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Three killed in Ala. shooting; 2 were former Auburn football players

By Jim Mustian and Larry Gierer, McClatchy Newspapers –

AUBURN, Ala. — Authorities were searching Sunday for a gunman accused of fatally shooting three men at a pool party Saturday night near Auburn University. Two former Auburn football players were among the slain, and three other victims were wounded in an outbreak of violence that startled the Lee County community.

Police issued capital murder warrants for Desmonte D. Leonard, 22, of Montgomery, Ala., and urged him to turn himself in. A manhunt for Leonard included federal and local law enforcement agencies, and Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson said, “We won’t rest at the Auburn Police division until he is located.”

“It’s sickening that young lives were cut short, and also the shooter is such a young man,” Dawson said at a news conference here. “It’s a sign that we’ve got to learn the value of life again. If I could bring them back again for the parents today I would. Unfortunately, I can’t do that.”

The authorities identified the victims as Edward J. Christian, 20, a former Auburn player from Valdosta, Ga.; Ladarious K. Phillips, 20, of Roanoke, Ala.; and DeMario A. Pitts, 20, of Opelika, Ala. Christian was pronounced dead at the scene, while Phillips and Pitts died at East Alabama Medical Center, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said.

Injured in the shooting was Eric Mack, a 20-year-old a sophomore guard who developed into a top backup for Auburn last season after red-shirting the year before. Mack suffered non life-threatening injuries and was treated and released from the medical center, a hospital official said.

Also shot were Xavier D. Moss, 19, and 20-year-old John Q. Robertson. Moss was treated and released, while Robertson was said to be “fighting for his life” at UAB Hospital.

Authorities declined to release many details of the shooting, and also would not comment on a possible motive. Dawson said investigators had gathered a “substantial amount of evidence” pointing to Leonard, who was said to be considered armed and dangerous.

“I’m not going to get into any of the evidence today,” he said. “That will be for the courtroom later on.”

The shooting happened about 10 p.m. Saturday in the clubhouse area of the University Heights apartment complex. TaMarcus Warren, 19, said he saw a body on the ground near the pool covered by a sheet.

“Everybody was crying,” said Warren, whose sister, Meranda Patrick, lives at the apartments. “We were just about to go the pool ourselves.”

Investigators said Leonard fled the scene in a vehicle with two other men, persons of interest whom police declined to identify. That vehicle was found abandoned off Wire Road in Macon County, authorities said.

Court documents show Leonard has been previously charged with theft of property and second-degree assault. In the assault case, he was accused of shooting a 16-year-old boy in the groin area with a handgun; court documents indicate that case was later “no-billed” by a grand jury.

Dawson said Leonard had no ties to the university, and he stressed that the “only connection that the Auburn football team has to this is that they are victims of a brutal shooting.

“Sometimes the young men get a bad rap, I feel like, but they’re the victims today,” the chief added.

The shooting sent tremors through this quiet community.

“This type of stuff’s not supposed to happen here,” said David Scroggins, an Auburn graduate who frequents the apartment complex and lives nearby.

“I never expected anything like this,” added Daniel Katz, who lives in the apartment complex and works in a hospital.

Alex Waldhour, a senior theatre major at Auburn who lives in University Heights came home Saturday night and wasn’t able to get inside.

“I saw a lot of police cars and thought there’d been an accident,” Waldhour said. “I called my dad and mom and let them know I was OK. It got a little emotional.”

Waldhour said previous parties at the complex have gotten excessive, but “nothing like this.”

Cody Jinnette, a sophomore who at University Village, learned about the shootings via Twitter and went out to the scene. “I just can’t believe something like this would happen at Auburn,” he said. “I have several friends who live there. They were not there when it happened, thank God. I’ve always felt safe in Auburn. There are dangerous people everywhere. This is just an isolated incident.”

Law enforcement, city and university officials also expressed shock at the violence. Auburn Mayor Bill Ham Jr. said in an interview that the impact of the incident was reminiscent of the 2008 shooting death of Auburn University freshman Lauren Burk, another high-profile slaying.

“It’s certainly a sad day and a senseless act of violence and loss of life,” he said.

Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said, “There’s that segment out there (of young people) that feel like the only way they can settle a dispute is at the point of a gun,” he said.

Auburn University president Jay Gogue expressed condolences to the victims’ families, saying in a statement that he was “deeply saddened.”

Coach Gene Chizik said that he was “devastated by the passing of three young men, including two that I personally knew in Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips and my heart goes out to their families.

“My thoughts and prayers are with their families and all of the victims involved in this tragic incident,” he added. “Nobody should ever have to endure such unimaginable grief, and we will love and support the victims’ families during this terribly difficult time.”

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