Police: Mall shooter upset over purchase

October 9, 2008 6:14:10 PM PDT
The fatal shooting of a store employee and gun battle with police in a Knoxville shopping mall began as a complaint over a clothing purchase, authorities said Thursday. William Johnson -- who faces charges of murder, aggravated kidnapping and attempted murder in the Wednesday shootings -- acted alone and targeted the store, police spokesman Darrell DeBusk said.

"This shooting did not occur just because the store was at the mall," he said. "It occurred because the suspect was upset over a previous clothing purchase."

Johnson, 42, came to the shopping center around 4:20 p.m. Wednesday determined to get satisfaction from Reno Mens Wear for clothing he had bought there. Neighboring merchants said the store had a no-return policy and Johnson's complaint was about a suit, but DeBusk wouldn't discuss those details. A man listed in city records as the owner-operator of the store, Yasser Salem, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Minutes after Johnson entered the store, 29-year-old employee Ahmed Nahl was dead and Johnson was being taken to a hospital for wounds in the leg and arm after a shootout with two police officers.

The investigation was continuing Thursday and Johnson, hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, had yet to be interviewed. But authorities were closing in on what happened.

Johnson -- described by neighbor Johnnie Brown as "built like a football player," unemployed and on disability because of a kidney condition -- entered the clothing store looking for service. He carried a 9 mm handgun without a permit.

Nahl, a native of Egypt who came to this country on a lottery visa, followed Johnson into the store, where he'd worked for less than a year, witnesses said. He'd been playing with his infant daughter out in the mall, talking with other shopkeepers about plans for the baby's first birthday in two weeks.

There was a "confrontation" between the suspect and Nahl inside the store, DeBusk said. The customer pulled out the handgun and shot Nahl, then ordered another customer to the ground. "A few moments later, the suspect shot the victim a few more times," DeBusk said. He refused to say what the men might have said to each other.

Merchants heard the shots and called 911. Shoppers and shopkeepers screamed and ran for cover.

Knox County Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, who has a permit to carry a handgun, said he was visiting a dentist's office in the mall when he heard the shots. He ran over because he knew the security guards were unarmed, he said.

Lambert, who once foiled a robbery attempt at his car dealership, said he talked to the suspect at the store before police arrived, but he would not reveal what they said. The commissioner said he never drew his gun and stayed outside the store to wait for police.

"I felt that the wisest thing to do was back out and be sure the situation was contained," he said. "I was prepared to defend myself or others if he came out shooting, but that wasn't the case."

Two uniformed police officers and mall security arrived. The officers shouted to the suspect to drop his gun. Instead the man shot at them. The officers returned fire. It was over in less than 4 minutes, DeBusk said.

DeBusk wouldn't say how many shots were fired. But Mike Shearer, who works in a nearby mattress store, said he heard six shots inside the clothing store before officers arrived and a few shots later directed at the officers. He said the officers fired until they ran out of bullets, maybe 16 times.

The officers "acted appropriately to stop the threat that faced them," DeBusk said.

Johnson's criminal record lists only a simple assault charge from several years ago, DeBusk said. Because Johnson was still being treated in the hospital, he has not spoken with police or appeared in court. It was not immediately known if he has retained an attorney.

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