Police investigating the fatal and apparently random shootings of two black pedestrians in Baton Rouge last week said Sunday that they have a man in custody and believe the killings could have been racially motivated.
Police arrested Kenneth Gleason, 23, on unrelated drug charges after he was brought in for questioning in connection with the shootings, Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. L’Jean McKneely Jr. said.
Gleason’s car fit the description of one police had been looking for — but there was not enough evidence yet to charge Gleason with murder, McKneely told the Associated Press. He remains a person of interest, the police spokesman added.
“There is a strong possibility that it could be racially motivated,” McKneely told the AP.
The first shooting occurred around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, at an intersection near the Baton Rouge General Medical Center, just east of downtown. Police said they arrived at the scene to find Bruce Cofield, a 59-year-old homeless man, lying on the road with multiple gunshot wounds. He died at the scene, police said.
Markia Johnson, who lives nearby, told the Advocate that she heard 12 shots fired in total. Only later did she realize that the victim was a homeless man her family frequently passed and referred to as “Mr. Bruce.”
“The man didn’t bother anyone, not to get shot like that,” Johnson told the newspaper. “It’s senseless.”
The second shooting occurred around 11 p.m. Thursday near the Louisiana State University campus, a few miles southwest of where Cofield was killed. This time, as well, police found 49-year-old Donald Smart lying on the road with multiple gunshot wounds. He, too, was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
Smart had been walking to his job at Louie’s Cafe, a 24-hour diner just off the LSU campus, when he was shot, according to Fred Simonson, general manager of the diner. He said Smart had worked at the diner for at least 20 years as a dishwasher, usually on the late-night shift.
“It’s an entry-level job. He was not an entry-level guy. He’s not replaceable,” Simonson told The Washington Post on Sunday. “He was a tremendously hard-working, one-of-a-kind guy.”
News of his death had shocked those who worked with him, Simonson said. The diner closed temporarily the following evening, a rare occurrence at the restaurant, which is usually open 362 days a year.
“The night crew was pretty broken up,” Simonson said. “Everybody that worked with him closely was pretty broken up about it.”
On Sunday, the general manager set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money to support Smart’s family and funeral expenses. Smart’s niece, Ariel Smart, told WAFB News that her uncle was survived by his wife and three children.
“He was a good man. He had kids to live for, too,” Ariel Smart told the news station. “He was just trying to go to work. He wasn’t bothering nobody. And then to leave him in the middle of the street like a dog, that’s just too much.”
After examining shell casings from both shootings and determining that they were connected, police launched an “all-out manhunt” Friday for a suspect described as a roughly 5-foot-9 white male with a military-style haircut and a possible tactical vest, the Advocate reported. The newspaper obtained an internal police bulletin that noted that the gunman had shot both victims from his car as they were walking, then left his vehicle and “shot them to death.”
On Friday, interim Baton Rouge police chief Jonny Dunnam told the Advocate that there was no evidence that the killings were racially motivated, though both victims were black.
When asked Sunday what new evidence might have led police to change their stance, McKneely, the spokesman, told The Post that investigators were still looking at all possible motives.
“But that [racial] motive is definitely being looked at,” he said in an email.