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Murder of Bill Gwatney Remains BafflingLock Icon

11 min read

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future Fifth Monday articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at GMoritz@ABPG.com.)

The murder of Bill Gwatney happened so fast that even the 10 other people who were right there in the Arkansas Democratic Party headquarters when he was gunned down couldn’t agree on the details.

As the 10th anniversary approaches, associates of Gwatney have accepted that they will never understand the motive for a crime that made national news and launched months of fruitless investigation.

It started when a middle-aged white man walked into the building at 1300 W. Capitol Ave. in Little Rock shortly before noon on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008, according to the Little Rock Police Department’s case file. Greeted by intern Sam Higginbotham, who was manning the reception desk, the man gave his name as Tim Johnson and asked to speak to Gwatney, the party chairman.

It was happenstance that Gwatney, 48, was in the nondescript one-story building on the northwest corner of Capitol and Pulaski Street. Chairing the party that had controlled the Arkansas Legislature for more than a century was a volunteer gig for the former state senator born into Jacksonville’s Chevrolet-selling royalty. He told his wife that he was adding a stop by the headquarters to his morning schedule in order to take care of some paperwork.

Higginbotham, a high school senior in his third day as a volunteer, told Johnson that Gwatney was in a meeting and said he would try to find someone who could help. He knocked before opening the door to the chairman’s office next to the reception area, where Gwatney was with Mariah Hatta, the party’s executive director, and Amy Bell, Gwatney’s assistant.

When Gwatney indicated that he didn’t know Johnson, Bell walked back to the lobby with Higginbotham.

Bell spoke to the seated man, who said something about a problem in White County. She advised him to start with the local party chairman. Johnson also said something about volunteering, and Bell gave him a bumper sticker and a campaign button promoting Barack Obama, whose nomination for president would be formalized two weeks later.

Johnson stood up, but instead of heading for the exit, he quickly walked perhaps 20 feet, past Higginbotham’s metal desk and into the chairman’s office. Higginbotham and Bell exchanged a glance and started to follow Johnson.

Johnson may have knocked before he opened the door of the chairman’s office, and he may have closed the door behind him. Details like that are muddled in the various accounts. Hatta said Johnson was holding the Obama bumper sticker when he introduced himself to Gwatney.

“He was just one of those people you could tell had something wrong,” said Hatta, remembering the day in a recent interview.

She told police she looked at Gwatney to see his reaction to the interruption and heard the first gunshot. After a pause, she heard two more, but she never saw the gun. She realized Gwatney had been hit even as she dashed through Bell’s adjoining office and headed for the back door, ordering coworker Darinda Sharp to call 911.

Bell, standing behind Johnson, could see the gun, and she screamed as she ran toward the back of the building.

Coworker Keith Rancifer said he was in the hallway when Bell opened the door that Johnson had closed, so he too saw the gun — a little snub-nosed revolver, he told the Little Rock Police Department. After the first shot, he headed for the exit door in the reception area, and he thought he heard at least three more shots.

Johnson, too, fled through the front door. He climbed into a blue pickup parked on Capitol and drove away.

Higginbotham thought he heard three shots, a pause, and then two more shots. Cody Bassham, who had started working at the party headquarters that very morning, thought he heard one shot, a pause, then three or four more shots. Sharp thought she heard two or three shots, a pause, then one or two more. She hadn’t even realized that Chairman Gwatney was in the building.

Co-worker Peter Grumbles thought he heard three shots, a pause, and then one more shot. He saw Bell run screaming out the back exit. After waiting in his office for a few seconds, he too went out the back door, where Sharp was calling 911.

The first call was received by dispatchers at 11:49 a.m.

Grumbles went to the front of the building and instructed employees there to gather in back. Then he went back into the building and found Gwatney unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. He rolled Gwatney onto his back. Grumbles then called his wife, a physician’s assistant, who told him to apply pressure to the head wound, which he did with his own shirt. He also removed Gwatney’s shirt and saw what he thought were three other gunshot wounds.

