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In tiny Illinois town, residents hesitate to acknowledge accused shooter as one of their own

In tiny Illinois town, residents hesitate to acknowledge accused shooter as one of their own
A Tazewell County sheriff's deputy talks with an unidentified man at the driveway of a home in Morton, Ill., that belongs to the extended family of Waffle House shooting suspect Travis Reinking. (Fred Zwicky / Journal Star)

Four hundred miles from Nashville, in a small, bedroom community surrounded by Illinois farmland and divided by a winding, two-lane road, news of the fatal Waffle House shooting roared into town like an unexpected storm.

The town of 16,000, which touts itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the World, is protective of its image as a family-friendly village with grand homes and a leisurely pace of life. The town's website boasts its recognition as "One of the Top 10 Places to Raise a Family" by Family Circle Magazine in 2013.

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Agricultural and industrial giants such as Caterpillar Inc. are the major employers of the area.

But that image was marred after Nashville authorities announced a 29-year-old Morton native was the suspect in Sunday's restaurant rampage, which left four dead and four injured. The man fled after a customer wrestled his gun away.

Travis Reinking was taken into custody without incident nearly 34 hours after the deadly shooting, Nashville police said. He was found near his Nashville apartment with a backpack that police said contained a semiautomatic firearm as well as ammunition.

What could have motivated the shooting remained unknown, authorities said. Reinking is now charged with four counts of criminal homicide.

"It's not the way you want your town to be advertised," said a woman who has lived in Morton since 1991. She said she was stunned when she saw her hometown flash across the television.

"I saw Morton right across there, and I said, 'Oh, no,'" said the woman, who was walking her dog in town Monday. She said she did not want to be identified because she didn't want to be associated with the incident. "I just think he needed help and didn't get it. Just another one of those sad stories."

Reinking was regarded as somewhat of a loner, considered socially awkward by some. He came from a Christian family and was home-schooled, but he also took some classes at nearby Tremont High School. Reinking took a strong interest in photography and was often seen in town with a camera.

Reinking's encounters with law enforcement before the Waffle House shooting were largely unknown to many until reporters being to pry into his background.

Reports released by the Tazewell County Sheriff's Office show at least three instances when Reinking's father, Jeffrey Reinking, took away his son's guns, only to later return them.

In August 2017, Reinking was arrested by the U.S. Secret Service after authorities said he crossed a restricted area near the White House, saying he wanted to meet President Trump. He was not armed, but the FBI requested that Illinois State Police revoke his firearm owner's identification card.

Reinking handed over his FOID card to officers and transferred four weapons, along with ammunition, to his father, according to an Illinois State Police Firearm Disposition Record. The weapons were a 9-millimeter handgun, an AR-15 rifle, a .22-caliber rifle and another rifle.

Reinking's father acknowledged to officials that he gave the weapons back to his son, said Don Aaron, a Nashville police spokesman. Special Agent Marcus Watson of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Reinking's father could face criminal charges.

Following another incident in June 2017, Jeffrey Reinking again told authorities he would take his son's guns away.

At that time, Travis Reinking was spotted taking off a dress, jumping into a Tremont swimming pool and yelling at people, according to a Tazewell County sheriff's report. He had been seen throwing a rifle into the trunk of his car that same day, according to the report. No charges were filed.

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An officer wrote in the report that he called the father and advised him "he might want to lock the guns back up until Travis gets mental help."

A year before, on May 27, 2016, the Sheriff's Office responded to a CVS parking lot in Morton because Travis Reinking reported that he thought singer Taylor Swift was stalking him. His family told police that Travis Reinking had made suicidal comments and had access to multiple weapons, according to the report.

The shooting at the Waffle House already has Illinois lawmakers rethinking legislation. Earlier this year, the Illinois Senate passed the Lethal Violence Order of Protection Act, but state representatives are rewriting the bill and renaming it the Firearm Restraining Order.

It's similar to "red flag" bills that have gained traction in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The bills allow a relative, friend or law enforcement officer to report someone in distress whose guns need to be temporarily taken away.

Because of the Waffle House shooting, Illinois state Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison) said Monday that lawmakers were revisiting whether the person should be allowed to transfer the weapons to someone like a relative or whether the guns should be seized by a law enforcement agency in every case.

The proposed bill would suspend a person's FOID card for six months, and the revision of the proposed bill provides more details about due process for the person whose weapons have been confiscated.

"We want the act to really get the person the help they need," she said. "We don't want it to be a punitive act. We want them to get the help they need while still protecting the 2nd Amendment."

In Morton, meanwhile, residents said they are trying to distance themselves from the violence in Nashville, but the news is simply inescapable.

At the home of one of Reinking's relatives in Morton, the Peoria Journal Star lay on the front porch, stuffed into a translucent, peach-colored casing. The front page featured a photo of an investigator ducking under the crime scene tape outside the Nashville Waffle House. The headline read "Police: Morton Man Killed Four in Tennessee."

Daniel Reinking, Travis' Reinking's great-uncle, said he hadn't been in touch with the family in several years, but learned what was going on from the blitz of media coverage.

"It was shock, of course, and disbelief," Daniel Reinking said.

Many in Morton simply didn't want to discuss the shooting, let alone acknowledge Reinking as one of their own.

"They are a really good family," one woman said. "This is a really traumatic, shocking thing that happened to them and our town."

Briscoe and Malagon write for the Chicago Tribune.

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