Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson holds photos of DesMonte Leonard, 22,… (Vasha Hunt / AP Photo / Opelika-Auburn…)
A manhunt is underway for the suspect police say shot and killed three young men and injured three more at a Saturday night party near Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.
Former Auburn football players and current students Edward Christian and Ladarious Phillips were pronounced dead along with Auburn resident Damario Pitts. All were 20.
Current player Eric Mack, 20, was still being treated at an area hospital, and John Robertson, 20, was "fighting for his life" and undergoing critical surgery at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson said at a Sunday news conference. A 19-year-old man was treated and released.
"I don’t believe they were targeted; I believe there was a fight and someone got carried away and things went too far," Dawson said.
Police are hunting for Montgomery, Ala., resident DesMonte Leonard, 22, who has been charged with three counts of capital murder.
“We plead with anyone who knows his location, just call 911, wherever you’re at," said Dawson, who believes Leonard is in the Montgomery area.
The Sunday news conference broke more than 12 hours of official silence after shots were reported at 10:03 p.m. Saturday. Meantime, speculation had raged on social media that football players were among the dead. The Lee County coroner's office had declined to confirm any deaths to the Los Angeles Times earlier Sunday morning.
Turquorius Vines told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was partying with friends and former Auburn football players at the University Heights apartment complex a couple of miles from campus shortly before the shooting broke out.
“It was about a female,” Vines told the Journal-Constitution. “It started from a female. We were trying to get away from the trouble and it ended up right in our face.”
He added that the party “went from us chilling with all these females to a massacre for no reason at all. It happened so quick, in about a second.”
Dawson would not confirm those details other than to say that, “It was a party, a fight began, and during the fight shots were fired."
Dawson also said police were looking for two more "persons of interest." He said other arrests were possible.
In football-crazy Alabama, where these shootings are sure to hit deep and resonate long after today, Dawson was quick to separate the football team from the crime.
“The only connection that the Auburn football team has to this is that they are victims of a brutal shooting," he said at the news conference. "Sometimes the young men get a bad rap, I feel like. But they’re the victims today.”
"We're deeply saddened about last night's tragic events that impacted the Auburn community and the Auburn family," Auburn University President Jay Gogue said in a statement released shortly before Sunday's news conference. He added: "We're in constant contact with area authorities and will continue to assist in any way possible. Our attention is now focused on providing care and support to those touched by this tragedy."
Victim Edward Christian had seen his playing career end after a back injury in 2011 but was expected to get a medical scholarship to stay at Auburn University, according to al.com. Ladarious Phillips, a fullback and a fan favorite known as "Dae-Dae," had left the team and was expected to transfer to Jacksonville State.
"Auburn Coach Gene Chizik called Ladarious Phillips' high school coach at 7 a.m. to inform him of his death. He was devastated," New York Times sports reporter Pete Thamel tweeted. "Chizik's message to Phillips' family was this: 'Anything that they need that the Auburn football family can provide, they will.' "
Eric Mack, who was injured but expected to survive, is currently a lineman with the team.
“I am saddened by this," Dawson said in closing the news conference. "This is very much an unusual event for the city of Auburn, Auburn University. It’s sickening that these young lives were cut short, and also the shooter is such a young man. ... We’ve got to learn the value of life again. We’re grieving with you.”