1 killed, 8 wounded, as gunfire shatters celebration
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Friday, May 17, was a red-letter day for Escambia County High School. Little did anyone know that the school’s fortunes would take a 180-degree turn before the sun rose on May 18.
A Friday announcement that the Class of 2019 had set a new record for the dollar-value of scholarships earned was followed by the football team’s victory over a neighboring rival in its preseason contest, and a feeling of accomplishment swept the school community.
The upbeat atmosphere was shattered just hours after the gridiron contest ended, when gunfire erupted in Saturday’s predawn hours at a party that was planned as a celebration for past and current ECHS graduates but at which the attendance had soared into the hundreds. [The party was not a school-sponsored or school-sanctioned event.]
An Atmore man, 19-year-old Crishawn Westry, died as a hail of bullets filled the cafeteria of a private community center that operated at 100 Martin Luther King Drive, inside the county’s former middle school. Eight other individuals were hit by flying lead, including one who remained at midweek in stable condition after being airlifted to a Pensacola, Fla. hospital.
Atmore Police Chief Chuck Brooks said the party turned deadly around 2 a.m. when, according to witnesses, two females became embroiled in a fight, and several males tried to separate them.
A woman who lives just a few yards from the shooting site said the whole neighborhood around the community center was in chaos when the gunfire jarred her awake.
“People were screaming and yelling, and you could hear the shots — bam, bam, bam,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be published for fear of reprisal. “It was real thick fog, and you couldn’t hardly see, but there were people running everywhere, trying to get away from the shooting, and there were some people on the ground that had been shot. It was just plain crazy.”
Shots were still echoing throughout the brick building as police arrived on the scene, said Brooks, who added that officers came across several gunshot victims and began assisting them while trying to restore order.
“Preliminary reports are that it was a graduation party for current and former graduates of Escambia County High School,” Brooks said. “Witnesses reported that two females began fighting, and gunshots rang out when several males tried to stop them. Numerous gunshots were fired inside the building, hitting several individuals.”
Policemen made their way into the cafeteria, where they discovered the body of a male gunshot victim, later identified as Westry. As they tried to gain control of the situation inside the community center, the unidentified suspects fled to the parking lot, where several more shots were fired, and more victims were struck by bullets.
The wounded were taken by ambulance, personal vehicle or other means to Atmore Community Hospital, where seven were treated for injuries that did not appear to be life-threatening and released. The eighth, reportedly a female, was taken by helicopter to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, where she reportedly remained in serious but stable condition as midweek approached.
Police have not released the names of the individuals who were shot. Brooks and APD investigators reportedly spent Sunday and Monday chasing down several leads that indicate at least three suspects are responsible for the shooting.
The police chief said a crowd of “between 300 to 500 people from several counties” was in the cafeteria for the party, for which an open invitation had been posted on several social media sites. He also reported that police found a “large amount of alcohol” in and around the building, although the community center was not licensed for consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The former school building is owned by the Escambia County Board of Education and was leased to a local woman who had operated Atmore Family Life Center there for the past 15 years. The woman admitted that she gave permission for the party but said she did not give permission for the serving or consuming of alcohol during the get-together.
According to a report broadcast by a Mobile-Pensacola television station, Superintendent of Education John Knott has terminated the lease agreement in light of the deadly party.
ECHS Principal Dennis Fuqua issued a statement on the abrupt change in the school’s fortune that occurred over a span of less than 24 hours.
“Yesterday was a day of triumph and tragedy,” Fuqua said in a posting on the school’s Facebook page. “By day, our seniors experienced the high of obtaining $8.6 million in scholarships, and our varsity football team experienced their first win of the season. Yet, by night we all felt the pangs of tragedy due to the acts of violence that have left several of our past and present students injured. It is unfortunate that the event at the community center has tainted the success our seniors and football team felt.”
As of Atmore News press time Tuesday, no arrests had been made.
Atmore police investigators urge anyone with information about the shooting to contact them at 251-368-9141.