by Max Brantley
KARK Photo at Democratic headquarters
The suspected shooter was also fatally wounded in a shootout with police after a 30-mile chase into adjoining Grant County, a Little Rock police spokesman said. He has now been identified as Timothy Dale Johnson, 50, of Searcy. A sister who lives in Sheridan identified him, police said.
Johnson (pictured) had no prior police record, according to the Little Rock police and a motive was still unknown. "This is one of those where we may never know," said Police Lt. Terry Hastings.
Immediately after the shooting, police sources said they were working to confirm tentative information that the suspect was a former employee of a Gwatney car dealership. The Little Rock police said, however, at an afternoon news conference that the shooter, whom they did not identify, was NOT a Gwatney employee and, so far as they knew, never had been, contrary to some reports mentioned here earlier in the day. Hastings said they hoped to learn from family more about Johnson's background.
It developed later that Johnson had left his job earlier in the day at a Target store in Conway after an incident involving angry grafffiti he had scrawled on store walls. See his photo and a brief update here.
According to one source, information gathered about Johnson indicated he'd exhibited erratic behavior at least one other time in the past. He reportedly made an irate visit to a dentist a year or so ago, but later returned to apologize. But his neighbors in Searcy said he'd been a quiet neighbor and unremarkable while living alone in the home of his late parents.
-- Brian Chilson photo
Gwatney, 48, was taken from the scene in an ambulance and it was believed from the first that his condition was dire. Police spokesman Terry Hastings (shown at crime scene briefing shortly after the shooting) said that he'd been shot three times in the upper body. At 2 p.m., friends with the Gwatney family at the hospital told friends he was still in surgery. Friends say doctors were struggling to keep him stable because of the severity of the wounds.
His death was officially announced at a police news conference originally scheduled for 4 p.m. After delaying the news conference for about a half hour, police announced that Gwatney was pronounced dead at 3:59.
The shooter had entered the party office and asked to see the party chairman. By one account, he said he was interested in volunteering. He walked past a worker who tried to stop him and the shots were heard shortly after. The man ran out and drove off.
We learned later that Gwatney, who doesn't keep regular office hours at the party, had stopped by to sign some checks. He was with Mariah Hatta, the party executive director. She told a friend that she'd heard some noise outside and a man mentioning something about White County. He entered Gwatney's office, shook his hand and then started firing. Hatta ran from the office after the first shot was fired and sought help at the nearby office of the Family Council.
At a briefing less than an hour after the shooting, police said the shooter left in a blue Dodge Dakota pickup. There was some initial conflict about whether the shooter changed vehicles, but those reports seem likely to have been the product of early confusion. A chase of a blue Dodge Dakota pickup ensued minutes later and it ended in Sheridan, where police say the suspect was shot and taken into custody.
Shots were fired at the suspect as the chase neared Sheridan, with county deputies, State Police and city police in pursuit. The chase was brought to a conclusion by driving tactics -- a PIT maneuver - that forced the suspect's pickup off the road near Highway 46 and Little Creek Cutoff.
After the car ran into a field near the Winston Clinic, on the northern edge of Sheridan, there was an exchange of gunfire between police and the suspect. The man was alive when he was airlifted from the scene, but Lt. Terry Hastings of the LRPD said he died later at a hospital.
At a Sheridan news conference, State Police described a chase of roughly 30 minutes and 30 miles that ended in the suspect's fatal wounding. State Police on the Pine Bluff freeway got news of the wanted vehicle at 12:06 p.m. and spotted it at Dixon Road a few minutes later. They gave chase and followed when the driver took the turnoff to Sheridan.
