Advertisement

In Chattanooga, mourners honor the slain, now including a Navy sailor

In Chattanooga, mourners honor the slain, now including a Navy sailor
Flowers and U.S. flags adorn a memorial set up in front of the Armed Forces Career Center/National Guard Recruitment Office in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Janelle Branch wiped away tears as her husband and sons planted American flags on the grassy bank of the four-lane highway outside the Navy-Marine Corps center, the deadly stop by a gunman who attacked it after firing upon another military site.

On the day the death toll from the shooting rampage rose to five, thousands of people in this city still reeling from Thursday's violence crowded outside the center and at the other shooting site, a nearby recruitment center in a strip mall, to pay tribute to those who died.

Advertisement

"It's just so sad, so senseless," Branch said Saturday.

A steady convoy of pickup trucks, Jeeps and sedans streamed through the narrow two-lane entrance to the strip mall that houses the military recruitment center, with many passengers waving U.S. flags. Wooden crosses with the names of four slain Marines stood in lonely vigil as visitors fastened red, white and blue balloons to ornamental plum trees, Marine Corps flags to stop signs and bunting to lampposts.

Jon Wilke, 39, a TV producer from Nashville who spent four years in the Marine Corps, stared across a long line of yellow sheriff's tape as an investigator examined the center's bullet-ridden glass windows.

"It's a first stop on the journey to become a Marine," he said of the building. "It's a starting place for heroes. We don't expect it to be a place of violence and death."

Kenneth Rush, 48, a former Marine from Odessa, Texas, took a 200-mile detour to Chattanooga while traveling back home from visiting his son in North Carolina.

"What's 200 miles when five lives are sacrificed?" he said. "It's five of my brothers down here."

Police say Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, 24, opened fire at the two military-related locations in Chattanooga on Thursday, shooting seven people, five of whom have died, in what officials are investigating as a terrorist attack. Abdulazeez was killed during a gunfight with police at the Navy Operational Support Center and Marine Corps Reserve Center, where all of the casualties occurred, about seven miles from the recruiting center.

Jason Pack, an FBI special agent, said Saturday that evidence response teams from agency offices in Knoxville, Memphis and Atlanta and experts from the FBI lab continue to process the two shooting scenes. He said more than 200 responses have poured into a tip line.

The military did not release the name of the wounded sailor who died Saturday, but family members had previously said that Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26, was among those injured and was in critical condition. Smith had lived in Paulding County, Ohio, before joining the service. Ohio Gov. John Kasich sent his condolences in a Twitter message to Smith's family on Saturday.

The dead Marines are Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells of Cobb, Ga.; Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan of Hampden, Mass.; Sgt. Carson Holmquist of Polk, Wis.; and Staff Sgt. David Wyatt of Burke, N.C.

The two surviving wounded are an unidentified Marine recruiter, who was shot in the leg, and Chattanooga Police Officer Dennis Pedigo, who was shot in the ankle and is listed in stable condition after surgery.

Investigators are still trying to determine a motive for the attacks, and are concentrating on a trip Abdulazeez took to Jordan and his activities on the Internet. Though the incident is being investigated as a terrorist attack, no ties to foreign extremist groups have been found.

Abdulazeez was also facing other pressures, including a July 30 court appearance on a charge of driving while under the influence.

According to the arrest report, Abdulazeez was pulled over April 20 for driving erratically. Officers said he smelled of alcohol and marijuana, had slurred or mumbled speech and had a "white powdery substance" under his nose and around his nostrils. Police said Abdulazeez said he had "crushed up caffeine pills and snorted them."

Advertisement

The shootings have increased concern about security at military recruiting facilities, which are open to the public and where service personnel are not armed. Military officials have said they are reviewing all security policies, and local officials in Florida and Texas on Saturday ordered their own precautions.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott ordered Florida National Guard recruiters to move from six storefront locations into armories until state officials can make security improvements. Scott's executive order also calls on National Guard officers to make sure all full-time members of the Guard are armed. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas announced that he would authorize his state's National Guard to arm personnel at military facilities.

"It is with a heavy heart that I issue this order," Abbott stated. "After the recent shooting in Chattanooga, it has become clear that our military personnel must have the ability to defend themselves against these type of attacks on our own soil. Arming the National Guard at these bases will not only serve as a deterrent to anyone wishing to do harm to our servicemen and women, but will enable them to protect those living and working on the base."

On Friday night, a diverse crowd of more than 600 — some in military uniforms, others in hijabs — packed the pews of Olivet Baptist Church for an interfaith memorial prayer service and pledged they would not be divided by the attacks.

"Even though it seems like we're going through our worst time, we believe that you will transform it into our finest hour," said Olivet's senior pastor, the Rev. Kevin Adams. "We thank you that the people of God have come together, and we will pray like we have never prayed before. ... Love will always outdo evil."

A string of elected officials — including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and the state's U.S. senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander — spoke at the service, many quoting Scripture. Haslam said he prayed that Chattanooga "would be a city that answers hate with love."

"The sense of violation that we all feel today cannot be healed individually," Berke said. "The pain can only be healed as a community."

"In the name of God — God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad — it is not easy for me to speak after a loss so tragic," said Dr. Mohsin Ali, a board member of the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga. "For inspiration, I look to the Marines who laid down their lives yesterday."

Ali, a psychiatrist who was born in Pakistan, contrasted the bravery of the Marines and police officers who risked their lives with the "cruel and cowardly" actions of "the murderer."

He urged all Muslims in the round, wood-paneled Baptist church who "pledge your allegiance to this city and this country, to this community," to stand up and be recognized.

More than 100 Muslims stood, some weeping, as the crowd cheered.

The ceremony, which began with a call of "We are Chattanooga strong!" ended with the congregation linking hands and the Olivet Baptist Church gospel choir, dressed in long purple robes, swaying and clapping hands as they sang.

Advertisement

"We thank you for bringing all different races and different religions together, father God," the Rev. Ron Cook, pastor of Rock Island Baptist Church, cried in prayer. "Thank you, this is something we haven't done for a while — you brought us all to one place to seek your wisdom."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Chattanooga and Times staff writers Serrano from Washington and Muskal from Los Angeles.

Advertisement
Advertisement