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B.R. man charged in racially motivated killings

25th September 2017   ·   0 Comments

A law enforcement officer told The Associated Press Tuesday that authorities found a copy of a speech by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the home of a white man accused of killing two Black men earlier this month and firing on a Black family that lives in his neighborhood.

The official spoke to The AP on the condition of anonymity since police are still investigating the murders which took place on September 12 and 14.

Although the suspect was initially taken into custody on Saturday, Sept. 16, on drug charges after police found marijuana in his home, he was released the following day.

He was re-arrested on Tuesday after a multi-agency investigation of the two murders.

Authorities said Tuesday, Sept. 19, that Kenneth James Gleason would be charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths the previous week of a homeless man and a dishwasher who was walking to work.

It was also reported by police that the men were unarmed when they were attacked and that Gleason, 23, also shot at the house of a Black family in his neighborhood before the killings. Neither of the two people in the house at the time was hurt in that shooting.

Interim Police Chief Jonny Dunnam said Tuesday that Gleason is accused of killing the two men but didn’t immediately say what he thought the motive was.

Authorities initially would not speculate on the motive in the two murders, they had not ruled out that they were racially motivated.

The Associated Press reported on Sept. 17 that in both fatal shootings the gunman fired from his car before walking up to the victims as they were lying on the ground and fired again multiple times

Kenneth Gleason was initially being held on drug charges and was given a $3,500 bond on Sunday evening, Sept. 17, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III told The Associated Press. Authorities didn’t immediately have enough evidence to arrest him on charges related to the killings, but the investigation was ongoing, Baton Rouge Sgt. L’Jean McKneely told The Associated Press.

“The victims were … ambush-ed,” McKneely said. “There is a strong possibility that it could be racially motivated.”

McKneely said shell casings from the shootings linked the two slayings, and a car belonging to Gleason fit the description of the vehicle used in the killings. He said authorities had collected other circumstantial evidence but he wouldn’t say what it was.

Neither victim had any prior relationship with Gleason. It wasn’t immediately clear when his first court appearance would be.

The shootings happened about five miles from each other. The first occurred Tuesday night, Sept. 12, when 59-year-old Bruce Cofield, who was homeless, was shot to death. The second happened Thursday night, Sept. 14, when 49-year-old Donald Smart was gunned down while walking to his job as a dishwasher at a café popular with Louisiana State University students, Mckneely said.

“It appears to be cold, calculated, planned,” D.A. Moore said at a Tuesday news conference. He added that the assailant targeted “people who were unarmed and defenseless.”

Gleason, who graduated cum laude from Baton Rouge Magnet High School and is an Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts of America, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, illegal use of a weapon and aggravated criminal damage to property.

Moore said that Gleason could face the death penalty.

Chris Alexander, Gleason’s attorney, said in an email Tuesday that his client “strongly denies the allegations and he will be vindicated.”

The shootings come on the heels of heightened racial tensions in Baton Rouge stemming from the fatal police shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling on July 5, 2016 outside a convenience store in south Baton Rouge. Massive protests followed with police donning riot gear and using aggressive tactics to intimidate and control the crowd. Tensions reached a new level when a lone Black gunman killed three law enforcement officers and wounded several others just weeks after the Sterling incident.

“Baton Rouge has been through a lot of turmoil in the last year,” Interim BRPD Chief Jonathan Dunnam said at Tuesday’s press conference. “Had there not been a swift conclusion to is case, I feel confident this killer would’ve probably killed again. He could’ve potentially created a tear in the fabric that holds this community together.”

Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broome, who pushed for a new police chief and BRPD reforms in her successful bid to replace Kip Holden after the Sterling incident, praised police last week for their work in gathering evidence and making an arrest in the case.

“While the motive is still unclear, this person is off our streets,” she told reporters Tuesday.

D.A. Moore said Gleaon bought a 9mm gun in Baton Rouge on November 9 and a silencer in July which, “thankfully,” had not yet arrived. He added that in August Gleason completed a class to obtain a concealed-carry permit, though he had not yet received the permit.

Smart’s aunt, Mary Smart, said she was still dealing with the shock of her nephew’s death.

“I’m feeling down and depressed. My nephew, I love him, and he was on his way to work and that makes it so sad,” she said in a telephone interview on Sept. 17. “He was always smiling and hugging everybody. A lot of people knew him.”

Smart had a son and two daughters, she said.

She declined to comment on police allegations that her nephew might have been shot because of the color of his skin.

“I cannot say,” she said. “Only God knows.”

No one answered the door at Gleason’s house in a quiet neighborhood of mostly ranch-style homes with well-kept lawns, located about 10 miles from the sites of the shootings, The Associated Press reported.

“He looks like any clean-cut American kid,” said neighbor Nancy Reynolds, who said she didn’t know Gleason or his family. She said it was “hard to believe this sort of thing is still happening.”

Two of Gleason’s cousins said they couldn’t believe he had anything to do with the killings.

“He had no problems with any person,” said Garrett Sing, 37. “He had Black friends, white friends, Asian friends. He made friends with anyone.”

Another cousin, 33-year-old Barton Sing, described Gleason as a “good kid” and recalled how his cousin recently asked him to teach him how to bow hunt.

“He said he never liked guns. That’s why he wanted to get into archery,” Sing said. “He’s the last person I’d think to do something like this.”

Gleason didn’t appear to have any active social media profiles. A spokesman at Louisiana State University said a student by that name attended the university from the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2014 before withdrawing. He had transferred to LSU from Baton Rouge Community College, the spokesman, Ernie Ballard, said.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore wouldn’t comment on what led investigators to him. “We’re actively investigating right now,” Moore said.

Detectives searched Gleason’s home on Sept. 16 and found nine grams of marijuana and vials of human growth hormone at his house, according to a police document. After Gleason was read his Miranda rights, he claimed ownership of the drugs, the document said.

Louisiana’s capital, a city of 229,000, is known for its championship college football team and its political scene. A year ago, racial tensions roiled the city when a Black man was shot to death by white police officers outside of a convenience store. About two weeks later, a Black gunman targeted police in an ambush, killing three officers and wounding three others before he was shot to death. The city is about 55 percent Black and 40 percent white.

Smart consistently showed up for his overnight shift as a dishwasher at Louie’s Café in a spotless white T-shirt and bright white Nike tennis shoes, The Advocate newspaper reported.

“I’ve seen 26 years of folks washing dishes in a busy diner and this guy is untouchable,” Louie’s general manager, Fred Simonson, was quoted as saying. “When you have an employee like Donald, he’s the type of person who’s going to make the person next to him better.”

This article originally published in the September 25, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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