Cooper River. "I couldn't in good conscience just keep my seat."
Kimpson is close-cropped and trim, with a trial lawyer's gift for extemporaneous argument and a politician's flashbulb smile—the kind of man who puts just the right amount of pressure into his handshakes and wears his full name monogrammed on the cuffs of his sleeves. He is also a young black Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican legislature.
"When we were debating the criminal domestic violence bill, a lot of the discussion centered on guns," he said. "All of the discussion was about the right to bear arms. Very little of it was about the victims."
The bill he's referring to—the Domestic Violence Reform Act—was signed into law last June, almost a year after the damning Post and Courier exposé effectively shamed lawmakers into action. Federal law already prohibits many convicted abusers from owning guns, but individual states still have to figure out how to enforce penalties and manage bans. South Carolina's new law was written to do just that, though Kimpson and other advocates say it achieves awful little in practice.
"The proponents of the bill wanted the stronger language included earlier on [mandating that guns be taken for] the first offense, but it didn't have the votes in the Senate to pass it," Kimpson continued. Instead, a defanged version gives judges discretion to take firearms for lesser offenses and only permanently bars possession for the most severe convictions or a repeat offense. Domestic-violence reform advocates in Charleston say that discretion has yet to be exercised. "I argued that it was a weak bill, but I voted for the bill because it did bring some reform to the way we handle people who have been convicted of domestic violence," the lawmaker added.
A litigator by trade, Kimpson occupies a plush spot in the middle of a gleaming glass tower in Mount Pleasant, a suburb flanked by the Arthur Ravenel Bridge on one side and Charleston Harbor on the other. The district he represents is just across the river, half an hour from the Ravenel Mobile Home Park in good traffic. But in most other respects, Marlon Kimpson's 42nd District couldn't be farther away if it were 42nd Street in Manhattan.
"We're Obama County—we voted for Obama the first time, we voted for Obama the second time," Kimpson explained. "There's a level of progression here that's not as evident in other parts of the state."
Unsurprisingly, he is among the state's most outspoken proponents of gun control. Like many here, he was galvanized by the massacre at Mother Emanuel and has made a legislative crusade of closing the " Charleston Loophole" that allowed Dylann Roof to buy a gun legally despite a criminal conviction that should have been disqualifying. Meanwhile, the state legislature has lined up behind no fewer than three bills to expand gun rights in the wake of that tragedy, including one that would bar creditors from seizing firearms in a debt collection, another that would nullify any executive order to do with guns, and a "reciprocity" measure to allow Georgians with concealed weapons permits to carry into South Carolina, despite that state's much laxer permitting requirements.
"I'm not saying that they did this while I was outside; I'm just saying it just happened to fall on the same day as the rally [to close the Charleston Loophole]," Kimpson said, detailing how the Georgia reciprocity bill became law. "I'm out, standing and crying with the families of the Emanuel Nine, and they decide to use a special procedure called special order" to force the measure to the floor.
In that context, it's more than a little miraculous that the Domestic Violence Reform Act passed the State Senate at all. The man who got it through was Larry Martin, an NRA-endorsed Republican from the crimson-dipped county of Pickens and Kimpson's frequent opponent. Or at least he used to be: This summer, after nearly 40 years in the legislature, Larry Martin lost his seat.
"They just felt I was an Obama-style gun-grabber," Martin said with a chuckle when I asked him about the law he'd diluted into its ultimate, GOP-palatable form. "They called [Domestic Violence Reform] a Bloomberg-inspired gun bill. I got real raw around the edges for that. I didn't get that from New York City or anything to do with Michael Bloomberg—I got it from Louisiana and got the suggestion from a local prosecutor who was convinced that guns are the predominant choice of weapon" for abusers who kill their victims.
"That was my baby momma. At the end of the day, I loved her." —Kenneth Ancrum
That wasn't Martin's only losing stance: He also supported a bill barring people who had been institutionalized for mental illness from buying weapons and opposed a permit-less carry law.
"Listen, the NRA supported me, they don't support Obama gun-grabbers," Martin said of his record. "With domestic violence being so prevalent in our society and our domestic violence death rate being annually in the top five in the country, we had to do something, and I'm proud that we did."
