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Would-be sniper could be high school student, police say

Published: Friday, May 18, 2012 11:55 a.m. CDT

ATLANTA (MCT) — Clayton County police said Thursday that the would-be sniper seen aiming a rifle at a school bus Monday might be a local high school student.

“A couple of neighbors indicated they may have known who (the sniper) was,” Clayton Police Maj. Johnny Robinson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have numerous leads.”

The search for the suspect remains focused within the Greystone subdivision in south Clayton, where helicopters continued to hover overhead Thursday afternoon as police maintained a constant patrol by car. The manhunt marks a dramatic end to the school year for Clayton students, whose last day is Friday.

Robinson said investigators “have some good information that may lead us to several different houses” in the area.

“One of the leads may lead to a high school,” he said.

More than 75 officers are working on the case, escorting “at least five or more” school buses to and from four area schools and canvassing the Hampton neighborhood where the incident occurred, said Clayton police Chief Gregory Porter.

Neighbors welcomed the heavy police presence.

“This past week has been the safest it’s ever been to live here,” said Avis Watkins, 48, as she jogged through the neighborhood, baseball bat in hand. “(The bat) is for dogs, not the sniper,” Watkins said.

“Police have pulled out all the stops,” Watkins said, so much so that she felt comfortable letting her 13-year-old son Austin, a student at Lovejoy Middle School, walk unaccompanied from his bus stop.

But some parents and family members remained uncomfortable with their children riding the school bus. Kerrie Tripp greeted her niece and nephew with a big hug after their bus arrived — right in front of the mobile command unit Clayton police have set up inside Greystone.

“It’s just scary to think someone out there would try to shoot at a school bus,” Tripp said. Her niece, Makala, a third-grader, and nephew, Willie, a kindergartener, were on the bus that was allegedly targeted by the elusive sniper.

Police have enlisted the help of the Clayton Sheriff’s Office, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and school district to track down the suspect, described by witnesses as a “light-skinned black or white male” between the ages of 18 and 25.

Robinson said door-to-door canvassing has proven “very helpful” to investigators who were able to gather few clues from the Marlin .22-caliber rifle left behind at the scene. “We’ve not gotten lucky and been able to find any fingerprints” on the weapon, he said.

But investigators did trace the gun, purchased in 1985, to its original owner. Robinson said they haven’t been able to talk to him yet but, considering his age, do not believe he is the sniper even though the weapon was never reported stolen.

A notepad also was recovered from the scene containing the numbers of five school buses, including the one headed to Kemp Elementary School that was apparently targeted, Robinson said.

The gunman was spotted by Codarrius Brewer, 20, and his uncle David Dillard a little after 7 a.m. The suspect was perched across the street, about 75 feet away, crouched behind a wooden fence.

When it became clear the man was aiming a rifle at a school bus, Brewer said he yelled out, causing the suspect to drop the rifle and run. Brewer said he chased the man until the suspect fired at him using a second gun.

The suspect ran farther into the subdivision; the incident occurred a block from the subdivision entrance, police noted.

Robinson said police do not think the man drove to the bus stop. Nor do they believe he carried the rifle in a bag.

Investigators had hoped to find more witnesses, considering the suspect was likely walking through the neighborhood “in broad daylight with a weapon,” Robinson said.

Clayton school spokesman Doug Hendrix said the district has not noticed any decline in school bus ridership or increase in absenteeism or parents driving their children to school.

“It’s definitely a concern,” said Jewel Frederick, who lives in a nearby subdivision and has a daughter, Lemeria, who rides the bus to Lovejoy High School, where she is a junior.

Frederick said the extra precautions taken by the police — buses are being escorted to schools by police cars ahead and behind — allay some of her fears. But she said she will have her daughter call when she arrives at and leaves from school Friday , the last day of school for Clayton students.

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