APD searching for party gunmen
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Atmore Police Chief Chuck Brooks blamed the chaos of the situation for initial reports that a May 18 party during which one person was shot to death and eight others wounded in a hail of gunfire was for past and present graduates of Escambia County High School.
Brooks said he was being hounded by local, regional and national media for information on the shooting, so he passed along what information he had at the time, that the party was graduation related. He found out later that it was actually a birthday party for an ECHS senior who was turning 19.
“The media needed something as we continued to investigate,” the police chief explained. “I was going by what our officers were told by a couple of witnesses at the scene. Several hours later I saw on a social media site that it was a birthday party.”
Brooks said a team of APD investigators are trying to sort out just what happened to turn the party into a bloodbath, and who is responsible for the death of Chrishawn Jermaine Westry, 19, of Atmore who was killed when gunshots were fired in the cafeteria of the former Escambia County Middle School, which was being leased to an individual who in turn rented it out for the birthday bash.
“We don’t have any arrests yet, although we have executed three search warrants,” he said. “Basically, what you have is a large-scale investigation, with lots of evidence and multiple witnesses.”
Police estimated that 300-500 people were at the party, including some as young as age 14, when the first shots rang out, but the person who rented the Atmore Family Life Center facility said he printed 700 tickets, and all but a handful were sold after an “open invitation” was posted on social media sites.
“That can’t be confirmed,” he said. “I can confirm that there was a large number of people.”
Mayor Jim Staff said prior to Monday’s Memorial Day observance that the party had all the right ingredients for disaster.
“When you have teenagers, young adults, alcohol and no supervision, you know how that goes,” Staff said. “You just don’t do that.”
The mayor, who noted that Superintendent of Education John Knott had cancelled the lease on the building and planned to have it demolished, said the situation was similar to the one in which a November 2018 shooting at a private party resulted in the revocation of the Chick-A-Dee Club’s business license.
“Whoever rents the thing is supposed to be there until it’s over,” Staff said. “They’re supposed to have insurance and licensed security. They’re also supposed to have a license, but they had no license for the party. (The woman who rented the building for the party) didn’t even have a license.
“Apparently, that’s the first one like that she’s ever done. She’s had preachers and all kinds of things like that over there, but I’ll bet you that was the first time (such a party) has gone on.”
ECHS Principal Dennis Fuqua, who issued a statement of regret and sympathy on the school’s Facebook page in the wake of the shooting, said he never considered that the party was for graduates of the school. He added that, as tragic as the single death was, he was glad there weren’t other bodies found in the former school building.
“This tragic event was a negative blow to our community,” Fuqua said. “As devastating as it was, I am very thankful that it wasn’t worse.”
Brooks reiterated that his agency would move slowly and thoroughly through its probe into the shooting.
“We don’t have a timetable,” he said. “It’s easy to put handcuffs on somebody. The hard part is proving in court that they committed the crime. We want to make sure we have everything nailed down before we close the case.”