Witness says racial slur preceded Ala. shooting rampage

Witness says racial slur preceded Ala. shooting rampage
This booking photograph released by the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Department shows Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, who was charged in an early morning shooting that left 17 people injured in a bar in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Department)
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - The roommate of a man wounded in an Alabama shooting rampage said Wednesday that the violence started when the gunman came to their door looking for a black man, used a racial slur and opened fire.

The witness also said the black man had been at the Tuscaloosa bar where later shootings wounded 17. Authorities said they weren't yet able to verify a racial motive.

Nathan Van Wilkins has been charged with 18 counts of attempted murder and will face arson charges in the spree that also included fires set to property and equipment owned by his former employer. It's not clear what may have made him lash out, but he was fired in the spring from his job because of a fistfight, had filed for bankruptcy last year and was divorced in 2005.

Brian Felton lives at the house where authorities say Wilkins wounded his first victim before going to the Copper Top bar near the University of Alabama campus. Felton said a man he lives with, who is white, answered the door late Monday and the gunman asked for another roommate, who's black.

Felton said he heard the gunfire and found the white roommate bleeding. His wounded roommate told him that the gunman had asked for the third roommate using the racial epithet.

A detective for the sheriff's department said they hadn't been able to verify whether the target of the shootings had been at the house and the bar.

"We haven't had anything concrete that it was racial," said Sgt. Kip Hart.

Felton is president of the Tuscaloosa chapter of the Legion of Doom Motorcycle Club. He and the roommate who was shot, Bruce Bankhead, own a tattoo shop together and live in the home that's considered the group's club house with their other roommate, Andrew Clements.

Neither Felton nor Bankhead know Wilkins, and they're not aware that he's affiliated with any motorcycle group, Felton said. Police said they'd ruled out motorcycle gang violence as a reason for the shooting.

Felton, a 33-year-old military veteran, was in his room watching television Monday night when he heard their doorbell ring repeatedly, then voices, a scuffle and two bursts of multiple gunshots. He went out to see what happened and found Bankhead bleeding.

"That's when he fell through the door and said he'd been shot," Felton said.

After the shooting, Felton said he found that someone had scratched "KKK" into the hood of his pickup truck. Clements had been with the brother of Wilkins' ex-wife earlier the night of the shootings. Clements left the Copper Top before gunfire broke out there and wasn't wounded.

"Even Andrew doesn't know why he's upset with him," Felton said.

The motive for the shootings wasn't clear, but the 44-year-old Wilkins had a history of several violent outbursts and legal scrapes dating back to the 1980s. On Wednesday, he was on suicide watch after telling investigators he had hoped that officers responding to the shooting would kill him. No date has been set for his first court hearing.

The court clerk's office said it wasn't clear if he had a lawyer.

Wilkins had been fired from his job after a fistfight with a co-worker at Capstone Oilfield Services in March, said Brookwood Assistant Police Chief Jimmy Sellers. Neither was seriously hurt, and Sellers didn't know what caused the fight.

Wilkins told police in April he was angry about his firing from Capstone, and he was pressing assault charges against the co-worker, Sellers said. The other man had also been fired but not arrested.

Wilkins is suspected of setting three fires to equipment or property owned by Capstone. A fire was set to a Capstone vehicle parked at someone's house after the first shooting, and fires were set at two Captsone locations in Brookwood after the gunfire at the bar. Sellers said Wilkins will be charged with arson.

Sellers speculated that once Wilkins snapped, he may have decided to respond to a number of perceived slights. Sellers knew of no connection between the shooting victims and Wilkins' former employer.

"From what we're hearing, he started something so big the night before last that he just said: `I'm going to take care of everything at one time,"' he said.

The firing from the supervisory position he'd held for at least six years likely worsened existing financial problems. A bankruptcy filing from July 20, 2011 shows that Wilkins was taking home about $4,400 each month at the time and that he had grossed about $83,000 in 2010 as a supervisor at Capstone.

Records show that his bankruptcy declaration last year was his third since 1991, and he faced a hearing in a couple weeks. The move prevented a credit union from garnishing his wages at Capstone, to collect a $15,000 debt.

Wilkins' wife Amy filed for divorce in July 2004 after 16 years of marriage, according to Tuscaloosa County court records. She claimed she was beaten and that Wilkins threatened to kill her and sexually assaulted her. They had two children, and a judge ordered him to pay $1,300 a month in child support in the divorce decree in March 2005.

Court documents show that Wilkins' wife asked a judge to hold him in contempt for violating a restraining order issued in July of 2004. She said that he had threatened her at their son's football practice, saying she needed to "watch her back." Records show that he served about 10 days in jail on a contempt citation related to the restraining order.

An attorney who represented Wilkins in the divorce case, Julie Love, said that he was "agreeable with our office from beginning to end" and that they had kept in touch. Referring to the shootings, Love said: "I wouldn't have expected this type of conduct."

Wilkins also has a record of arrests and legal scrapes in Tuscaloosa County dating to the mid-1980s.

On Wednesday, people hospitalized after the shooting were improving. One patient was in serious condition and remained in intensive care, said Brad Fisher, a spokesman at DCH Regional Medical Center. Another was in fair condition, while three more had been discharged.

They are among 17 people hurt by either gunshots or debris during the shooting at the Copper Top early Tuesday morning. Police accuse Wilkins of standing outside the crowded bar and firing from two different positions, sending patrons running or crawling for cover in a chaotic and bloody scene.

A woman who lives next door to Felton said the men are good neighbors. Dorothy Burns said she and her husband were in bed Monday when they heard gunfire erupt.

"It was like six shots. He must have stopped and reloaded and then started again. It was about a dozen shots in all. It was real scary," she said.