BILOXI, Miss. – Police on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast announced late Monday that they have identified a suspect in the slaying of a uniformed officer gunned down outside a Biloxi police station, adding that a tense manhunt continues.
Authorities said a warrant has been issued on a capital murder charge for Darian Tawan Atkinson, who remains at large since the shooting Sunday night of Patrolman Robert McKeithen, a 23-year veteran of the Biloxi force. McKeithen, 58, had been set to retire this year.
Law enforcement officials speaking at a Monday evening news conference said they have no indication why the officer was gunned down, or whether the officer was targeted or shot at random.
“I can say that’s probably the saddest thing about this case is we have no motive, we have no reason for him to do this to anybody,” said Sheriff Troy Peterson of Harrison County.
Authorities have said a gunman approached McKeithen in the station’s parking lot Sunday night after coming inside the station and shot the officer multiple times. Images taken from a surveillance camera inside the station showed a suspect wearing navy blue shorts, a black T-shirt, a red beanie cap and dark high-top sneakers.
Biloxi Police Chief John Miller said earlier Monday that the suspect, then still unidentified, “seemed a bit nonchalant” as he walked around. Miller has turned the case over to the neighboring Gulfport Police Department, saying it was better to have an outside agency investigate the death of one of Biloxi’s own officers.
Gulfport Police spokesman Sgt. James Griffin said investigators had determined Atkinson’s identity through tips and interviews during the day.
“This isn’t over. He is not in custody,” said Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania, addressing reporters at the news conference Monday evening. He said of Atkinson: “He is a genuine threat to this community.”
Asked if Atkinson had a criminal record, Papania said “there’s nothing that would indicate this,” later describing the shooting as “a sick and deliberate act.”
Authorities withheld details of the shooting itself, but Miller has said that “with all of Robert’s training, I don’t know that there was anything else he could have done.” Immediately after the shooting, McKeithen was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
By Monday afternoon, a reward offer for an arrest in the case rose to $35,000. And a tense search continued in the region.
Police responded in force while pursuing leads, at one point searching an apartment complex with rifles drawn. Officials also threatened to file charges against anyone who might be hiding or helping the suspect.
“Yes, I feel like he’s being helped,” Peterson said. “By who, we don’t know at this time. But we’ll find out when we get him in custody.”
McKeithen’s relatives said Monday through Biloxi city spokesman Vincent Creel that they weren’t prepared to talk. A memorial service is planned Tuesday night at Biloxi police headquarters. The officer’s funeral and burial are planned for May 13.
Mississippi’s governor visited the Biloxi police station on Monday, lamenting the killing.
“This was a senseless murder of a veteran police officer,” Gov. Phil Bryant later wrote on Twitter. “We will find the coward who fired the shots and take him into custody.”
At a news conference on Monday morning outside Biloxi’s police headquarters, Miller gestured at one point toward the crime scene around McKeithen’s patrol SUV. He said his officer was “murdered last night right here in our parking lot.” Mourners piled floral tributes on the SUV later in the day.
McKeithen was described as an Air Force veteran with a wife, daughter, two stepsons and a stepdaughter.
Miller said he and McKeithen had handled calls together earlier in their career. Department records show McKeithen and three other officers were awarded a medal of valor for risking their lives to rescue four special needs children during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Said Miller of the slain officer, “He treated people with respect and dignity and we’re going to miss him sorely.”
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