Before it was over, four LR police cars, three state cruisers and Grant County deputies joined the chase. Five miles north of Sheridan, the suspect evaded a spiked puncture strip and roadblock. He was forced into a ditch near Sheridan, but kept driving. Sheridan police began shooting to disable the car, but, even with flattened tires, he kept driving on Little Creek Cutoff to its intersection with Highway 46. Finally, after multiple rammings by three police cars, as shots were being exchanged, the pickup came to a stop. The police say the suspect came out of his car with gun drawn and officers opened fire, finally mortally wounding him. That brought the chase to an end about 30 minutes after it began. Multiple weapons were seized, including a revolver, rifle and semi-automatic weapon.
Officers had established a tentative identification of the man they were chasing, but were withholding it until confirmation. State Police wouldn't discuss the man at their Sheridan news conference. Little Rock police said little more at their 4 p.m. briefing.
A Democratic Party office worker made the 911 call from a florist shop next door. She was heard to tell the police dispatch: "Help, our chairman's been shot."
The shooter was described in the phone call as a white man in his 40s, with whitish hair and wearing khaki pants.
Police picked up the shooter's trail because he threatened someone with a gun nearby not long after Gwatney was shot. A man with a gun confronted an employee in the Arkansas Baptist State Convention office building a few blocks east of Democratic headquarters around noon and said he'd lost his job. This was minutes after the shooting, police said. He pointed the gun, but didn't shoot. He fled in a vehicle, a blue Dodge Dakota pickup, whose description was reported to police. That description led to the police chase.
Gwatney, a former state senator, was an executive in a car dealership group, a business in which employment changes are not uncommon. Rumors immediately arose that the shooter might have been a disgruntled former employee of a Gwatney dealership. But police were firm Wednesday afternoon in saying there was no connection between the man and a dealership.
Though the suspect, Johnson, had a sister in Sheridan, police said they had no idea if his drive in that direction was related or only coincidental.
Gov. Mike Beebe was en route by plane to Northwest Arkansas when the shooting occurred. He got word and returned to Little Rock. He was with the Gwatney family at UAMS. The scene grew crowded with media, family, politicians and others awaiting word on the progress of extensive surgery,
Under the Dome, Rep. Steve Harrelson's blog, reported that the Capitol was in "lockdown" after the shooting.
KATV reported that Republican Party workers at their headquarters on Sixth Street, just two blocks away, were sent home early out of what an official said was "an abundance of caution." Police gave no indication that the shooting was the work of anyone other than the man stopped in Sheridan.
Statements came from politicians and others who knew Gwatney -- Barack Obama, Bill Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, among others.
The Pulaski County Democratic Women will hold a prayer vigil for Gwatney at 6 p.m. Thursday on the Capitol steps. The public is welcome.
Arkansas Business has an obituary here, including a tribute from Gov. Beebe.
John Williams, David Koon and Bob Lancaster contributed to the report.
STATEMENT FROM BARACK OBAMA
“I was shocked and saddened to hear about the tragedy in Arkansas. We’re all grateful for the quick action of law enforcement and quick thinking by Chairman Gwatney’s staff, and Michelle and I are keeping him and his family in our prayers.”
NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC NEWS RELEASE
National Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean issued this statement::
"This senseless tragedy comes as a shock to all of us. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Chairman Gwatney and his family and we pray for his full and speedy recovery. While the investigation of this shooting continues, and our primary concern remains with Bill and his family, we commend the courageous and speedy action of law enforcement officials in apprehending the suspect."
UPDATED STATEMENT FROM HOWARD DEAN
"On behalf of the Democratic Party our thoughts and prayers are with Chairman Gwatney's family and friends and the extended Democratic family in Arkansas. With this senseless act of violence we have lost a good friend and honorable man. Bill will be remembered for his hard work and dedication to the Party, and he will be sorely missed."
STATEMENT FROM SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN
“I am absolutely shocked and dismayed. I was just with Bill Monday in Fort Smith, and as always, he was bright and positive about the future of Arkansas and this country. In a horrific circumstance such as this, my immediate response is to pray. My prayers are with Bill and his family.”