He continued to care for Gwatney until paramedics arrived and rushed him to the UAMS Medical Center about 2.5 miles away. LRPD Det. Kevin Simpson arrived at the hospital within minutes and was told that Gwatney’s death was inevitable. His wife, Rebecca, and daughter Christian were already there; his parents and other relatives were on their way.

Timothy Dale Johnson was 50 and his life was falling apart.

His parents had always been his financial backstop, and he had quit working to care for them. Now they had been dead for a few years. He was working on the night receiving crew at the Target in Conway, an hour from the house he inherited in Searcy, even though he had a bachelor’s degree from Arkansas Tech University. Sometimes he needed to supplement his paycheck with cash from a pawnshop.

Family members knew he was depressed, but communication with his three older sisters was sporadic. They also knew he owned a lot of firearms.

When his sister who lived in Sheridan got a visit from the Little Rock Police Department on the afternoon of Aug. 13, she “figured investigators were coming to tell her that her brother had committed suicide,” the police account said.

In a way, he had.

Johnson’s life had been a rollercoaster for the past couple of weeks and had taken a dramatic plunge in the previous 24 hours.

He had developed an unrequited obsession with a female acquaintance, not for the first time. Even though this woman, a coworker at Target, had never even agreed to a first date, he had been texting her regularly and had asked her to marry him.

The woman, whose name Arkansas Business has chosen not to use, probably should have told him straight-up that she already had a boyfriend, that she was living with another co-worker who was higher on the career ladder. It wasn’t a secret.

But she didn’t, she told LRPD detectives, not even when Johnson creeped her out by waiting outside the store when she had met her boyfriend there for lunch on Tuesday, Aug. 12.

Maybe he had figured it out.

The next morning, when she arrived for work at 6:30 a.m., something bad had already happened. Johnson had scrawled profane graffiti in three places in the employee-only area, including a message that police thought might have been aimed at his obsession and her love interest: “Target: Run by dumb jocks and their sorority whores!!”

Another complained that a passageway was too narrow. That one he signed with his name and the time and date — “0530 hrs 8-13-08.”

Johnson was promptly fired. Before 8 a.m., store managers had made a report about the incident to the Conway Police Department because “Johnson seemed to be extremely irate.”

The Conway PD officer who took the report made an addendum at 12:05 p.m.: “I attempted to make contact with Johnson, but was unsuccessful.”

By 9 a.m., Johnson was back in Searcy at the Corner Pawn Shop, where he had pawned a Browning .22 caliber pistol three weeks prior and a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun just two days earlier. He didn’t appear to be upset as he redeemed the pistol.

Between 10:15 and 10:30, he called another woman who worked at Target, who had the day off. She was busy, so she immediately cut him off by telling him to call back later — something she would regret. She didn’t know about the graffiti incident when he called, but she later speculated to police that being fired probably made him think “his life was over.”

Working at Target, she said, “meant more to him than just a job.” After years spent caring for his parents, “To Tim, it was … his first taste of, like, freedom.”

When a detective asked her for the names of other friends Johnson might have called, she said simply, “I don’t think Tim ever had a friend.”

The temperature was in the mid-80s, headed for a high of 90 that afternoon, when Johnson drove away from the chaotic scene at the Democratic Party headquarters.

He didn’t go far.

At 11:59, 10 minutes after the first 911 call from the Democratic headquarters, another emergency call came from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention a half-mile east at 525 W. Capitol. A white man with a handgun tucked into the back of his pants was in the building.

Receptionist Linda Miller said the man, quickly identified as Tim Johnson, came in and said he needed help. She called her supervisor, Kirby Martin, to come to the front desk. By the time Martin arrived, the man had walked around a corner and up a staircase.

Martin walked up the stairs and found Johnson, who was pointing a gun at him. Martin ran back downstairs, told Miller to call 911, and then took an elevator back to the second floor. When the elevator door opened, he again encountered Johnson, who was no longer holding a gun but had his hands behind him.

As they rode back to the ground floor, Martin asked the man if he needed help. “I’ve just lost my job,” the man said.

