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Politician gunned down

Arkansas' Democratic Party chairman is slain at work. The suspect is later shot and killed. A motive is unknown.

August 14, 2008|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

The chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party was shot and killed Wednesday by a man who barged into his Little Rock office.

The suspect fled, apparently to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention about six blocks down the street, where he threatened a security guard. When he left there, sheriff's deputies gave chase and shot him after a 30-minute pursuit, authorities said. He later died.

Police identified the gunman as Timothy Dale Johnson, 50, of Searcy, the Associated Press reported. Johnson's motive remained a mystery.

The state Democratic chairman, Bill Gwatney, was in his office shortly before noon when a man walked into the party's Capitol Avenue headquarters and demanded to see him, authorities said. Gwatney's secretary refused to let him through, but he pushed past her.

He introduced himself to Gwatney, a well-known former state legislator and a superdelegate to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver. Then he pulled out a handgun and shot Gwatney several times in the upper body, police said. Gwatney died about four hours later at a hospital.

"We do not have any indication that he knew Chairman Gwatney," Little Rock Police Lt. Terry Hastings said at a news conference. "There were no heated words."

After the shooting, Gwatney's secretary rushed across the street to the Frances Flower Shop and told employees to call 911, store clerk Sarah Lee said.

The suspect "kept asking to see the chairman, and she tried to stall him, but he went past her, and she heard three gunshots," Lee said of the secretary. "She was sitting here going over it in her mind -- he was a white man in a white shirt with khaki pants, middle-aged."

Lee said Gwatney, 48, was one of the shop's best customers, always ordering flowers when people died or were ill. "He's very nice, a very polished man," she said. "It's very sad to hear that something like this has happened to him."

A man fitting the description of the gunman entered the nearby Arkansas Baptist State Convention offices shortly after the shooting, executive director Emil Turner said.

The Arkansas television station KTHV reported that the intruder flashed a handgun and told people at the Baptist convention that he had recently lost his job. He pointed his weapon at a guard but did not fire, KTHV reported.

Witnesses saw the gunman drive off in a blue Dodge pickup, and authorities gave chase. They caught up with him in Grant County, just south of Little Rock, police said. Sheriff's deputies opened fire and hit him. The suspect was airlifted to a hospital, where he died, police said. Two handguns were found in his truck, the Associated Press reported.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat and close friend of the party chairman, was flying to another part of the state when he learned of the shooting. He returned to the capital and joined Gwatney's family at the hospital, spokesman Matt DeCample said.

Gwatney, who was Beebe's finance chairman in 2006, represented the Jacksonville region in the state Senate for a decade. He also owned several car dealerships.

"Arkansas has lost a great son, and I have lost a great friend," Beebe said. "There is deep pain in Arkansas tonight because of the sheer number of people who knew, respected and loved Bill Gwatney."

Other politicians paid tribute as well.

"It is indeed a tragedy, for not only the city but the entire state of Arkansas," Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said. "I know sometimes in these days and times we see these senseless tragedies. . . . I hope we can learn the facts of this."

Former President Clinton, who served for many years as governor of Arkansas, his home state, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said that their prayers were with Gwatney's family.

"We are deeply saddened by the news that Bill Gwatney has passed away," the Clintons said in a statement. "His leadership and commitment to Arkansas and this country have always inspired us."

Gwatney supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination but switched his allegiance to Barack Obama when she withdrew from the race.

Obama, the presumptive nominee, sent his condolences too. "Michelle and I are heartbroken to hear about the tragic loss of Chairman Bill Gwatney," he said in a statement. "We're praying for his family and friends and all who worked with him and loved him."

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miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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