BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The deadly ambushes of a homeless man on the street and a dishwasher walking to work ramped up the anxiety in Louisiana’s capital at a time when the city already was in the grips of a surge in violence.
Police are investigating whether race was a motive for the unprovoked attacks on the two black men who were shot to death in similar fashion within two days of each other. Ballistics evidence linked the two shootings, police said.
Residents here say they are fed up with all of the violence, no matter what the motive. The number of homicides in East Baton Rouge Parish has already surpassed last year’s total of 62, The Advocate reported earlier this month.
“You feel the tension everywhere you go,” Bryan Mitchell said after walking out of a convenience store near where the homeless man was killed. “Everybody is watching everybody.”
Kenneth Gleason, a 23-year-old white man whom police call a “person of interest” in the fatal shootings, was released on $3,500 bond late Sunday after his arrest on drug charges over the weekend. Detectives said they found 9 grams of marijuana and vials of human growth hormone at his house.
It’s not clear if Gleason has an attorney.
Baton Rouge Police Sgt. L’Jean McKneely has said there was a “strong possibility” that the shootings were racially motivated, but he would not elaborate on why police thought that.
On Monday, interim police chief Jonny Dunnam said in a text message that investigators “still don’t know for sure what the possible motive is.”
In both shootings, the gunman fired from his car then walked up to the victims as they were lying on the ground and fired again multiple times, according to McKneely, who said neither victim had any prior relationship with Gleason.
The shootings happened about five miles from each other. The first occurred Tuesday night when 59-year-old Bruce Cofield, who was homeless, was shot to death. The second happened Thursday night when 49-year-old Donald Smart was gunned down while walking to his job as a dishwasher at a cafe popular with Louisiana State University students, McKneely said.
Terrell Griffin, 49, has a food stand in a parking lot less than a block from where Cofield was shot. Griffin said he waited for the gunfire to quiet before he ran over to find his friend lying face-down on the ground.
He described Cofield as a smart man who had been homeless for at least a year.
“He didn’t bother nobody,” Griffin said. “It’s not right.”
Mike McClanahan, president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge chapter, said the two shootings last week “only added to the level of frustration and fear” that many residents are feeling after a violent summer.
“Right now, there is killing, period, be it racially motivated or black-on-black crime,” he said. “People are sick to their stomach and in fear of their day-to-day activities with all of these killings.”
Gleason didn’t appear to have any active social media profiles. A spokesman at Louisiana State University said a student by that name attended during the 2013-14 school year before withdrawing. He had transferred from Baton Rouge Community College.
Gleason was in Arizona in December, according to police and court records. He was arrested for shoplifting on Dec. 28 at a Target store, said Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Vince Lewis.
According to Lewis, Gleason was loitering outside the store and was asked to leave by store security officers. Instead, he apparently became angry and went into the store, where he stole about $30 worth of wine and razors. Court records show the case was dismissed in late January.
AP reporter Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.