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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Nathan Van Wilkins and the Tuscaloosa Shooting Spree

     At 11:30 Monday night, July 16, 2012, 44-year-old Nathan Van Wilkins, a resident of Northport, Alabama, a town 30 miles north of Tuscaloosa, went to a house in Northport and knocked on the door. When the 30-year-old man who lived there saw that Van Wilkins was armed with an assault rifle, he ran back into the dwelling. Van Wilkins fired off six shots, hitting the man once in the back. (The victim is expected to survive his bullet wound.)

     From Northport, Van Wilkins drove to the Copper Top bar in downtown Tuscaloosa. Armed with an AK style assault rifle with a 100-round drum magazine, he stood outside the bar, located about a mile from the University of Alabama, and watched the 80 plus patrons, mostly 20 and 30-year-olds, drinking and shooting pool. Thirty minutes after midnight, Van Wilkins opened fire, his bullets ripping through a large, glass window. As the panicked drinkers rushed outside, he shot at them from the parking lot.

     Van Wilkins, who never entered the bar, left the scene when he ran out of ammunition. Seventeen people had been injured by glass and brick shrapnel, bullets, bullet fragments, and from being stomped in the stampede out of the place. (By noon the following day, 12 of the hospitalized victims had been treated and released.)

     From Tuscaloosa, Van Wilkins drove to the nearby town of Brookwood, Alabama where he allegedly set fire to three trucks and an oil rig owned by his former employer, Capstone Oilfield Services and Supply Company. (On March 30, 2012, Van Wilkins and a co-worker got into a fistfight. Both men were fired. The termination angered Van Wilkins who tried to file assault charges against the other man.)

     On Tuesday, July 17 at 10:30 in the morning, Van Wilkins walked into a FedEx store in Jasper, a town an hour's drive north of Tuscaloosa, and said, "I'm the one they are looking for that shot the 17 people in Tuscaloosa." Van Wilkins told the fearful employee that at the time of the shooting spree, he had been high on drugs. Shortly thereafter, officers from the Jasper Police Department took Van Wilkins into custody. To the arresting officers, Van Wilkins said he had wanted the police in Tuscaloosa to kill him.

     Charged with 18 counts of attempted murder (Van Wilkins has been linked to the Northport shooting through a shell casing match with the ballistics evidence at the Tuscaloosa site), the suspect is incarcerated in the Tuscaloosa County Jail under $2 million bond.

     The obvious question in shooting sprees like this is why, and what kind of person would kill or try to kill strangers. While Van Wilkins' motive is still unknown, based on his criminal background, marital history, and financial woes, it appears his shooting rampage was the product of drug-crazed anger rather than a mental illness such as schizophrenia.

     In 1988, Van Wilkins pleaded guilty to breaking into a body shop and stealing a Mercedes Benz. The Tuscaloosa judge sentenced him to 4 months probation. In 2002, he spent 10 days in jail for criminal trespass. His wife of 16 years, claiming that he beat her and threatened her life, divorced him in March 2005. The judge ordered Van Wilkins to pay $1,300 a month in child support. They have two children.

     In 2011, Van Wilkins, for the third time, filed for bankruptcy. He was $25,000 in debt. His bankruptcy hearing had been set for August 12. As of this writing, the man Van Wilkins shot in Northport has not been identified. If Van Wilkins had tried to kill a specific person in the Copper Top bar, that information has not been released.


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