Last Sunday, just after 4 p.m., Jessie Ray Sair was driving away from a pet store in East Atlanta with a bag of dog food in her car.
Maybe a hundred yards away, Shelia Miller was looking for a Pizza Hut from the back seat of a Buick piloted by her niece.
And a mile away, another woman was driving toward the home of her boyfriend in the Candler Park neighborhood.
They didn't realize it, but over the next several minutes, their lives would become connected by a startling eruption of violence. In a moment, the sound of gunfire, crunching metal and breaking glass would shatter the calm of the afternoon in the crowded marketplace.
"I was pretty scared," Sair recalled days after the incident. "I was 30 feet away from a shootout."
The AJC spoke with witnesses of the drug-related melee that started at the busy Edgewood Retail District and sprawled into surrounding neighborhoods. A reconstruction of events suggests that a running gun battle that started at the shopping center took just over six minutes to roll to the Candler Park neighborhood a mile away, where at least one other shot was fired.
Police later apprehended a Penske rental truck in Druid Hills bearing half a ton of marijuana. They said they also recovered a silver Mercedes that was involved.
But witnesses also told police of two other vehicles. One couple told an officer that a white Dodge Magnum or Charger was parked with its emergency lights blinking on Moreland Avenue outside the shopping center and that it suddenly sped off and sideswiped their car, according to a police report released Monday. Two other witnesses told officers that they saw a white car that resembled a PT Cruiser speeding backward down the alleyway where most of the shooting occurred.
The combatants left a trail of destruction, according to the police report: A bullet struck the hood of one car near the alley, but neither of the two women inside was injured; an errant bullet also shattered the window of another car that was struck by the Penske truck; and a round punched through the rear passenger door of a gray Toyota Matrix that came to a stop in the parking lot of a Kroger grocery store in sight of the alleyway. Its driver, Seth Kroop, took a bullet in the back, but he was not seriously injured and was quickly released from the hospital.
No other bystander was shot.
Sair first heard gunshots while wedged in traffic in the alley, Wrenwood Place, a connector between the north and south portions of the shopping center. The 22-year-old told the AJC that she noticed a yellow Penske truck ahead of her and that all of a sudden, someone with a gun appeared on foot and began firing into a white car behind the truck. Someone in the car shot back, she said.
The white car, which she said looked sort of like a PT Cruiser, was about three cars ahead of hers. It then reversed past her in the oncoming lane, she said. And the yellow truck followed. She didn't wait to see where they were going. "I just got the hell out of Dodge," Sair said. Later, she returned to the shopping center and saw a smashed up car near the Kroger parking lot.
It was probably the car in which Miller had been riding.
The Buick that had been carrying Miller, her 13-year-old grandson and two nieces was totaled when a yellow Penske truck slammed into it from behind then continued out of the shopping center, Miller told the AJC.
Miller and her relatives were in search of pizza when they turned into the southernmost of the shopping center's two main entrances off Moreland -- the entrance near the Kroger. That's when they first heard gunfire.
"I heard four shots the first time, and by the time we got in there, we started hearing shooting again -- about four more shots," Miller said. Her niece turned the car around and headed for the exit. "That's when that big truck hit us in the back," Miller said.
Miller, 49, went to the hospital complaining of back pain. The niece in the front passenger seat was four months pregnant, but doctors told her she was fine and that the baby was uninjured, Miller said. Doctors told Miller that she was OK, too, but she said Wednesday that her back still hurt.
Miller said the Penske truck plowed past their ruined car and exited the shopping center, turning right onto Moreland Avenue and heading north.
But another witness told the AJC that the truck turned left, heading south on Moreland.
Dannee Frick turned into the shopping center and saw the truck speeding toward her. The man driving it rammed the Buick and "he kind of dragged it, pushing it into a silver car" ahead, she told the AJC.
Frick, who was driving a Mini Cooper, said she had to swerve to avoid being smashed herself when the truck veered into the oncoming lane. She said it cut around waiting cars and ran a red light. "It was some crazy stuff," said Frick, 47.
One man, who is identified as a witness in the police report, said he had just exited the Best Buy electronics store at the shopping center and was walking toward the alley when he saw a man in black clothes open fire down the alley toward the Kroger with a semi-automatic handgun.
Police later recovered 11 shell casings at the alley's intersection with Caroline Street, which is the northernmost entry off Moreland to the shopping center.
The witness, whom the AJC is not identifying, said he was 15-20 yards from the shooter and ducked behind a car. He said he saw the shooter walk "calmly" toward Moreland Avenue -- the same street where that Dodge Magnum or Charger had been parked with its lights flashing.
He said the shooter was a man about 6 foot, 3 inches tall, weighing about 200 pounds, and in his late 20s.
The witness said he called police on his cellphone within seconds of the shooting, and that his phone registered the call at 4:14 p.m. He said there were probably 15 or 20 other people at the alley intersection dialing 911 -- and reaching a recording.
"I called 911 and there was no response," the man said. He said it was "disturbing" that no one else at the intersection seemed to be getting through either. But he added that the police came in a few minutes.
At 4:22 p.m., a man who lives a mile away on Oakdale Road in Candler Park said he called 911 from his cellphone about a shot fired in front of his house. The AJC is withholding his name, and the name of his girlfriend, because of what happened before that cellphone call. They are both listed as witnesses in the police report.
The girlfriend had just parked on a side street when a yellow Penske truck sped down the hill toward her and stopped next to her car.
A man jumped out of the cab, took three or four steps up the road to the back of her car, and fired one round up the hill.
She watched the action through her rearview mirror and "hunkered down" in her seat when she realized the man had a handgun.
"I don't think he saw me because I tried not to move," she said.
The truck sped off, heading north on Oakdale. A few seconds later, a "really nice" silver car came down the hill and turned the same corner, apparently chasing the truck, she said.
Her boyfriend said he got a recording when he dialed 911. Later, the couple went shopping at the Kroger and saw the mayhem. When they got home, they found news reports about the shooting and the Penske truck and realized that they were connected to the incident.
They went looking for the shell casing and found it near her car, and on Monday they called 911 again.
The police report does not say whether the shell casing matches any of the others.
Police quickly made some headway in the case. On Sunday night, they announced that they had impounded the Penske truck and a silver Mercedes and that two occupants of the Mercedes were detained for questioning.
On Monday, police announced that they were charging the driver of the Mercedes, Rashad Turner, with assault, reckless conduct, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and criminal damage to property. They did not say whether he was the one who shot up the shopping center alleyway, but the police report said the Mercedes contained a shell casing "consistent" with the 11 casings recovered there.
Police also said the Penske truck contained 1,161 pounds of marijuana when it was recovered behind a church off Ponce de Leon Avenue at the intersection with Oakdale.
It's unclear what happened to the passenger in the Mercedes and to the driver of the Penske truck. The report released by police Monday said the truck contained documents indicating that it was rented Sunday.
Police released photos of a man who appeared to be unloading boxes from the truck. The photos were taken by witnesses in Druid Hills, the police report said. It said the man in the photos matched the description of the shooter at the shopping center.
But the witness who says he watched the shooter fire down the alley then walk off calmly told the AJC that the two do not look alike.
And there may have been others involved: The police report that was released Monday said the white car, or cars, remained at large.
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