Adam Willson was identified as the school resource officer who was shot during an officer-involved shooting at Austin-East Magnet High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, on April 12, 2021, according to KPD officers. The student who died was identified as Anthony J. Thompson Jr., 17.
Willson was one of the Knoxville Police Officers called to the high school after they received a report of a male “possibly” armed at the school. Investigators did not immediately say whether the injured officer was the one who shot the student, who died on the scene. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations said Thompson did not shoot Willson. Knoxville Police Department identified the officers involved as Lieutenant Stanley Cash, Officer Jonathon Clabough and Officer Brian Baldwin. They have been placed on temporary administrative leave, per the department’s policy, and Willson is recovering. Knox County District Attorney released footage from the shooting following an investigation, and said no charges would be filed during a press conference Wednesday, April 21, 2021.
According to the TBI, the investigation has found that officers responding to a report of a student possibly armed with a gun located the student inside a bathroom. The “officers entered the bathroom” and “during a subsequent struggle, the student’s gun was fired. This was followed by law enforcement firing twice. Preliminary examinations indicate the bullet that struck the KPD officer was not fired from the student’s handgun,” the TBI said in a statement on April 14.
The TBI had said in an earlier statement issued on April 13 that the student had fired at the officers and an officer returned fire. The TBI said on April 14 they discovered “facts that may clarify initial reports.”
Willson is a 20-year veteran with the Knoxville Police Department, and he was working as an SRO when he was shot, according to the KPD. Willson is married and has children. His wife was with him at the hospital where he was taken for emergency surgery and further treatment, according to WATE. Willson serves with a local church, and is a U.S. Army veteran. He also appeared on a true crime TV show, Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Officer Willson Said He Would Rather This Happened to Him Than Someone Else
Mayor Indya Kincannon spoke to Officer Willson at the hospital. He said he was glad he was the one injured in place of someone else, Kincannon told 6 News.
“I said ‘Thank you for acting so courageously to protect the people inside the school’ and he said he’d rather it be him that got hurt than anyone inside the school.,” Kincannon told the news outlet.
“Breaks my heart this is happening and my thoughts and prayers are with everybody affected particularly those in and around the Austin-East community,” Kincannon added. “They’ve been through a lot.”
Kristen Gallant of WATE wrote on Twitter that Willson was in good spirits, and that his wife was with him in the hospital.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Director David Rausch said during a Monday evening press conference he had been the chief of Knoxville Police Department for years, and that the community is close to his heart.
“You don’t ever want to get this phone call,” he said.
“I’ve spent a lot time here in this community, spent a lot of time working at Austin-East,” he said, adding he has great memories from his times there.
“My prayer is that the community will come together. Don’t let this be divisive,” he said.
2. Willson Made an Appearance on Multiple Episodes of ‘Homicide Hunter’
Willson was on a national stage before he was wounded at Austin-East high school. He made appearances on the TV show, Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, in 2017, according to Carl Marino, an actor on the show.
“Good friends and fellow ‘Kenda Cruisers’ Michael and Michelle Lucchetti making a surprise cameo (being interviewed by Adam Willson) last night on the 90th episode of Homicide Hunter. Look for them in the episode this fall,” he wrote on Facebook.
Marino described Willson as one of his best friends in a post after the officer was wounded.
“Fans of the show and Kenda cruisers know Adam Wilson well. He was the hero wounded yesterday here in Knoxville. He is also one of my best friends,” Marino wrote. “We are very thankful he is alive amd hope for a speedy recovery. You can send cards to 5-0 Talent. PO Box 70252 Knoxville Tn 37938.”
Willson shared a post that included stills from the show when an episode aired.
“On now!!!” he wrote July 5, 2017.
He also shared a behind-the-scenes shot from the episode.
Social media posts showed the chaos at the school in the moments after the shooting and the fear students felt when they heard gunfire outside their classrooms.
“Gunshots in the school!!!” Monet Jackson wrote on Facebook.
One person responded in a comment, asking her where she was.
“Under a desk,” she answered.
“Stay under that desk,” the person responded.
Jackson later filmed a seven-second video through a window, which showed a person in uniform sprinting across the lawn followed by a person in slacks and a dress shirt.
“The shots was literally outside my classroom in the hallway,” she wrote.
Another video showed crime scene tape and confusion in the hallway. She wrote that she could smell blood.
After the scene was contained, Crystal Floyd sent some comfort to the girl.
“I’m so proud of you for staying safe and calm, sweet girl,” she wrote in a comment on a separate post. “Sending much love.”
3. Officer Willson Was Shot in the Hip & Was Recovering From Surgery the Day After the Shooting
Officer Willson was recovering in the hospital on Tuesday, April 13, the morning after the shooting, KPD said.
“KPD Officer Adam Willson is recovering from surgery after being wounded in yesterday’s shooting incident at Austin-East Magnet High School. Willson, a 20-year veteran of KPD, was currently serving as the School Resource Officer at Austin-East. We are grateful for the well wishes,” KPD wrote on Twitter.
