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Ark. Dems' party chairman killed in shooting

North Little Rock_The 49-year-old chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party died hours after being shot by a gunman who burst into the state party headquarters in Little Rock, police said.

Bill Gwatney died four hours after the shooting near the state Capitol. The suspect, identified only as a 51-year-old man, was shot dead after shooting at officers near Sheridan.

Witnesses said the gunman entered the party offices shortly before noon and said he wanted to see Gwatney about volunteering. Party officials said the man barged into Gwatney's office and fired three shots, then fled in a blue truck.

Gwatney was a former longtime legislator who owned three General Motors car dealerships in and around Little Rock. Police spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said there was no known relationship between Gwatney and the shooter.

"He came in and went into this office and started shooting," Hastings said.

"He said he was interested in volunteering, but that was obviously a lie," said Sam Higginbotham, a 17-year-old volunteer at the headquarters. He said the man pushed his way past an employee to reach Gwatney's office.

By virtue of his position, Gwatney was a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention this month in Denver. He declared his support for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., after the Arkansas primary Feb. 5.

Before news spread of Gwatney's death, Clinton and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama each had released statements noting they were praying for Gwatney.

"Bill is not only a strong chairman of Arkansas Democratic Party, but he is also a cherished friend and confidante. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bill and his family today and we wish him a quick recovery," President and Mrs. Clinton said in a joint statement.

And Obama said, "I was shocked and saddened to hear about the tragedy in Arkansas. We are all grateful for the quick action of law enforcement and quick thinking by Chairman Gwatney's staff, and Michelle and I are keeping him and his family in our prayers."

National Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean said the shooting was a shock.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to Chairman Gwatney and his family and we pray for his full and speedy recovery," Dean said. "While the investigation of this shooting continues, and our primary concern remains with Bill and his family, we commend the courageous and speedy action of law enforcement officials in apprehending the suspect."

Millie McLain, a reporter for the Sheridan Headlight newspaper, said the suspect's blue truck was turned sideways along Arkansas 46 northeast of Sheridan. Emergency crews were loading the man onto a Med-Flight helicopter.

Moments before the Democratic headquarters shooting, a man with a gun threatened the building manager of the Arkansas State Baptist Convention headquarters seven blocks east. It wasn't known if the incidents were related.

Dan Jordan, the denomination's business manager, said the building manager asked the man what was wrong and that he said "I lost my job."

The state Capitol was locked down for about an hour until police got word the shooter had been captured, said Arkansas State Capitol police Sgt. Charlie Brice.

An impromptu vigil at University Hospital drew Gov. Mike Beebe and a number of state legislators who had worked with Gwatney.

"He's in very critical condition. The family is doing the best they can. They're shocked like the rest of us," said Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle.

House Majority Leader Steve Harrelson, D-Texarkana, was at the state Capitol for a news conference on crime and that he didn't know of anyone who would want to harm Gwatney.

"You never think of something like this happening here in Arkansas," Harrelson said.

Rep. Janet Johnson, D-Bryant, started to cry when she talked about Gwatney.

"This is like something you would see in New York or Pennsylvania or California, but not here," Johnson said.

Beebe, a Democrat who served with Gwatney in the Legislature, had been on a flight to Springdale in northwestern Arkansas but returned to the Capitol after hearing about the shooting, Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.

Gwatney served 10 years in the state Senate. Gwatney was Beebe's finance chairman during Beebe's run for governor in 2006.

Sarah Lee, a sales clerk at a flower shop across street from the party headquarters, said that around noon Gwatney's secretary ran into the shop and asked someone to call 911.

Lee said the secretary told her the man had come into the party's office and asked to speak with Gwatney. When the secretary said she wouldn't allow him to meet with Gwatney, the man went into his office and shot him, Lee said.

FBI spokesman Steve Frazier said his agency was assisting in the investigation but could not offer any details. "We're aware of it. We're helping the state police right now," Frazier said.

Karen Ray, executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas, sent her workers home early "out of an abundance of caution."

"Our hearts go out to everyone at the Democratic headquarters. What a tragedy," Ray said. "This is just a very upsetting, troubling and scary thing for our staff as well."

Last November, a distraught man wearing what appeared to be a bomb walked into a Clinton campaign office in New Hampshire and demanded to speak to the candidate about access to mental health care. A hostage drama dragged on for nearly six hours until he peacefully surrendered.

 

The confrontation brought Clinton's campaign to a standstill just five weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Security for her was increased as a precaution. She said she did not know the suspect.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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