TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A gunman stood outside of a crowded downtown bar and opened fire from two different positions early Tuesday, sending patrons running or crawling for cover in a chaotic and bloody scene. At least 17 people were hurt as bullets ricocheted and glass shards and brick chunks fell around the nightclub.
Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, surrendered about 10 hours after the 12:30 a.m. shooting near the University of Alabama campus, police said. The rampage started a couple of miles away about 45 minutes earlier, police said, when Wilkins knocked on the door to a home and waited for a person to answer it. He then started firing, wounding the person.
Wilkins was also suspected of setting three fires to equipment or property owned by his former employer, an oil and gas company.
Police were not sure of a motive. They were investigating whether the shootings came from a dispute between rival motorcycle gangs.
There were signs Wilkins’ life was unraveling.
He divorced from his wife of 16 years around 2005 and a credit union last year tried to garnish wages at his then-employer, Capstone Oilfield Services, to collect a more than $15,000 debt but couldn’t because he had declared bankruptcy. And the co-owner of the FedEx store where Wilkins turned himself in said Wilkins talked about being high on drugs during the shootings.
Outside the Copper Top bar in downtown Tuscaloosa, pools of blood were visible Tuesday. A trail of bloody footprints could be seen on the sidewalk for about two blocks before crews cleaned the mess.
“There were sparks coming off the ground and then I felt a sting and I knew I’d been hit,” said Rachel Studdard, who was sitting on the bar’s patio with a group of friends, enjoying the 50-cent draft beer special when the shooting started.
A bullet hit Studdard’s toe, and debris hit her in the side and in the leg. She was using crutches to walk Tuesday and still had dried blood on her leg.
The shots fired so quickly it sounded like automatic gunfire, said Studdard, who recently graduated a two-year college and plans to attend the university in the fall. Studdard said she and her friends go to the Copper Top every Monday night because of the beer special.
Elizabeth Walters was inside when the shooting began. She described a ghastly scene of people clutching wounds as blood splattered on the floor.
“It sounded like it would never end,” Walters said. “There was a lull and then it started up again.”
After the two bursts of gunfire ended, the music in the bar continued to play for several minutes until someone turned it off.
Wilkins was charged with 18 counts of attempted murder and was being held on $2 million bond, Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steve Anderson said. It wasn’t clear whether he had an attorney. A lawyer who represented Wilkins in the bankruptcy case did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Most of the injured at the bar were hit by bullet fragments or debris, and they were treated and released, said Brad Fisher, a spokesman at DCH Regional Medical Center. Two people were in intensive care, including one in critical condition.
At least three of the injured were university students.
It appeared the gunshots were fired through the glass of the front double French doors and a door on the side of the building. The front doors were covered by a black material on Tuesday and two windows were missing from wooden doors on the side door, where a bullet left a hole in the frame.
Police said Wilkins walked away from the bar after the shooting, down the same street he had hiked up to get there.
At about 10:30 a.m., Wilkins walked into a FedEx store in Jasper, about 45 miles north of the shootings.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I’m the one they are looking for that shot the 17 people in Tuscaloosa,” the store’s co-owner, Ken Barfield said.
Barfield said he talked to the man and offered him something to drink, even though he was terrified. The man showed no signs of being on drugs, but said he had been taking drugs at the time of the bar shooting, Barfield said.
“I told him to keep his hands out in the open so police could see them when they got here,” Barfield said.
At about 3 a.m., volunteer fire chief Billy Garner said he received a call about fires at two different Capstone Oilfield locations in Brookwood, which is on the way from Tuscaloosa to Jasper.
One of the fires damaged a Capstone building and two adjacent buildings. The other was set at a yard where Capstone vehicles and equipment were kept, Garner said. A Capstone car was also set on fire in Northport, he said.
Workers at Capstone declined to talk. It wasn’t clear if Wilkins quit his job or was fired.
Wilkins’ wife Amy filed for divorce in July 2004 after 16 years of marriage, according to Tuscaloosa County court records. She claimed she was beaten and that Wilkins threatened to kill her and sexually assaulted her. They had two children, and a judge ordered him to pay $1,300 a month in child support in the divorce decree in March 2005.
Wilkins has a record of arrests and legal scrapes in Tuscaloosa County dating back to the mid-1980s, but none related to violent crime.
He was acquitted on a robbery charge in 1988, but he pleaded guilty to burglary in 1989 and received a suspended sentence. In 2003, Wilkins pleaded guilty to criminal surveillance, a misdemeanor linked to trespassing in a private place, and received probation.
Court records showed when Wilkins filed for bankruptcy, he listed assets of $10,910 and debts of $25,039, including the credit union debt. A hearing in the bankruptcy case was set for Aug. 2 in Tuscaloosa.
Martin reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Bob Johnson also contributed to this report.