SAMSON, Ala. — Authorities say an Alabama gunman who killed 10 people and himself in a rampage had once trained as a police officer.
Alabama Bureau of Investigation Chief Jerry Connor said at a news conference Wednesday that 28-year-old Michael McLendon briefly went through officer training in 2003, but didn't complete the requirements to join the force.
Authorities were working Wednesday to learn why a gunman set off on a rampage, killing 10 people across two rural Alabama counties. Grieving residents feared the answers could have been lost when he ended the terror by killing himself.
The shooting was believed to be the worst mass killing by a single gunman in Alabama's history. The gunman's mother, four other relatives and the wife and child of a local sheriff's deputy were among the dead.
"He cleaned his family out," Coffee County Coroner Robert Preachers said. "We don't know what triggered it."
The shootings happened Tuesday afternoon in a mostly rural area near the Florida border, and were believed to be the work of Michael McLendon, a man in his 20s who lived with his mother and once worked at a local metal plant.
The spree began around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday when McLendon burned down his mother's house in Kinston. Coffee County Sheriff Dave Sutton said McClendon put his mother, Lisa McLendon, on an L-shaped couch, piled stuff on top of her and set her afire. He said McClendon also shot four dogs at the house.
Then, McLendon drove a dozen miles southeast to Samson, in Geneva County, where he opened fire at a relative's porch, killing three relatives and two others before shooting another relative next door. After, he drove around the town shooting out his car window, killing three more people seemingly at random, authorities said.
One woman was struck down as she walked out of a gas station. Another man was hit while driving. A man was shot in the back as he tried to run away.
Greg McCullough, a contractor who lives in the town, said he was pumping fuel at the gas station when the gunman roared into the parking lot and slammed on his brakes.
"I first thought it was somebody playing," McCullough said. Then he saw the rifle.
As police pursued him, McLendon drove 12 miles farther east and stopped at the Reliable Metal Products plant where he worked until 2003. He got out of his car and fired at police with his automatic weapon, wounding Geneva Police Chief Frankie Lindsey, authorities said. He then walked inside and killed himself.
Once investigators got a look at the ammunition he was carrying, they feared the bloodshed could have been worse. "I'm convinced he went over there to kill more people. He was heavily armed," Sutton said.
Three of the people struck on the porch were the wife and two daughters of Dep. Josh Myers, who was one of the law enforcement officers involved in the chase for McLendon. His family, who lived across the street from the gunman's relatives, was visiting the home when the gunfire erupted. Only one of the children, a 4-month old-girl, survived, and was set to undergo surgery at a hospital in Pensacola, Fla. for a wound to the leg caused by either a bullet or shrapnel.
"I cried so much yesterday, I don't have a tear left in me," said Myers, who did not know McClendon. "I feel like I should be able to walk in the house and my wife would be there, my baby girl climbing on me."
Authorities said McLendon was either fired or resigned from his job at the metals plant in 2003. It was unclear what kind of work, if any, he had been doing since, said Alabama Public Safety spokesman Kevin Cook. A person who answered the phone at the plant said no one could talk about the shooting.
Samson Mayor Clay King said he had known McLendon all his life and could not say what triggered the shootings.
"If you would have asked me two days ago if he was capable of this, I would have said certainly not," King said on NBC's "Today" early Wednesday.
Word of the shootings spread quickly through Samson, a rural town of about only 2,000 people. The local hospital's staff was readied to treat the victims, but their hopes were dashed as death reports trickled in.
"Unfortunately, we were getting the same bad reports as everyone else: Most people were untreatable," said John Rainey, a local government administrator. "Our nursing staff broke down in tears hearing what was going on and realizing they weren't going to be able to help them."
One of the spots sprayed with bullets was a hardware store in Samson. Yellow tape was strung across glass windows shattered by at least five bullets. A "closed" sign was on the ground outside atop glass shards.
Tommy Boyles, a 76-year-old security guard who works at the same plant where McLendon killed himself, said he and his wife were on the street nearby when McLendon passed. They feared they could have been one of his victims.
"We could have been caught up in it just as well as anyone else," he said. "That's what scares you: to be an innocent bystander and some nut walks up with a gun."
Lynn Childs, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center in Montgomery, said the slayings were the most victims killed by one gunman in Alabama since the organization started keeping such records in 1978.
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Six members of a farm family in Rutlege were killed by a gunman in 2002. At that time, veteran law enforcement authorities said they did not recall any worse massacre in Alabama dating back decades.