Huffpost Politics

Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney Killed In Shooting, UPDATED

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A man recently fired from a Target store barged into the Arkansas Democratic headquarters Wednesday and fatally shot the state party chairman before speeding off in his pickup. Police later shot and killed the suspect after a 30-mile chase.

Police identified the suspect as 50-year-old Timothy Dale Johnson of Searcy, a town about 50 miles northeast of Little Rock. They said that moments after the shooting, Johnson pointed a handgun at a worker at the nearby Arkansas Baptist headquarters. An official there said he told the worker, "I lost my job."

Chairman Bill Gwatney died four hours after the shooting. The 48-year-old former state senator had been planning to travel to the Democratic National Convention later this month as a superdelegate. He had backed Hillary Rodham Clinton but endorsed Barack Obama after she dropped out of the race.

Clinton and her husband, former President and former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, issued a statement saying Gwatney was "not only a strong chairman of Arkansas' Democratic Party, but ... also a cherished friend and confidant."

Conway police said a Target store 30 miles north of Little Rock had fired Johnson earlier Wednesday because he had written graffiti on a store wall. The age and address provided by Conway officers matched those provided by Little Rock police for its suspect.

Witnesses said the gunman entered the party offices shortly before noon and said he wanted to see Gwatney.

"He said he was interested in volunteering, but that was obviously a lie," said 17-year-old party volunteer Sam Higginbotham. He said that when the suspect was refused a meeting with Gwatney, he pushed past employees to reach the chairman's office.

Little Rock police spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said the suspect and Gwatney introduced themselves to one another, at which time the suspect "pulled out a handgun and shot Gwatney several times." Hastings didn't say what the two discussed, but said their discussion was not a heated one.

Police said after leaving the office, the suspect pointed a gun at a worker at the Baptist headquarters seven blocks away. When asked what was wrong, the man said "I lost my job" said Dan Jordan, the group's business manager.

After the suspect avoided spike strips and a roadblock along U.S. 167 near Sheridan, police rammed his car, spinning it, said Grant County Sheriff Lance Huey. He got out of his truck and began shooting, and state police and sheriff's deputies fired back, striking him several times, he said.

Hastings said investigators found at least two handguns in the suspect's truck.

There was a busy signal Wednesday night at a phone number listed under Johnson's name. Little Rock police said they could find no criminal record for him.

According to Conway police spokeswoman Sharen Carter, Target fired Johnson before 8 a.m. Wednesday because he had written on a wall. Other store employees said Johnson's body shook as he turned in his ID badge. A Target manager had called police because of the incident but the wall had already been cleaned.

The state Capitol was locked down for about an hour until police got word the gunman had been captured, said Arkansas State Capitol police Sgt. Charlie Brice.

Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who served with Gwatney in the state Senate, had been on a flight to Springdale in northwestern Arkansas. He returned to Little Rock and joined an impromptu vigil at University Hospital after what he called a "shocking and senseless attack." Gwatney had been Beebe's finance chairman during the governor's 2006 campaign.

"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," Beebe said.

Karen Ray, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, sent her workers home early "out of an abundance of caution."

"Our hearts go out to everyone at the Democratic headquarters. What a tragedy," Ray said. "This is just a very upsetting, troubling and scary thing for our staff as well."

Sarah Lee, a sales clerk at a flower shop across street from the party headquarters, said that around noon Gwatney's secretary ran into the shop and asked someone to call 911.

Lee said the secretary told her the man had come into the party's office and asked to speak with Gwatney. When the secretary said she wouldn't allow him to meet with Gwatney, the man went into his office and shot him, Lee said.

Last November, a distraught man wearing what appeared to be a bomb walked into a Clinton campaign office in New Hampshire and demanded to speak to the candidate about access to mental health care. A hostage drama dragged on for nearly six hours until he peacefully surrendered.

The confrontation brought Clinton's campaign to a standstill just five weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Security for her was increased as a precaution. She said she did not know the suspect.

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