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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Arkansas Democratic chairman dies after shooting

A man 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 Timothy Dale Johnson, 50, of Searcy, about 50 miles northeast of Little Rock. They didn't know a motive. However, 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, 48, died four hours after the shooting. The former state senator and owner of three Little Rock-area General Motors dealerships had been planning to travel to the Democratic National Convention this month as a superdelegate. He had backed Hillary Rodham Clinton but endorsed Barack Obama after Clinton dropped out of the race.

Former President Clinton and Sen. Clinton issued a statement saying Gwatney was "not only a strong chairman of Arkansas' Democratic Party, but ... also a cherished friend and confidant."

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

"He said he was interested in volunteering, but that was obviously a lie," said party volunteer Sam Higginbotham, 17. 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 Lt. Terry Hastings said the suspect and Gwatney introduced themselves to each another, at which time the suspect "pulled out a handgun and shot Gwatney several times."

Police said that 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," according to Dan Jordan, the group's business manager.

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

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

Little Rock police said they could find no criminal record for Johnson.

The state Capitol was locked down for about an hour until police got word that 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, joined an impromptu vigil at University Hospital after what he called a "shocking and senseless attack." Gwatney was 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.

Sarah Lee, a salesclerk at a flower shop across the 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.

Gwatney is survived by his wife, Rebecca; two daughters from a prior marriage, Christian and Chase; and two stepchildren, Zachary and Emily.