Man accused in Ala bar rampage faced troubles

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Associated Press

Posted on July 18, 2012 at 4:33 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 18 at 8:31 AM

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — There were signs Nathan Van Wilkins' life was unraveling.

The man charged with opening fire with an assault rifle at an Alabama bar, injuring 17, had declared bankruptcy last year — court records show it was for the third time since 1991 — and faced a hearing in a couple weeks. The move prevented a credit union from garnishing his wages at his then-employer, Capstone Oilfield Services, to collect a $15,000 debt. In 2005, his wife of 16 years divorced him.

And when Wilkins walked into a FedEx store where he turned himself in to police, he talked about being high on drugs during the shootings, the store's co-owner said.

Police were not sure of a motive, though they were investigating whether the shootings came from a dispute between rival motorcycle gangs. They accuse the 44-year-old Wilkins of standing outside a crowded downtown Tuscaloosa bar and opening fire from two different positions early Tuesday, sending patrons running or crawling for cover in a chaotic and bloody scene. Bullets ricocheted and glass shards and brick chunks fell around the nightclub.

Wilkins surrendered about 10 hours after the 12:30 a.m. shooting near the University of Alabama campus, police said.

"He came up to me and said, 'I'm the one they are looking for that shot the 17 people in Tuscaloosa," said the FedEx store's co-owner, Ken Barfield.

Wilkins is 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.

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. That was included in the 18 counts he is facing.

Outside the Copper Top bar, pools of blood were visible Tuesday afternoon. 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.

Most of the injured 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 Tuesday and two windows were missing from wooden doors on the side door, where a bullet left a hole in the frame.

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 also suspected of setting three fires to equipment or property owned by his former employer, an oil and gas company. 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 where he surrendered to police.

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 vehicle 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, 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 also has a record of arrests and legal scrapes in Tuscaloosa County dating to the mid-1980s.

Police said Wilkins walked away from the bar after the shooting and at about 10:30 a.m., he walked into a FedEx store about 45 miles north of the shootings to turn himself in.

Barfield said he talked to the man and offered him something to drink, even though he was terrified.

"I told him to keep his hands out in the open so police could see them when they got here."

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Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Bob Johnson contributed to this report.

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