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Police search for suspect in Auburn killings

Posted at 8:58 AM, Jun 12, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-12 09:14:48-04

By the CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) - A small army of law enforcement officers swarmed a Montgomery, Alabama, home where they believed a triple murder suspect was hiding but abruptly left the premises early Tuesday without saying if they had captured anyone.

Police surrounded and searched the house for more than six hours, spraying "a powerful dose" of tear gas in hopes of flushing out the man accused of killing three people and wounding three others at nearby Auburn University.

They left without telling any of the journalists assembled in the area if Desmonte Leonard, 22, wanted on three counts of capital murder, had been apprehended.

The officers from local, federal and state agencies looked frustrated, CNN affiliate WFSA reported.

Police had arrived at the house after at least three tips about someone who looked like Leonard being in the area, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said.

They searched the attic one time and but did not find the suspect, though coughing could be heard, Strange said earlier. Another search was planned at that time.

"They are going to do another, what they call toe-by-toe search, through the entire attic looking in HVAC ducts, looking in chimneys, looking in every crevice," Strange said.

Police were tipped off when the owner of the house returned to find the suspect inside, Montgomery County Sheriff D.T. Marshall said.

Just after midnight, the operation was scaled way down. The search was expected to continue after daylight, WSFA said.

Saturday night's shootings took place at an off-campus apartment complex in Auburn, about 50 miles east of Montgomery. The dead included two former Auburn football players, and a current football player was among the wounded.

Leonard has been the target of an intense manhunt for two days, and two other men have been jailed on charges of hindering prosecution in the case.

Auburn police said one of those arrested, Jeremy Thomas, 18, escaped from the scene of the shootings with Leonard. Montgomery police say Gabriel Thomas, 41, tried to mislead investigators during the search, and they arrested him Sunday at the request of U.S. marshals.

Police did not immediately disclose the relationship, if any, between the two men. Both were arrested in Montgomery, but Jeremy Thomas was expected to be transferred to a jail in Lee County, which includes Auburn, police said.

Officers received a call reporting the shooting at the University Heights apartments clubhouse about 10:03 p.m. Saturday, Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson told reporters Sunday.

Arriving officers found Edward Christian, 20, dead at the scene.

Christian, of Valdosta, Georgia, was off the football team because of an injury, Dawson said. Former player Ladarious Phillips, 20, and Auburn resident Demario Pitts, 20, died later at a hospital, he said.

Two others, including current Auburn sophomore offensive lineman Eric Mack, 20, of Cameron, South Carolina, were taken to East Alabama Medical Center in the nearby town of Opelika.

Mack was released from the medical center Sunday morning, while another man, Xavier Moss, 19, was treated and released from the same facility.

A third man, John Robertson, 20, was transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, where he was in critical condition after being shot in the head.

Leonard and two other men were thought to have fled the scene in a white Chevrolet Caprice, authorities said. Police later found the car abandoned in an adjacent county, Dawson said.

The Opelika-Auburn News reported Monday that a $15,000 reward -- $10,000 from the FBI and $5,000 from the U.S. Marshals Service -- was offered for information leading to Leonard's arrest and conviction.

Police have a motive in the shooting, but Dawson would not release it, saying "that's for the courtroom, later on." He did say authorities believe gunfire erupted during a fight at a party.

Several media outlets cited unidentified witnesses as saying the altercation was over a woman.

Witness Turquorius Vines told affiliate WGCL the violence was sudden.

"It went from us chilling with all these females to a massacre for no reason at all," he said.

"I heard what appeared to be six or seven gunshots outside my apartment," resident Nate Conoly told affiliate ABC 33/40. He said he couldn't see anything when he peered outside his window, but heard screaming. "... I went back into my apartment and locked the door," he said.

A woman identifying herself as only Leonard's grandmother answered the telephone Sunday at an address listed as his in court records, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.

"I'm just very surprised by all of this," she told the newspaper. "This is not the grandson I know, I can tell you that. I've just been sitting here, can't hardly move, I'm so in shock by it. It just doesn't seem real."

Dawson said he was not aware of any connection between Leonard and the university.

Auburn officials expressed condolences to the victims' families, saying many athletes on the football team were grieving after the deaths of Christian and Phillips.

Gene Chizik, Auburn's head football coach, called it "a sad, sad day for everyone associated with the entire Auburn family." Chizik said he was "devastated" by the three deaths, including those of Christian and Phillips, whom he knew personally.

"We have a lot of people on our football team that are hurting right now, and we're going to do everything we can to help them get through this," he said. "We are relieved that Eric Mack, who was also a victim in this incident, is expected to make a full recovery. This is a very trying time for everyone involved, and I would just ask that you lift up the victims and their families in your prayers."

CNN's Joe Sutton, David Mattingly, Greg Morrison and Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.