He walked outside and drove away in a blue pickup.

Little Rock Police Sgt. George Bethell was cruising around the 500 block of Capitol in search of the suspect who had left the Democratic Party crime scene in a small blue pickup truck. An unidentified man flagged him down and pointed out a blue truck on Arch Street.

Bethell pulled in behind the truck, but the white man behind the wheel refused to stop. He notified dispatchers that he was following the suspect.

It was the start of a pursuit that would be joined by more vehicles from the LRPD, the Arkansas State Police, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office and Sheridan Police Department. The chase wound around downtown Little Rock, then east on Interstate 630, west on Interstate 30 and south on Interstate 530 toward Pine Bluff.

Timothy Johnson

Johnson led the officers through more turns — on Woodson Lateral, Highway 67 and Highway 167 — and maneuvers that allowed Johnson to avoid spike strips and a roadblock.

Eventually, Officer Nathan Cook of the Sheridan PD shot the right front tire of Johnson’s Dodge Dakota, and Grant County Deputy David Roberts managed to immobilize the pickup on Highway 46 near Little Creek Road.

At least five officers got out of their cruisers, and Johnson got out of his truck. Ignoring commands to “get down,” Johnson reached behind the driver’s seat and began pulling out a rifle case. Officers opened fire, and Johnson fell beside his pickup. He had a semiautomatic pistol in the back of his pants and a .357 magnum on the right side of his pants, according to the State Police report.

Johnson was airlifted to Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, where he was pronounced dead at 2:18 p.m. He had six gunshot wounds; one to his head was believed to be fatal.

The shooting of Tim Johnson was found to be justified.

At UAMS, Bill Gwatney was pronounced dead at 3:59 p.m. He had outlived his murderer.

He had been shot three times with the same semiautomatic pistol that was recovered from Johnson’s waistband, and the police ultimately concluded that those three shots were all Johnson had fired.

LRPD Detective Tommy Hudson still described Gwatney as being in critical condition when he received a search warrant for Johnson’s home in Searcy from Searcy District Court Judge A. Watson Bell at 4:35 p.m.

In the house, described as “dirty and unkempt,” police seized 13 weapons — the Browning pistol, rifles, shotguns and a Remington muzzleloader. In one bedroom was a pile of “approximately thousands of rounds” of live and spent ammunition.

A sticky note on which the name Gwatney-Jax and a phone number were written was stuck to the kitchen wall. Inside a small safe police found two sets of Gwatney Chevrolet keychains. They would be the only connections between Johnson and his victim that were ever found, and they were tenuous in the extreme.

The number on the sticky note was for a towing service that the Gwatney company had not operated in several years, and it was part of a list that included three other towing services. The Gwatney Chevrolet key rings were in a bag with various other keys.

If Tim Johnson had ever done business with Bill Gwatney or his family’s business, it had not been recently. He had not applied for a job or bought a car or had a vehicle serviced in the previous five years. Investigators found no personal or professional connection that would explain why Johnson targeted Gwatney.

RELATED: Bill Gwatney: What Might Have Been

The investigation that continued for three months also found no political motive for Johnson’s crime, although it was not unusual for the Arkansas Democratic Party to receive calls and correspondence from people who were angry about one thing or another. “Nothing that would alarm us,” Amy Bell, Gwatney’s assistant, told the LRPD.

After the murder, some fringe-right websites would praise Johnson for killing a Democratic operative. But relatives and coworkers described a polite, socially awkward man whose interest in politics seemed casual and not at all radical.

His voting record was spotty and mixed between Republican and Democratic primaries.

Janice Peacock, Johnson’s sister in Sheridan, described her younger brother as a lifelong Democrat.

“I never heard Timothy mention Mr. Gwatney by name. As far as I know, he was planning to vote for Mr. Obama for president,” she told a State Police investigator.

Former Gov. Mike Beebe speculated last week that Gwatney might have been no more than a means to a twisted end for Tim Johnson.

“It’s almost like he wanted to be famous, to shoot somebody that would get him in the newspaper.”

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