But when it comes to the future of gun control in South Carolina—even so-called common sense, bipartisan measures—the effect of his ouster has to be chilling.
The trailer on lot 48 is little changed from when the bodies of the Mungin family were discovered there in May. Huge live oaks dominate the neighborhood's landscape, their branches hung with Spanish moss like string lights for Christmas, their shade a welcome respite from the 100-degree heat. A skinny Boxer mix pants from the shadow of the dish antenna where it's been tied up nearby. There's still a white bassinet in the front window, an infant's white button-down shirt hanging from its edge, a Champagne-colored minivan parked outside with a spent Newport box crushed on the windshield.
The only evidence of what happened here a little over two months ago is a small, makeshift memorial beside the front door. Church candles pasted with black-and-white copies of Facebook pictures dot the steps. Below them, a plush bunny with flat saucer eyes stares mournfully up at the sky, its lavender fur soaked straight by daily five-o'clock showers, its arms wrapped around a white cross with Armani's name in black Sharpie. You can still see her pink and white bicycle piled in the ivy out back, waiting for the other grade-schoolers from E. B. Ellington Elementary to come tumbling over the park's busted asphalt on their rusty hand-me-downs.
"It's hard cause we don't see her riding bikes around here no more," lamented one ninth-grader to another as the two of them stood in the grass near the trailer, waiting on nothing, scuffing their shoes in the fine gray dirt. "That little girl, she used to go right through," replied the boy with the slits shaved into his eyebrows, identifying himself as a cousin. "She would have been riding bikes up the street right now," he added, grinding his knuckles into his eye to keep from tearing up.
"You could see the bodies in there," the first boy said. "They let the bodies sit in there for hours and hours and hours. And you could see the small body bag, everybody was crying because you could tell that was the little girl, because the body bag was small."
At the time of the shooting, Ancrum and Mungin had been apart for a year. Besides their son, what bound them was money, or the lack of it, at least insofar as it kept Quiwanna and the boy tied to the overcrowded modular unit—just a few yards from Ancrum's—where her mother, sister, and niece all lived. Police reports show that another sister, Jessica Haynes, managed to escape the trailer in the midst of the shooting, and neighbors said a brother, Devonte, was also staying there.
"There are worse trailer parks on 17, people who don't have anything," the St. Paul fire chief, Doc Matthews, told me when I met with him in neighboring Hollywood, a hamlet so rural that some of its streets dead end into swamp. Though he wasn't on duty that day, Matthews's firefighters were among the first to respond, as they often are to local shootings. "We have to kind of protect ourselves from our neighbors most of the time," he added of the local gun culture. "When you have hopelessness, poverty, you have that type of cannibalism."
Charleston County Sheriff's Department spokesman Major Eric Watson confirmed that violent crime is high across the county's sprawling rural jurisdiction, though he did not provide specifics.
"There've been drive-by shootings in this area. Then nothing happens. Nothing," the fire chief told me, his face stoic even as his eyes brimmed with tears. "I don't know, I can't even begin to figure out why nothing happens. I tell young people don't take it on yourself, don't retaliate, call the police, but the police continue to do nothing. They said they don't want to call anymore."
It was a claim I heard from almost every black resident I interviewed, albeit one Watson refuted in the strongest terms. "They are no stats or numbers that validate those claims at all," he told me. "We are out there on a regular basis. I'm out there myself—I deal with the community quite a bit."
Matthews is the rare man here who loathes guns, won't touch them. But he said he understands why his son carries one, and why others in the black community feel no choice but to arm themselves.
"We need protection from the criminals too, right? Home invasions are here too," he lamented. "We've got guys gone to jail for shootings and stuff, and they're back on the street the next day."
Family homicides are not mysterious. We know, more or less, how and when they happen. Breakups and orders of protection are frequent triggers, as are arrests and disputes over children. That means that even as the Mungins' deaths are typical of mass shootings, they are also typical of domestic-violence killings.
