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White Suspect Arrested in Louisiana Killings of Black Men Police Say Likely 'Racially Motivated'

Police believe the slayings of two black men in Baton Rouge were likely racially motivated and said they have a a 23-year-old suspect in custody.
Image: Kenneth Gleason in an undated booking photo provided by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office.
Kenneth Gleason in an undated booking photo.East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. — Police believe the slayings of two black men in Baton Rouge were likely racially motivated and said Sunday they have a suspect — a 23-year-old white man — in custody.

The suspect, Kenneth Gleason, was being held on drug charges. Authorities didn't yet have enough evidence to charge him with murder, said Sgt. L'Jean McKneely, a Baton Rouge police spokesman.

McKneely said that shell casings from the shootings linked the two slayings and that a car belonging to Gleason fit the description of the vehicle police were looking for. He said authorities had collected other circumstantial evidence but wouldn't say what it was.

"There is a strong possibility that it could be racially motivated," he said.

Image: Kenneth Gleason
Kenneth Gleason in an undated booking photo.East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office via AP

KcKneely said that in both shootings, the suspect fired from his car, walked up to the victims as they were lying on the ground and fired again multiple times. He added that police hadn't found any relationship between the suspect and the victims.

The shootings happened about 5 miles from each other. The first occurred Tuesday night when Bruce Cofield, 59, who was homeless, was shot to death. The second happened Thursday night when Donald Smart, 49, was gunned down while walking to work at a cafe popular with Louisiana State University students, McKneely said.

Mary Smart, Smart's aunt, said she was still dealing with the shock of her nephew's death and couldn't understand what had happened.

"I'm feeling down and depressed. My nephew, I love him, and he was on his way to work, and that makes it so sad," she said in a telephone interview Sunday. "He was always smiling and hugging everybody. A lot of people knew him."

Smart had a son and two daughters, she said.

She declined to comment on police allegations that her nephew might have been shot because of the color of his skin.

"I cannot say," she said. "Only God knows."

It wasn't immediately clear whether Gleason had an attorney or when his first court appearance would be. No one answered the door at his house in a quiet neighborhood of mostly ranch-style homes with well-kept lawns about 10 miles from the shootings.

"He looks like any clean-cut American kid," said neighbor Nancy Reynolds, who didn't know Gleason or his family. She said it was "hard to believe this sort of thing is still happening."

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore wouldn't comment on what led investigators to Gleason.

Detectives searched Gleason's home on Saturday and found less than a gram of marijuana, along with vials of human growth hormone, in his bedroom, according to a police document. After Gleason was read his Miranda rights, he claimed ownership of the drugs, the document said.

A year ago, racial tensions roiled Louisiana's capital, a city of 229,000, when a black man was shot to death by white police officers outside a convenience store. About two weeks later, a black gunman targeted police in an ambush, killing three officers before he was shot to death. The city is about 55 percent black and 40 percent white.

Smart consistently showed up for his overnight shift as a dishwasher at Louie's Cafe in a spotless white T-shirt and bright white Nike tennis shoes, The Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge reported.

"I've seen 26 years of folks washing dishes in a busy diner, and this guy is untouchable," Louie's general manager, Fred Simonson, was quoted as saying. "When you have an employee like Donald, he's the type of person who's going to make the person next to him better."