BRISTOL, Tenn. — Friends and family of a black Army veteran accused of shooting at passing cars and police on a Tennessee highway are struggling to accept that he became violent in response to police killings of African-Americans.
One woman died and three others were wounded, including an officer, as police traded gunfire early Thursday with the suspect, identified as Lakeem Keon Scott, 37.
“I will never believe that, never,” said his neighbor, Alan Lavasser, who is white. “Because he was always nice to me and my wife and everyone around here. No way I would ever believe that it was racially motivated.”
Scott – allegedly armed with an assault rifle, a pistol and a large amount of ammunition – was wounded in the shootout and remains hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
In preliminary conversations on Friday, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said he cited anger over the police killings of black men.
“A thorough understanding of his motivation for this incident remains central to the ongoing investigative work,” a law enforcement statement said.
The shots rang out along a Tennessee highway hours before another black Army veteran shot 12 officers at a march in Dallas protesting this week’s police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Also Friday in south Georgia, police said one officer was ambushed when called to an apartment complex to investigate a report of a break-in. Another officer was fired upon by a motorist north of Atlanta.
And just outside St. Louis, police say an officer was ambushed during a traffic stop.
Other departments report being bombarded with threats; some are now requiring officers to patrol in pairs.
Scott’s cousin, Sarah Scott, said she is so close to him he calls her “sister.” She said she is shocked by the allegations.
“He’s into his culture, he really is; but never would he hurt anybody,” she said. He’s an “open, big-hearted person.”
Scott, who has no criminal history, grew up in New York City and moved to Tennessee fairly recently. His cousin said he has relatives in Tennessee and likely moved there because of a lower cost of living. She said he was in the Army but was injured at some point, collected disability payments and did not have a job.
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson confirmed he served from January 1998 to June 1999. He was a private in the 5th Battalion 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, stationed in South Korea.
One of Scott’s brothers, Gerard Griffin, said Scott has three brothers and two sisters and often acted as their “protector.”
Griffin said his brother “was a little angry” when he came back from the military.
“He seemed to be getting more and more frustrated with the condition of black people in America,” Griffin said.
Scott’s neighbor, Alan Lavasser, who is white, said he will never believe the incident was motivated by racial tension over police violence. He said Scott was always nice and friendly.
Lavasser and his wife moved in two years ago and became friendly with Scott. They would give him rides because he didn’t have a car, and Scott would stop by and bring them food.
He called Scott a “nice all-around person” who “would do anything for anybody.”
Civilians also have been caught in the fray of these shootings.
Newspaper carrier Jennifer Rooney, a 44-year-old mother of two, was struck by a bullet as she drove to pick up papers for the morning delivery. The Bristol Herald-Courier reported that her car careened over a median and crashed through a chain link fence.
“I don’t think she had an enemy in her life,” her husband, David Rooney, told the newspaper. “She was the type of person that could have a disagreement with someone and 10 minutes later turn around and help them, and that rubbed off on everybody who she came in contact with.”
The wounded included the longtime front desk clerk at a Days Inn hotel, Deborah Watts, who was in serious but stable condition. Investigators say Scott fired first at the hotel.
“She is like a family to us,” said Days Inn owner Kiran Patel. “It’s horrible. I don’t know how to explain how horrible.”
David Whitman Davis was also injured by flying glass from the gunfire, the TBI said.
Officer Matthew Cousins was hit in the leg. He was treated for superficial injuries and released.
Reflecting on the accusations against his brother, Griffin said “everything he did was wrong.”
“I ain’t condoning nothing he did, at all. But frustration, we can all understand that,” he said.
Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Claire Galofaro and Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.