FORREST CITY -- One man was killed and two police officers injured in an exchange of gunfire at a Walmart Supercenter on Monday.
Authorities said Bobby Joe Gibbs, 40, of Forrest City had threatened store employees.
"He was walking up to people and telling them that he was going to kill somebody today, that he was tired of it all, tired of people messing with him and he was going to kill someone," St. Francis County Sheriff Bobby May told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Plainclothes detectives responded to a call about 10:30 a.m. and approached Gibbs in the grocery section.
Gibbs pulled out a pistol and opened fire on the officers, said May, citing witnesses.
"He was ready," said May. "When they approached him, he was ready."
Eight shots were fired, according to one witness.
Lt. Eric Varner, 36, was treated and released from a local hospital. Detective Eugene Watlington, 46, had surgery at a Memphis hospital Monday afternoon.
The officers were near the store at 205 Deadrick Road when the call came in that a man there was acting strangeley. Other police officers from several agencies were on the way when the shooting took place.
"The quick response of our officers saved a lot of lives today," Forrest City Police Chief Deon Lee said at a news conference.
Lee declined to provide many details at the news conference, including whether either of the officers fired his weapon or what weapon the suspect possessed, citing an ongoing investigation by the Arkansas State Police.
May told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday afternoon that police knew the suspected shooter. He had an arrest record in St. Francis County, the sheriff said, but he was not known to be violent.
"He had been arrested for some minor offenses, but there was nothing in his background to suggest he'd be capable of this," May said.
"When he went into the store, people realized pretty quickly that something was wrong," said the sheriff.
Multiple law enforcement agencies responded, including the Arkansas State Police, the St. Francis County sheriff's office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other local agencies.
Tammy Priddy, 57, who was working at Simmons Eye Center in the Walmart, said she was preparing patient records for the day when she heard eight shots. She said she hid under a counter in the lab until the shooting stopped.
"The first two shots kind of startled me, and then a co-worker came in and said it was gunfire," Priddy said.
She and a co-worker ran from the building and officers outside the Walmart ordered her to get as far away from the building as possible. She was not injured.
"I was too afraid to think of anything except to get to safety," she said. "We kept our minds straight to where we were safe and we were able to get to safety."Gallery: Forrest City Walmart Shooting
Police formed a perimeter with yellow crime scene tape around the Walmart parking lot after the shooting. Police cars with flashing lights blocked roads to the store. The store was closed and employees were sent home.
"Thanks to the response of our officers this tragic event wasn't as bad as it could have been," Forrest City Mayor Cedric Williams said.
Chastity Boyd, an administrative secretary with the Forrest City Police Department, said Varner had worked for the Forrest City Police Department since 2005 and Watlington had been employed there since 2018.
Lovie Hardrick is a cashier at Walmart and a reading lab technician at Central Elementary School, which went on lockdown Monday because it is a few blocks away from the store.
Hardrick said the atmosphere remained calm in the school Monday morning because they received no information on the reason for the lockdown.
Soon, though, she learned of the shooting from a flood of texts and calls asking if she was OK.
Hardrick said she'd been following news reports on social media and through her daughter, but as of late afternoon, she hasn't spoken to any co-workers who were in the store at the time of the shooting.
Hardrick said she knew Gibbs because he went through the school district and she has worked there for many years.
She said she had spoken to him more recently while he worked at a convenience store near the Walmart. She said he was always polite to her.
Mary Martin, who said she was Gibbs' aunt, went to the Walmart after she heard about the shooting. She said Gibbs didn't have a job, but had previously worked as a disk jockey.
"He was a good person. He loved his family," she said.
Josh Parson, who lives just outside Forrest City, said he knew both officers well. Parson was standing across the street from the Walmart parking lot about noon Monday. It was roped off and state police and sheriff's deputies were blocking the entrances. He said he was waiting to be allowed to go on the parking lot and get his pickup, which he had left there that morning.
Parson said that when he heard who the officers were who were shot, he was not surprised to hear they had responded the way they had.
"These guys run to the scene of the crime, not away from it," he said. "They ran in and did what they had to do and I'm just praying that they'll be OK. It's tough knowing that you knew those people. It hits really close to home."
On Monday night, May said that Watlington's surgery was successful and that his prognosis was good.
"From what I know, it appears that he is going to recover," he said. "The doctors removed his spleen, part of his pancreas, and part of his intestine, but he made it through the surgery and is expected to recover."
Varner's injuries, he said, while serious, were not life-threatening.
"He was shot through and through twice but he had no internal damage," May said. "He won't be moving very fast for a while but he's going to be fine."
With 299 employees, the Walmart Supercenter is Forrest City's sixth-largest employer, according to the Forrest City Chamber of Commerce. The largest employer in the city is a federal prison, which has 551 employees.
Often one of the largest public gathering places in small cities, Walmart Supercenters are open late if not all night. The Forrest City Supercenter is open every day from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., according to walmart.com.
There have been several shootings at Walmart stores, with the worst having taken place in El Paso, Texas on Aug. 3. Patrick Crusius was charged with murder and hate crimes in connection with the shooting.
On Sept. 3, Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart Inc., posted a message for employees on the company's website:
"A month ago, in El Paso, Texas, a gunman with an assault-style rifle launched a hate-filled attack in our store, shooting 48 people resulting in the loss of 22 innocent lives. Just a few days prior, two of our associates were killed by another associate in our store in Southaven, Miss. And hours after the shooting in El Paso, our country experienced another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. This weekend brought tragedy to Midland and Odessa, Texas."
McMillon announced in the letter that the company would "discontinue sales of short-barrel rifle ammunition such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber that, while commonly used in some hunting rifles, can also be used in large capacity clips on military-style weapons." The company would also sell through and discontinue handgun ammunition sales as well as handgun sales in Alaska. That would mark Walmart's complete exit from handguns, wrote McMillon.
Walmart had previously stopped selling military-style rifles such as the AR-15, raised the age limit to purchase a firearm or ammunition to 21, and required a more stringent background check than federal law required.
In the letter, McMillon also asked customers to no longer openly carry firearms in Walmart stores.
Walmart spokesman Scott Pope said the company was working with the Forrest City Police Department with its investigation but declined further comment. Walmart is based in Bentonville.
Information for this article was contributed by Josh Snyder and Serenah McKay of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and by Adrian Sainz of The Associated Press.
Forrest City Police Chief Deon Lee, joined by other first responders, speaks about the shooting Monday. “The quick response of our officers saved a lot of lives today,” Lee said. Video available at arkansasonline.com/211shooting/.
A Section on 02/11/2020
Print Headline: Gunfire in Walmart in Forrest City kills suspect; 2 officers hurt