"Domestic violence is about power and control," said Butch Kennedy, founder of Real Men Against Domestic Violence, a Charleston nonprofit that works with men and boys to change the culture around abuse at home. "Once you lose that power and control over that person, that's when he becomes violent, because he has to have that. That's the most dangerous time."
Add guns in the mix, and that danger can quickly grow lethal. It's not clear exactly what tipped Kenneth Ancrum over the edge—he insisted to me several times he "wasn't angry" at the time of the murders—but what is clear is that the slayings happened immediately following the paternity test he said he only asked for because he was "being a man."
It's that very idea of manhood that Kennedy says is so often the flashpoint for domestic killers. Feminist scholars call it "toxic masculinity, " the set of social norms that teach boys to blunt their emotions and answer pain with physical violence, no matter its cause.
"Men are raised to believe that you're supposed to be the provider, you're supposed to be strong, you're not supposed to cry, you're not supposed to be weak, and men take that belief to heart," Kennedy explained inside a small conference room at the sprawling Science Applications International Corporation building outside Charleston, where he works developing communications systems for the Marines. "When you start to disrespect a man and you start to mistreat a man, they start to think that their manhood is being tested. When you get a person that has a mindset that he has to protect his manhood, he's going to do it by any means necessary, and this gun's right here."
In other words, cheap, easy access to a firearm helped ensure a spat that began with a bureaucrat in a nondescript government office slipped almost seamlessly into a massacre.
"He wanted to control how he was going to kill her." —Butch Kennedy
"That was my baby momma. At the end of the day, I loved her," Ancrum told me when I asked him why, in the midst of so much bloodshed, he hadn't killed his ex. The coroner described the shootings in the trailer as quick and close range, the home so otherwise orderly the dead must have barely had time to react. But none of Quiwanna's injuries were life-threatening. A combat veteran with a 2012 tour in Afghanistan's bloody Kandahar province, Ancrum likely could have shot her dead as she ran and certainly could have done it once she fell. But he didn't.
"I didn't want my fucking child to be motherless," he snapped at me, as though it were obvious.
But Kennedy has another theory.
"He wanted her to suffer," he suggests bluntly. "I think his goal was not just for her to know that he had killed her family... he wanted to control how he was going to kill her."
Ancrum currently faces five charges of murder, one of attempted murder, one charge of kidnapping, and one charge of weapons possession in the course of a violent crime. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Yet as the law stands, not much can be done to stop men like him. Like many other mass shooters, Ancrum bought the Glock he kept for "home protection" legally, in April of last year. An employee at Money Man insisted to me you can't even redeem a pawned weapon without a background check, much less buy a gun without passing one, and Ancrum wouldn't have met the threshold to automatically lose his guns even if he'd been convicted following an arrest for domestic violence last August. (Those charges were later dropped.)
But among the recommendations made by the Post and Courier , embraced by the governor's domestic-violence task force and pushed hard at the local level by activists like Kennedy, is the lethality assessment: a short checklist that law enforcement can use to gauge how likely a domestic-violence incident is to turn deadly in the future.
"There are three top questions"—among them, has he ever threatened you with a weapon—"and if any one of those you get a check yes to it, it's a totally different ball game," Kennedy told me. "You have to make sure that you do something for a victim."
The assessments are a policy recommendation, not a mandate, and while some law enforcement agencies leapt into action to implement them in the wake of the Post and Courier expose, most dragged their feet. Still, if Quiwanna Mungin had lived just a few miles up Highway 17 in Charleston proper, city cops would likely have asked her whether Ancrum had a gun when he was arrested last summer. Even without an order of protection against him, a "yes" to that question could have triggered a list of interventions—among them follow-up visits from police and a spot at a local shelter—that just might have saved Betty, Alexis, Armani, and her unborn siblings.
But the Charleston County Sheriff's Department didn't start conducting lethality assessments until earlier this year, at least 12 months after they were adopted by neighboring jurisdictions. It was too late.
Before leaving the jail, I asked Ancrum if he regretted killing all those people. He paused for a moment to consider the question. When he spoke again, his voice was clear.
"Everything happens for a reason."
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*Correction 8/16: An earlier version of this story inaccurately presented the layaway price as the full price for which the guns were on sale.
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