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Worker talks about meeting accused Ala. bar gunman

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. Authorities believe he targeted someone during the bar rampage and that it was connected to an earlier shooting at a home. Wilkins was also suspected of setting three fires to equipment or property owned by an oil and gas company where he worked.

Police were not sure of a motive. They were investigating the possibility the shootings came from a dispute between rival motorcycle gangs. Wilkins' former employer, Capstone Oilfield Services, also had tried to garnish his wages but couldn't because he declared bankruptcy last year, according to court documents. 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 50-cent draft beer 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 the Copper Top 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 shooting ended, the music in the bar continued to play for several minutes until someone turned it off.

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, one in critical condition.

At least three of the injured were university students.

Police said Wilkins walked away from the shooting, down the same street he had hiked up to get to the bar.

It appeared he shot 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 also suspected Wilkins in a shooting at a home in Northport about 45 minutes before the bar rampage. The front window was broken at the brown, single-level, ranch-style home. A motorcycle was parked in the garage.

One person was injured in that shooting.

"We feel certain that we will be able to connect the dots with this individual," Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steve Anderson said.

The gunman turned himself in at 10:30 a.m. at a business 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 some water, even though he was terrified. The man showed no signs of being on drugs, but told Barfield he had been taking drugs at the time of the bar shooting, he 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 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 parked, Garner said. A Capstone car was also set on fire in Northport, he said.

Workers at Capstone declined to talk.

Wilkins has a record of arrests and legal scrapes in Tuscaloosa County dating back to the mid-1980s.

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. A hearing in the bankruptcy case was set for Aug. 2 in Tuscaloosa.

An attorney representing him in the case didn't immediately return a telephone call.

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