A man is accused of shooting three people, apparently at random, in downtown Memphis Saturday night, before striking and killing a city police officer with a stolen car while fleeing.
Justine Welch then crashed the stolen car into several metal barricades and a concrete embankment, sending the car into the air and eventually into a tree, police told WREG-TV. Welch got out of the car, which caught on fire, and was taken into custody after a brief foot chase, according to police.
Officer Verdell Smith, 46, was taken to a local hospital and later died of his injures, police said.
Investigators said Welch shot two people at a restaurant, Westy’s, before shooting an employee of a nearby Bass Pro Shops store. Two of the shooting victims were hospitalized in critical condition, while the third was treated and released.
Here’s what you need to know about Welch and Smith:
1. Welch Started Yelling at Customers at the Restaurant Before Opening Fire & Then Running to the Bass Pro Shop, Witnesses Say
Police were first called to Westy’s Restaurant and Bar at about 10 p.m. after a report that two men had been shot, Police Director Michael Rallings told reporters.
The restaurant’s owner told WREG-TV Welch entered the restaurant and began yelling at customers on the patio. He then fired shots into the air, pointed the gun at the crowd and opened fire, striking a 57-year-old man in the neck and a 39-year-old man in the shoulder.
WREG reports that Welch then ran toward a nearby Bass Pro Shops store, while the restaurant’s owner and manager chased him. Police said Welch then shot a 21-year-old store employee who was collecting shopping carts in the parking lot.
He fled from the area in a Chevrolet Camaro that had been reported stolen earlier Saturday night, police said.
2. Police Say Welch Struck Smith While the Officer Was Clearing Pedestrians From an Intersection
Officers spotted Welch driving the stolen car soon after the shootings, but lost sight of him, police told ABC News.
He was seen a second time, but Police Director Michael Rallings said “he fled again from officers.”
He then struck Officer Ventrell Smith a few blocks from where he had last been spotted. Smith was clearing an intersection of pedestrians when he was hit by the car, police said.
Welch crashed the Camaro and was taken into custody after a foot chase, according to police.
3. Welch Was Booked on Murder, Attempted Murder & Other Charges
Welch has been booked into the Shelby County Jail, according to online records.
Police said he has been charged with first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, vehicular homicide and evading arrest.
The investigation is continuing.
“Due to the magnitude of these incidents, it will take time to go through all the details,” a police spokesman told WREG-TV.
4. Smith Has Been Called an ‘Excellent Officer’ & a ‘Loving Family Man & Friend’
Officer Verdell Smith, 46, is survived by his father, his fiancée and his children, WREG-TV reports.
“This highlights the dangers officers face every day,” Police Director Michael Rallings said at a press conference.
Colonel Gloria Bullock, commander of the North Main Station, told the Commercial Appeal, “We are broken hearted. Officer Smith was a professional and excellent officer. He took pride in his job. He was also a loving family man and friend. He touched many lives and we will all miss him terribly. I ask the city of Memphis to pray for Officer Smith, his family and all the officers of the Memphis Police Department.”
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland wrote on Facebook, “My family joins all of Memphis in mourning the loss of Officer Verdell Smith, who gave his life in service to our city. I call on every Memphian to remember Officer Smith’s family in prayer and reflection today and in the coming days — and to be grateful for the dangerous, important work our men and women of MPD perform every day.
“I am angry this morning — angry at the senseless loss of a dedicated public servant, and angry at the absolutely unacceptable level of violence in our city,” Strickland wrote. “We must not accept this as our norm. I most certainly will not, and I will continue to act to make our city safer.”
5. The 18-Year Veteran Police Officer Led Outreach Programs to Help Memphis Youth Stay Out of Trouble
Officer Verdell Smith led community outreach programs in Memphis, trying to help keep the youth of the city out of trouble and out of prison.
In April, he wrote on Facebook, “I am asking for your help to save our children’s lives by signing a petition that will help move a proposed educational program forward. This will in no doubt help deter our young people from their criminal behavior. I am asking for 1 minute of your time to go to this link and sign. We have to help make a change, start here with this. If you want to see our children do better, stay out of prison or better yet keep them alive, then sign the petition.”
He previously posted in March about a program called “Face Your Future,” which he led at a local Baptist church.
“Please get the children out today to this event. Let’s help stop this downwards spiral that we see them in. Crime is a big problem now for our children and they don’t believe that there is any consequences but we have 5 incarcerated juveniles speaking today who would say different,” Smith wrote.