HENNING, Tenn. — Two gunmen opened fire Monday at a post office in a rural West Tennessee town that was home to "Roots" author Alex Haley, killing two workers perhaps as part of an attempted robbery.
The shooting happened at the one-story, brick building in Henning, that is a hub of activity in the small town. Authorities were looking for a vehicle but Lauderdale County District Attorney Mike Dunavant would not elaborate except to say the case involved "disturbing violence."
No arrests were made, and postal officials pleaded with the public to come forward with information about the crime.
The victims were identified as Judy Spray, 58, a rural carrier associate, and Paula Robinson, 33, a retail clerk.
The post office, which sits between a self-service car wash and a coin-operated laundry called "Mom's" in this western Tennessee town of about 1,200 people, often has residents coming in to pick up their mail. Home delivery isn't provided in Henning, some 45 miles northeast of Memphis.
The two workers killed were the only ones in the post office during the shooting, said Yulanda Burns, a spokeswoman for the U.S. postal inspection service. Post offices are not immune to crime, but robberies at post offices are uncommon, said Beth Barnett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service.
Keith Morris, assistant inspector in charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Memphis, said officials are investigating several motives.
"We have a lot of theories that are in play at this point," he said.
The bodies were not found in the customer area of the post office, said Burns.
"It's very bold and brazen. It's a senseless killing," she said.
Mary Hammock, who works at a nearby market, said Monday afternoon that she had been in the post office about 8:25 a.m. and noticed it was not as loud or busy as normal.
"I knew something didn't feel right because it was real quiet," she said. She returned to the market and heard police sirens about 15 minutes later.
"I might have been real close probably to losing my life," she said.
Around midday, plainclothes investigators were scanning the area along a railroad track that sits behind the post office. Lines of yellow police tape kept people away from the building as a crowd gathered nearby, some sitting in chairs, waiting for more information about what happened.
Crime scene investigation trucks were parked outside, including one from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Ella Holloway, who lives within walking distance of the post office, said she knew one of the women killed, later identified as Robinson. Holloway said she would be greeted by the woman's smile when she went to the post office to buy stamps. Another local woman said she knew Spray, describing her as "nice as can be."
"When we were outside, she would wave and smile at us," Wendy Willis said.
Tony Burns, a state employee at the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, said his sister-in-law is a postal service worker who was assigned to the Henning office Monday. She told him that the shooting happened during a robbery attempt, but that she escaped unharmed. The sheriff's department also described the incident as a robbery.
Standing on a street corner near the post office, city resident Emmitt Hennings, a 71-year-old retiree, said it was hard to comprehend what happened.
"I just couldn't believe it, not in this town," Hennings said. "It's too quiet."
Postal officials offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.
The bodies were to be taken to the Shelby County medical examiner's office in Memphis for autopsies. An ambulance had left late Monday, presumably with the bodies.
The post office is less than a half-mile away from the museum dedicated to the "Roots" author Haley, who died in 1992. The 1976 book won a Pulitzer Prize and was the basis for a top-rated TV series. The story chronicled his family history from Africa to slavery and freedom in the U.S., and it inspired many people to research their own families' roots.
Associated Press writers Lucas L. Johnson II and Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.