A drifter searching for a gay bar because he wanted to shoot gay people walked into the Backstreet Cafe in Roanoke Friday night, calmly ordered a beer and then opened fire, killing one person and wounding six others.
Witnesses said the man didn't say a word as he pulled a 9mm handgun from underneath his black trenchcoat and methodically fired at least eight rounds, sending bar patrons scrambling for cover. Bullets struck people at random as they ducked and threw up their arms, trying to protect themselves.
Police charged 53-year-old Ronald Edward Gay, found about two blocks from the Salem Avenue watering hole, with first-degree murder. Gay had already tossed aside his gun because, he later told detectives, he didn't want to hurt a policeman.
"He put the gun down, knowing we'd be coming for him," said Lt. William Althoff, who heads the Roanoke City Police Department's criminal investigations division.
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Witnesses who survived the shooting described a chaotic, horrifying scene that left many wondering why the crowded bar, popular with gay and straight people, was targeted by a man no one had seen before. The incident is being investigated by police as a hate crime.
Danny Lee Overstreet, sitting at a table closest to the gunman, dropped when a shot hit him in the chest. The 43-year-old Northwest Roanoke man died within minutes, despite efforts to help him.
"It was terrible," said a patron named Chris. "Blood everywhere. He was gagging on his blood, so we put him on his side. He died before police got there."
Chris, a bisexual man who asked that his last name not be used for fear of losing his job, said he watched the suspect come in, hunker down to the bar and order a mug of beer. Chris said he was headed to the bathroom when a noise behind him made him turn around.
"Like firecrackers - pop, pop, pop, pop," he said. "I saw John fall. ... I held his hand. He wouldn't let go."
John W. Collins, 39, was among those most seriously wounded, shot in the abdomen. Other victims include Iris Page Webb, 39, shot in the neck; Susan S. Smith, 45, shot in the right leg with the bullet exiting her buttocks; Linda R. Conyers, 41, shot in the right arm and hand; Joel I. Tucker, 40, shot in the small of his back; and Kathy S. Caldwell, 36, shot in the left hand and right shoulder.
"He started shooting anybody that was moving," Tucker said in a telephone interview from his hospital bed. "The only thing I saw was one woman running past me. Her finger had been shot."
Anna Sparks, celebrating her 37th birthday with her partner, at first thought she heard balloons popping. She turned around and watched in horror as people began falling to the ground.
"He was just swinging his arm and people were going down and dropping," as he worked his way around the room before he leveled the silver gun at Sparks, she recounted. Terrified, she couldn't move.
"He was staring at me like he was saying, 'You are next,'" she said, her voice shaking with emotion.
But the man didn't fire again. He put his hand down, turned around and walked out of the bar like nothing had happened, Sparks said. The manager locked the door, and people inside began pulling off their sweaters and jackets, putting them onto the wounds of those hit to stop the bleeding.
"People were pulling together in that crisis situation," said Tucker, who said he's not gay and was at the bar with his girlfriend and another couple. "I didn't know any of these people and they were great."
Patrons said police officers at the scene were compassionate.
Five of the victims are from Roanoke; Tucker is from Roanoke County; and Webb is from Dublin. Saturday night, Smith, Tucker and Caldwell were listed at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital in stable condition, Webb was in very serious condition and Collins was in guarded condition. Conyers had been discharged.
Roanoke police still don't know why Gay, who confessed to the crime, did what he did. But his actions leading up to the shooting were bizarre. After giving away money and some belongings to people who rented a room near him at the Jefferson Lodge, he approached an employee in an alley outside Corned Beef & Co.
"He asked where the gay bar was, because he wanted to waste some gay people," said police spokeswoman Shelly Alley. Then the man pulled aside his trenchcoat, displaying a gun.
Police said the employee, probably thinking the man was joking, pointed him toward The Park at 615 Salem Ave., and the man walked away, heading in that direction. That was between 11 and 11:30 p.m. Seven minutes later, the employee called police, who reached Corned Beef by 11:39 p.m.
At 11:46 p.m., the officer broadcast a description of the man on his police radio. But five minutes later, the call came: A shooting at 356 Salem Ave. Not The Park, but a tiny bar called Backstreet Cafe.
Officers, some on foot, rushed to the scene. It was shift-change time, so officers on the midnight shift were outside the police department, waiting for the evening shift officers to turn over their cars. Those in cars drove to the area, some branching off to search for the suspect.
Within 10 minutes of the 911 call, an officer happened upon a gray-haired, gray-bearded man at First Street and Campbell Avenue. The man was Gay, who calmly put his hands in the air when asked. Then he told police the gun was in a trash can near the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
The gun was an autoloader, meaning it spews out casings as it fires. It contained a magazine that held 10 rounds, but police found only eight shell casings inside the bar. Gay purchased his gun late last year from a Roanoke gun dealer, and still had the receipt in his pocket when police apprehended him, police said.
Police asked Sparks and other witnesses to identify the suspect. Sparks peered through the window of the police cruiser and saw Gay staring into space.
"He didn't try to hide his face," she said. "He had this look on his face like, 'I'm proud.' I just wanted to get a hold of him and strangle him. He has no clue as to what he's done to these people and their families."
Police don't know much about Gay. Police weren't aware of a criminal record in Virginia on Saturday. Members of the gay community didn't know his name and hadn't seen him before.
Gay carried an identification card with an address in Citrus Springs, Fla., but he claimed to have been living at various addresses in Roanoke for about a year. He had checked into the Jefferson Lodge on Friday afternoon, and had recently been camping at Roanoke Mountain Campground. He told detectives he had been in Roanoke in the mid-1980s, and remembered a club in Southwest Roanoke that catered to homosexuals.
"He may have been looking for that," guessed Althoff, the police lieutenant. "We are not sure why, or why now."
Althoff, in his more than 20 years as a police officer, said he couldn't remember another incident like this one. The last mass shooting in Roanoke was on Jan. 1, 1995, when five people celebrating the new year were killed in an Old Southwest carriage house. But Roanoke has had few hate crimes, and those reported have been isolated incidents - individuals threatening each other, epitaphs scribbled on buildings.
"I've never seen anything when anyone has gone after a group of people like this," Althoff said.
Gay is being held in the Roanoke City Jail without bond. Although charged only with a count of murder, police said more charges are anticipated. Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Don Caldwell said additional charges will likely be for aggravated malicious wounding and malicious wounding, both of which carry stiffer sentences than attempted murder.
The status of the victims still in the hospital could determine whether capital murder is considered, Caldwell said.
"It's clear this has a malicious act, which in of itself is malice, which is hate," he said. "Based on the evidence I've heard, certainly this man is looking at being locked up for the rest of his life."
As prosecutors prepare to bring the case before a grand jury Oct. 2, Caldwell said various statutes will be examined. But Virginia's hate crimes statute cannot be used. Although lawmakers have tried to add sexual orientation to the statute, that provision never made it out of committee.
Fred Jackson and Roy Mitchell, two friends who brought purple and white flowers and a balloon to the bar Saturday afternoon, said the public needs to realize that gays matter - that crimes, when committed against them, count.
Jackson and Mitchell were only two of those who paid tribute, pausing to pray or to place flowers before the door. As the brightly colored blooms grew in number, one rose wrapped in tan paper stood out.
On the card were three words:
"Hate will kill."
Staff writers Zeke Barlow and Jon Cawley contributed to this story.