He was shot in the hip and rushed to UT Medical Center, where he was undergoing emergency surgery in the hours after the shooting at about 3:15 p.m. Monday, April 12. He was in serious condition Monday night, Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas said during a press conference.
She said at the time she hoped to speak with him when he was out of surgery.
Thomas recalled the moment she received the call.
“It was just very chilling, first of all, to hear we have an officer down, and secondly that it was at a school,” she said.
“Our worst fear is an active shooter in a school. Those are our kids,” she added.
When children return to school, she said she wants the students and parents to feel safe.
“We want kids in school. We want them in a good learning environment. We want them in a safe learning environment, and we will do everything we can do to make sure that happens,” she said.
Many police departments contacted KPD, offering their support. She said she appreciated the support, adding she and Willson have worked together for years.
4. Willson Is Married With 4 Children & Serves as a Deacon With a South Knoxville Church
Willson serves as a deacon with the South Knoxville Church of Christ, church member J.L Steele told The Christian Chronicle. Steele added that Willson is a married father of four.
“He was shot in the femur and is now resting comfortably after surgery,” Steele told the Chronicle. “He and his wife, Heather, are great people. He is the father of two daughters and two sons.”
The publication described the South Knoxville Church of Christ as a church that strives to help its neighbors and works with homeless people and others who are facing difficulties. Willson was described as a man of strong character and faith. He also served with the church on mission trips.
“Among other things, he has been involved in missions work, having made two trips to Honduras through Latin American Missions,” Steele said.
Knoxville was among the cities participating in National Youth Violence Prevention Week, calling for an end to violence in communities across the United States. The kickoff occurred in the wake of shootings that left four teens dead in the Knoxville Area in 2021, according to Knox News.
The Knoxville City Council approved $1 million to help pay for violence prevention in the weeks after the shootings. The city’s contract with anti-violence group Cities United was approved a week before the Austin-East shooting.
“Many applauded the first steps but say much more is needed to combat systemic issues like poverty and unequal education and economic opportunities that disproportionately harm people of color and low-income residents,” Knox News reported.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Director David Rausch addressed the timing with the Youth Violence Prevention Week during a Monday evening press conference.
“It’s a tough way to start off a week that you’re trying to keep people safe,” he said.
He said the community was banding together over the weekend and unifying to end gun violence.
“We need more of that, and less of this,” he said, referring to the shooting.
5. Willson Is a U.S. Army Veteran Who Served With the Airborne Division
Willson is a U.S. Army veteran who served with the Airborne Division, he wrote on his Facebook page. He often shares photos of his family on Facebook, including a visit to an air show.
He has also shared posts from his military career, and shared a photo of himself in uniform on Veteran’s Day 2020.
On July 4, 2019, he wrote about the dangers of becoming complacent.
“Enjoy the fruits of American exceptionalism today, do not grow complacent, work and fight for liberty in our great nation. Be thankful to all those who have and are willing to sacrifice on your behalf to sustain and maintain liberty,” he wrote. “Refuse to allow the degradation of our God given, constitutionally recognized liberties. Be vigilant for usurpations and deceptions designed to entrap and enslave our people. Limited and restrained government, individual responsibility, charity, faith, love, sacrifice, these are America’s strengths. God Bless the United States of America!”
School resource officers at Knoxville schools receive specialized training and serve as the first responders to emergencies at schools, according to Knox County Schools. More than 100 police officers are assigned to protect the schools. The school security force is one of the largest in the state.
Knox County Schools writes:
As sworn deputies with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the division is the first line threat emergency response group and primary force protection unit for Knox County Schools. Charged with the safety of staff and students within the district, the division is also known as the Knox County School Security Division and its members are often referred to as SRO’s or School Resource Officers.
The unit specializes in rapid response and school protection, committed to Excellence in Service and dedicated to creating and maintaining a safe and secure learning environment within all schools. The unit maintains regular and specialized training throughout the calendar year, and with over 100 men and women serving, it is one of the largest dedicated school security forces in Tennessee.
Based on the state’s curriculum on Police Officers Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.), recruits must go through an intensive academy and keep up with established threshold standards to maintain continued service.
Governor Bill Lee described the incident as “difficult and tragic” during a press conference shortly after the shooting. He asked for those listening “to pray for the families and the victims that may be affected by that in the state.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn also wrote a statement in response to the shooting, writing on Twitter that she was “heartbroken.”
“I am heartbroken to hear about the shooting at Austin-East Magnet High School in Knoxville,” she wrote. “My office has been briefed on the situation and I am praying for the community, including the officer injured in the line of duty.”
“Numb,” Corey L. Hodge wrote on Facebook. “Connected to the school or not, keep Austin East in consistent prayers. Check on anyone you know that attends or is of faculty. Now.”
Comments from friends said they were praying and checking on their loved ones.
“Numb is the right word. Stunned and in disbelief right now,” one person wrote in the comments.