Democratic Leader Mourned; No Murder Motive Apparent

August 15, 2008 - 4:07 PM
Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney was remembered as blunt but loyal and charitable, a day after he was gunned down in his office.
Democratic Leader Mourned; No Motive Apparent (image)

Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney was remembered as blunt but loyal and charitable, a day after he was gunned down in his office.

Little Rock, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney was remembered as blunt but loyal and charitable, a day after he was gunned down in his office.

More than 250 people gathered Thursday evening in front of Arkansas' Capitol to remember Gwatney, who died Wednesday after a gunman burst into the state Democratic Party headquarters and shot him. The prayer vigil capped a day of remembrances at the state Capitol where Gwatney spent 10 years as a senator.

"He was a special person and he cared about his state," said Gov. Mike Beebe. "If he were here, he would tell us to not forget what we're about, and that's taking care of the people."

Gwatney's killer, Timothy Dale Johnson of Searcy, was shot dead by police after a 30-mile chase into Grant County. Police investigating the shooting said they had so far not found any link between Johnson and Gwatney.

Police said Johnson, 50, owned at least 16 guns, had antidepressant pills and made out a will before shooting Gwatney. He had driven there more than 30 miles after losing his job at a Target store over some graffiti written on a store wall.

The name "Gwatney" and a telephone number were written on a Post-It note found in Johnson's home, police said. They wouldn't say whether the number matched the Democratic headquarters or a Gwatney-owned car dealership, if either.

"Those are things we're investigating. Right now we don't have any indication of motive as far as it deals with Mr. Gwatney," Little Rock police Lt. Terry Hastings said.

Until Wednesday morning, when he wrote profanity-laced graffiti on a store wall and was questioned by supervisors, Johnson had been a good employee in a stockroom, Target spokeswoman Brie Heath said Thursday.
Democratic Leader Mourned; No Motive Apparent (image)

Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney was remembered as blunt but loyal and charitable, a day after he was gunned down in his office.

"This was different behavior for him," Heath said. "The manager asked him if he needed to talk. At that point he turned in his badge and left the building."

His behavior was alarming enough Wednesday that the company had called police about it.

According to Conway police spokeswoman Sharen Carter, Target fired Johnson before 8 a.m. Wednesday because he had written on a wall. A manager had called police because of an "extremely irate" employee, Carter said. The graffiti, including "Target is run by dumb jocks and sorority w-----," had already been cleaned and Johnson had left by the time officers arrived.

Thursday morning, bouquets and wreaths lined the walkway outside the locked doors of the party headquarters. "We will miss you Senator Gwatney," said one note among the flowers.

Gwatney's funeral is scheduled for Monday in Little Rock. Johnson's funeral arrangements are private.

At the vigil, Beebe remembered Gwatney as a loyal and at times brash friend who wanted the best for all Arkansans.

"He was pretty blunt, but always had something good to say, even if it was something someone didn't like on the other side," Beebe said as first lady Ginger Beebe stood by his side at a news conference at the state Capitol. "He didn't need a spokesman."

Beebe, who served with Gwatney in the state Senate, appeared emotional as he talked about a close friend who he said was outspoken from the outset when Gwatney entered the Legislature in 1992. Beebe said that feistiness and a concern for the state led him to back Gwatney as the party's chairman last year.

Blaine Hayes, a parts manager at Gwatney Chevrolet, fought back tears as he recalled how he asked Gwatney for a loan to pay for burial expenses for his father.

"I went to Bill and I said, 'I hate to do this but I need to borrow some money to bury my father,'" Hayes said. "He said, 'Blaine, whatever you need, you've got it.' That's the kind of man Bill was. He had a deep love for all of his employees, and I can say we all had a deep love for him."

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell contributed to this report from Searcy, Ark.