Police Search for Suspect in Auburn Killings
By the CNN Wire Staff
(CNN) — Alabama authorities abruptly left a Montgomery home early Tuesday morning without saying if they had captured a triple murder suspect that was believed to be hiding inside.
Police surrounded the home for over six hours, dosed the attic with tear gas and search the residence in the hopes of finding the man accused of killing three people and wounding three others near Auburn University.
No one from the large contingent of officers told reporters assembled in the area, if 22-year-old Desmonte Leonard, now wanted on three counts of capital murder, had been apprehended.
Earlier Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange told reporters that police came to the home after at least three tips about someone who looked like Leonard being in the area.
Police had shot “a powerful dose” of tear gas in an attempt to force the suspect out of the attic, Strange said. They had searched the attic one time and had not located the suspect, though coughing could be heard. Another search was planned, Strange said.
“They are going to do another, what they call toe by toe search, through the entire attic looking in HVAC ducts, looking in chimneys, looking in every crevice,” said Strange.
Montgomery County Sheriff D.T. Marshall said the owner of the house returned home to find the suspect inside and called police.
Just after midnight a large group of police left the area and Strange said the effort will bolster back up after daylight, CNN affiliate WSFA reported.
But hours later, all officers had left the scene.
Saturday night’s shootings took place at an off-campus apartment complex in Auburn, about 50 miles east of Montgomery. The dead included two former Auburn football players, and a current football player was among the wounded.
Leonard has been the target of an intense manhunt for two days, and two other men have been jailed on charges of hindering prosecution in the case.
Auburn police said one of those arrested, 18-year-old Jeremy Thomas, escaped from the scene of the shootings with Leonard. Montgomery police say 41-year-old Gabriel Thomas tried to mislead investigators during the search, and they arrested him Sunday at the request of U.S. marshals.
Police did not immediately disclose the relationship, if any, between the two men. Both were arrested in Montgomery, but Jeremy Thomas was expected to be transferred to a jail in Lee County, which includes Auburn, police said.
Officers received a call reporting the shooting at the University Heights apartments clubhouse about 10:03 p.m. Saturday, Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson told reporters Sunday. Arriving officers found Edward Christian, 20, dead at the scene.
Christian, of Valdosta, Georgia, was off the football team because of an injury, Dawson said. Former player Ladarious Phillips, 20, and Auburn resident Demario Pitts, 20, died later at a hospital, he said. Two others, including current Auburn sophomore offensive lineman Eric Mack, 20, of Cameron, South Carolina, were taken to East Alabama Medical Center in the nearby town of Opelika.
Mack was released from the medical center Sunday morning, while another man, 19-year-old Xavier Moss, was treated and released from the same facility.
A third man, 20-year-old John Robertson, was transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, where he was in critical condition after being shot in the head.
Leonard and two other men were thought to have fled the scene in a white Chevrolet Caprice, authorities said. Police later found the car abandoned in an adjacent county, Dawson said.
The Opelika-Auburn News reported Monday that a $15,000 reward — $10,000 from the FBI and $5,000 from the U.S. Marshals Service — was offered for information leading to Leonard’s arrest and conviction.
Police have a motive in the shooting, but Dawson would not release it, saying “that’s for the courtroom, later on.” He did say authorities believe gunfire erupted during a fight at a party.
Several media outlets cited unidentified witnesses as saying the altercation was over a woman.
Witness Turquorius Vines told affiliate WGCL the violence was sudden.
“It went from us chilling with all these females to a massacre for no reason at all,” he said.
“I heard what appeared to be six or seven gunshots outside my apartment,” resident Nate Conoly told affiliate ABC 33/40. He said he couldn’t see anything when he peered outside his window, but heard screaming. “… I went back into my apartment and locked the door,” he said.
A woman identifying herself as only Leonard’s grandmother answered the telephone Sunday at an address listed as his in court records, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.
“I’m just very surprised by all of this,” she told the newspaper. “This is not the grandson I know, I can tell you that. I’ve just been sitting here, can’t hardly move, I’m so in shock by it. It just doesn’t seem real.”
Dawson said he was not aware of any connection between Leonard and the university.
Auburn officials expressed condolences to the victims’ families, saying many athletes on the football team were grieving after the deaths of Christian and Phillips.
Gene Chizik, Auburn’s head football coach, called it “a sad, sad day for everyone associated with the entire Auburn family.” Chizik said he was “devastated” by the three deaths, including those of Christian and Phillips, whom he knew personally.
“We have a lot of people on our football team that are hurting right now, and we’re going to do everything we can to help them get through this,” he said. “We are relieved that Eric Mack, who was also a victim in this incident, is expected to make a full recovery. This is a very trying time for everyone involved, and I would just ask that you lift up the victims and their families in your prayers.”
CNN’s Joe Sutton, David Mattingly, Greg Morrison and Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.