Leader Blues

Friday, August 15, 2008

TOP STORY > >Gwatney funeral Monday

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Grown men wept Wednesday after their friend and leader was gunned down in his state Democratic Party Headquarters office by a man he apparently didn’t know.

State Democratic Party chairman Bill Gwatney was shot several times in the upper torso about noon and was pronounced dead about four hours later at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Flags will fly at half-mast Monday at the state Capitol and Gwatney’s close friend Gov. Mike Beebe will speak at Gwatney’s 2 p.m. funeral at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church that day. Rev. Vic Nixon will officiate.

Gwatney’s alleged assailant, Timothy Dale Johnson of Searcy, then fled, allegedly pointed a gun at a worker at the nearby Arkansas Baptist Convention headquarters, telling her he had lost his job.

Johnson, a student at ASU-Beebe, then allegedly got into a blue pickup truck and led law enforcement officials on a 30-minute chase to Sheridan (Grant County) where he died apparently in an exchange of gunfire with officers from at least three jurisdictions.

In addition to his family, the governor, state legislators, party officials, business leaders, lifelong friends and just plain folks struggled to make sense of the senseless.

So far, Little Rock police aren’t saying much, and nothing that would help friends comprehend the incomprehensible has come to light.

About 300 people attended a hastily convened vigil Thursday evening on the steps of the state Capitol, about a quarter of a mile from the scene of the shooting on Capitol Avenue.

Pastor Steve Copley led prayers for Gwatney and renowned singer Lawrence Hamilton of Philander Smith College led the assembled in singing several verses of Amazing Grace.

Those in attendance included the governor, several state legislators including Sen. Bobby Glover of Carlisle, Mayor Tommy Swaim and banker Larry Wilson with other Jacksonville leaders, Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien of Jacksonville, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines and Sheriff Doc Holladay.

A few acquaintances and an employee of Gwatney’s shared personal experiences.

Gwatney’s murder is still under investigation, according to Lt. Terry Hastings, spokesman for the Little Rock Police Department.

“We’re not commenting on the items seized from the suspect’s home,” Hastings said. Known to be among those items are 14 firearms, ammunition and a Post-it note with Gwatney’s name and a phone number. Also found were two sets of keys from a Gwatney car dealership and a bottle of antidepressants.

The shooting has attracted attention of national news media, and notes, emails or calls of sympathy to the family or to friends have come from as far away as India.

Currently one Little Rock officer and three state troopers are on paid administrative leave following the exchange of gunfire that resulted in Johnson’s death.

The State Police are investigating Johnson’s death and are awaiting the results of toxicology tests at the state Crime Lab, according to Bill Sadler, the State Police spokesman.

Police have reported that Johnson either quit or was fired from his job at a Conway Target Store on Wednesday, not long before the shooting, after he wrote graffiti on the wall and acted in an agitated manner.

The graffiti expressed frustration with Target and was not of a political or racial nature.

Arkansas Times reported that a search of Johnson’s home turned up no political writings or books. Searcy police told the Times that Johnson had bothered local women he apparently was trying to date or have a relationship with to the extent that they reported him to the police.

Neighbors say he kept to himself.