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Alabama gunman recalled as 'friendly with everyone'

Michael McLendon's rampage left 10 people dead, including himself and his mother. He is remembered as well-liked by co-workers, but he might also have been seeking vengeance for perceived slights.

March 12, 2009|Richard Fausset

SAMSON, ALA. — First, he killed his mother.

That, according to Alabama officials, was the first chilling act in Michael Kenneth McLendon's trail of carnage across southern Alabama on Tuesday. He killed 10 people, injured six and left a string of small communities wondering what motivated a quiet young man to obliterate the peaceful rhythms of rural Southern life in March.

"He was just friendly with everyone, and kind of stayed to himself," said Jessica Wise, 27, who graduated from high school with McLendon in 1999. "That's why this is such a shock."

But other details emerged Wednesday of a depressed and troubled young man who was obsessed with guns -- and who may have been seeking vengeance, or was possibly frustrated by a romantic relationship.

McLendon, of Coffee County, killed himself at a metal-louver factory in Geneva, where he had previously worked. He was 28.

Last Wednesday, he quit his assembly line job at Kelley Foods of Alabama Inc., a rural meat-packing and food distribution company, said Erik Ennis, the human resources manager.

Lynn Hughes of Coffee County said her sister, who works at the plant, had said that McLendon had complained recently about being teased by co-workers, and may have been having girlfriend trouble.

Many could hardly believe that McLendon was the man responsible for it all. Older residents remembered watching the well-behaved and quiet boy pitch in Little League.

Jerry Hysmith, 35, a co-worker at the louver factory, recalled him as a shy but thoughtful man -- the only one to offer him a ride home when his car died.

Like others in town, Hysmith said McLendon was fond of guns. But he didn't think much of it in an area where hunting talk, like football talk, is a stock male ritual.

"It was nothing where a red flag would go up," Hysmith said. "He never said anything about hurting anyone."

Elsewhere in the county, grief was mixed with a kind of confusing shock. Many here knew both the shooter and the victims.

At a packed service Wednesday night at First Baptist Church of Samson on Main Street, a guest preacher from Birmingham, Steve Sellers, paraphrased from the Book of Matthew: "It rains on the just, and it rains on the unjust."

Early Wednesday, Gary L. McAliley, district attorney for Coffee and Pike counties, said investigators found notes at McLendon's mother's house that might have been lists of "people who had done him wrong." A statement by state investigators later denied that McLendon had left "hit lists."

State investigators said in a statement late Wednesday that recent developments "may direct them to a motive" for the shootings. But they did not say what that motive might be.

McLendon apparently set the house near Kinston in rural Coffee County ablaze after shooting his mother, Lisa White McLendon, 52, in the head and killing her dogs.

McLendon then took off down state Highway 52 in a little red Mitsubishi, passing bucolic scenes of ryegrass, cows and hay bales. He was wearing khaki pants and a vest with ammunition pockets. He was also loaded with weapons: two assault rifles, a shotgun, a .38-caliber handgun, a Russian semiautomatic carbine, and a military-style Bushmaster rifle.

In the late afternoon, he pulled into Samson, a sleepy farming hub where the big news, before he arrived, was the upcoming start of turkey hunting season.

McLendon drove a few blocks off of Main Street, and pulled in front of a little white house with a porch. He killed five people there.

They included his uncle, James Alford White, 55; his cousin Tracy Michelle Wise, 34; and his second cousin Dean James Wise, 15. Also killed on the porch were neighbors Andrea D. Myers, 31, and Corinne Gracy Myers, the wife and 18-month-old daughter of Geneva County Sheriff's Deputy Josh Myers. McLendon also injured the deputy's 4-month-old daughter, who is in stable condition at a Pensacola, Fla., hospital.

He shot and killed his 74-year-old grandmother, Virginia E. White, as she came to the door of the adjacent house. Tom Knowles, 51, who watched from nearby, said McLendon got out and chased one survivor, shooting at her numerous times and missing.

McLendon drove away from the house, then returned moments later after Knowles had stepped forward to help the victims. Knowles looked in McLendon's face and noticed it was impassive.

"He had that gun aimed at me, and I hollered at him," he said. "I said, 'I ain't done nothing to you, and I don't know you.' "

Elsewhere in town, McLendon shot more victims who officials say may have been randomly chosen.

He killed a man walking down a side street, James Irvin Starling, 24, and injured a man on Main Street, Jeffrey Lynn Nelson, 50.

At a gas station, he killed Sonja Smith, 43, and injured Greg McCullough. Both were near the gas pumps.

Rita Creech, 49, was working at the gas station's deli when she heard two shots ring out. She opened the door and saw McLendon drive up in the red car, firing out of the driver's side window.

"He just pulled up there and started shooting," she said.

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