STATEMENT FROM BILL AND HILLARY CLINTON
“We are stunned and shaken by today’s shooting at the Arkansas Democratic Party where our good friend and fellow Democrat Bill Gwatney was critically wounded. Bill is not only a strong chairman of Arkansas’ Democratic Party, but he is also a cherished friend and confidante. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bill and his family today and we wish him a quick recovery.”
UPDATED STATEMENT FROM THE CLINTONS
“We are deeply saddened by the news that Bill Gwatney has passed away. His leadership and commitment to Arkansas and this country have always inspired us and those who had the opportunity to know him. Our prayers are with his family during this time.”
EMIL TURNER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE ARKANSAS BAPTIST STATE CONVENTION
On Wednesday, August 13, 2008, a gunman entered the offices of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. No employee or guest was physically harmed during the incident.
However, just a few blocks away, Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney was critically injured during a shooting at the state office of the Democratic Party.
The details and stories will be told for days to come through the local and national media, but the greater story involves the emotional and spiritual needs of those directly affected by these events. Their lives will be marked by painful memories and unresolved questions.
Please join us today in praying for Bill Gwatney, the gunman, and their families.
REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIRMAN DENNIS MILLIGAN
It is with great sadness that we have learned of the tragic death of Democrat Party Chairman Bill Gwatney. He was an admirable Arkansan and gave so much to this state and his party.
We ask that all Arkansans stand together in thought and prayer for the Gwatney family and the staff of the DPA.
[At the time this statement was released, Gwatney's death had not been officially announced, but his prognosis was believed to be dire. A Republican spokesman said later that Sen. Gilbert Baker had been informed of the death before the statement was sent.]
STATEMENT FROM U.S. SEN. MARK PRYOR
My thoughts and prayers go out to the Gwatney family. Bill was a dedicated public servant who worked hard every day to make Arkansas a better place. He worked tirelessly to lift up working families both as a state legislator and through his leadership at the state Democratic party. Bill inspired, taught and led in so many positive ways, and for that we will always be grateful. Bill was my friend and I will miss him.
U.S. REP. MIKE ROSS
“Holly and I are deeply saddened by the untimely death of my friend and former colleague, Bill Gwatney,” said U.S. Representative Mike Ross, following a morning shooting at the Arkansas Democratic Party headquarters in Little Rock. “His wife, children and family are in our thoughts and prayers. Bill was a great Arkansas business leader and dedicated public servant who I had the privilege of serving with in the Arkansas State Senate during the 1990s. I know I speak for every Arkansan when I say we lost a true statesman today.”
LT. GOV. BILL HALTER
"Shanti and I, and the staff of the Lieutenant Governor's Office, are deeply saddened by the death of Chairman Bill Gwatney. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family. Our hearts go out as well to Governor Beebe, a dear friend of Chairman Gwatney, the staff of the Democratic Party of Arkansas and the countless friends of Bill Gwatney across the state. Bill Gwatney served our Party and our State with great energy and purpose. He will be sorely missed."
FROM THE ARKANSAS DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The Democratic Party of Arkansas is devastated by the tragic loss of our chairman, Bill Gwatney. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, family, and all those he touched in his life. Bill Gwatney was our friend, our party's leader, and so many times our party's conscience. Our state and our party are better for all that Bill Gwatney has done. Tonight the officers and staff of the DPA ask all of you to keep Senator Gwatney's family close to your heart.
Out of respect for the family and the staff of the DPA, the office will be closed until Monday.
Below is a statement from Governor Mike Beebe.
GOVERNOR BEEBE'S STATEMENT ON THE DEATH OF BILL GWATNEY
"Arkansas has lost a great son, and I have lost a great friend. There is deep pain in Arkansas tonight because of the sheer number of people who knew, respected and loved Bill Gwatney. Along with thousands of other Arkansans, Ginger and I are trying to come to terms with such a shocking and senseless attack. We ask all Arkansans to keep the Gwatney family in your thoughts and prayers." -- Governor Mike Beebe