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Motive Still Mystery in Tuscaloosa Shooting

By: Carol Robinson -- The Birmingham News
By: Carol Robinson -- The Birmingham News

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama -- The man suspected of shooting up a Tuscaloosa bar and pool hall early Tuesday and wounding 17 people was jailed on 18 counts of attempted murder and was being held on bonds totaling $2 million.

Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, is also charged with one count of shooting into an occupied building and one count of shooting into an occupied dwelling.

The 18th count of attempted murder stems from a shooting Monday night in the Indian Lakes community in Northport that left one person wounded. Police also said Wilkins is a suspect in an arson fire early Tuesday at Capstone Oil in Brookwood, where he once worked.

Police have offered no motive for the shooting that captured state and national headlines throughout the day Tuesday.

Five victims of the Copper Top shooting remained at DCH Regional Medical Center, DCH spokesman Brad Fisher said Tuesday afternoon. One was in critical condition; one was in serious condition, and three were in fair condition. The victim from the Northport shooting was in serious condition.

The Copper Top, located at the intersection of Fourth Street and 23rd Avenue in Temerson Square, is frequented by UA students. The downtown bar is about a mile away from the west end of the University of Alabama campus and the part of University Boulevard known as the Strip.

Among the 12 victims who were treated and released were Kelvin Sigler, the former Blount High School football coach who recently joined Alabama's coaching staff as an offensive analyst, and three University of Alabama students.

Madison Leavelle and her brother Davis were celebrating her 21st birthday at the Copper Top late Monday night when the party came to an abrupt end.

The two were placing an order at the bar when the gunfire started. If they had their orders filled a moment earlier, the two said they likely would have walked into the line of fire.

"It was almost like a bad dream," said Madison, a University of Alabama junior double-majoring in dance and graphic design. "I'm so happy that we're safe, but the people who got shot are definitely in my thoughts and prayers. I can't imagine what they're going through or feeling like."

"It took me a while to finally get to sleep thinking about it," Davis said "I'm trying to wrap my head around why it happened. It's a wonder he didn't hit anybody in the head. I'm just trying to get some answers, really. I know the what, where and how of it. But I want to know the why and whom."

Some time after the shooting, Wilkins drove a white Ford F-150 pickup truck from Tuscaloosa to Jasper, where his sister lives. The truck was parked on the lot by the Walmart in Jasper.

Wilkins went into a nearby FedEx center where he told one of the employees: "Yeah, that's me. I'm the one that shot 17 people in Tuscaloosa," the worker said Tuesday.

Employee Ken Barfield said he had noticed a man pacing in the parking lot of the store, located on Pediatric Drive near Walmart, and thought it suspicious but didn't think much of it. The man was muscular, had a shaved head and was wearing blue jeans and black T-shirt.

Barfield said he kept 911 operators on the line, but put the phone on the counter so as not to further agitate the man. "I wanted to leave the line open."

Barfield said the man told him: "'I was taking drugs, and things got out of hand at the bar.' He was going from one train of thought to another."

Barfied said when police surrounded the building, "I advised him it would be in his best interest not to be reaching in his pocket or anything."

Police had received a tip from a family member that Wilkins was in Jasper, said Jasper Police Capt. Larry Cantrell. Moments later, they received a call from a FedEx worker saying the wanted man was in the store and had confessed to the Copper Top shooting.

"Within 15 minutes, the parking lot was filled up with U.S. Marshals," Cantrell said. "They had tracked him here also, and were in Oakman when they got the call we had him."

When Jasper police went into FedEx, "He threw his hands straight up in the air and said, 'I am the guy you're looking for. I shot those people,'" the captain said.

Wilkins teared up as he was escorted into the Jasper City Jail, Cantrell said. "He wasn't sobbing or anything, but he did tear up, " he said.

After he was taken into custody, police said Wilkins told them he wanted to die.

"The only thing he said was that he wanted to die and was hoping the Tuscaloosa Police Department had killed him last night," Cantrell said. "He said, 'I wanted the Tuscaloosa police to kill me, but I got scared and left before they got there.'"

Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steven Anderson, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, thanked the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office, the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney's office, the Alabama State Troopers, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, the ATF and the public for their assistance.

Court records show that Wilkins has had previous charges. The divorced father of two adult children pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary related to an arrest on Oct. 17, 1988, in Tuscaloosa County. He was given four years probation, according to online court records.

Records also show that Wilkins was acquitted in 1989 on a first-degree robbery charge and that he was arrested twice on criminal surveillance charges, in 1998 and 2002. The 1998 charge was dismissed and he pleaded guilty to the charge in 2002.

The university notified students, faculty and staff of the shootings through UA Alerts text messages and emails at 2:40 a.m., according to UA spokeswoman Cathy Andreen, and information on the UA website was later updated several times. Andreen said that the alerts were sent as soon as the university was notified about the shooting.

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