OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Authorities were investigating racially charged comments on the Facebook page of a suspect in the shootings of five black people in Tulsa but said Sunday it was too early to call the killing spree a hate crime.
Police arrested two white men on Sunday morning, two days after the shootings killed three people in a mostly black Tulsa neighborhood. There was no connection between the victims and the suspects and without a motive, talk of hate crime charges was premature, authorities said.
“You could look at the facts of the case and come up with would appear to be a logical theory, but we’re going to let the evidence take us where we want to go,” Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Gordon told reporters on Sunday. “I certainly couldn’t make that determination right now.”
Roommates Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32, were arrested in the early Friday shootings. Authorities say they don’t know which one pulled the trigger, but are charging both.
Shortly before the killings, England had lamented on his Facebook page that two years had passed since his father was killed by a black man, whom he referred to with a racial slur.
“I‘m gone in the head,” England wrote.
Watts, England’s roommate, offered words of support to his friend in response to the posting.
Investigators are unsure to what extent the killing of England’s father played a role in the shootings, said Tulsa Police Major Walter Evans.
Among the dead was one woman, identified as Dannaer Fields, 49, and two men, Bobby Clark, 54, and William Allen, 31. The two wounded men, who were not identified, were expected to survive.
Oklahoma authorities have said the suspects will likely face state murder charges. Gordon said he didn’t know about any additional federal charges.
A handgun was recovered when the pair was arrested at a home in Turley, a small town north of Tulsa about four miles from the home they shared.
A white pickup truck, similar to that described by a witness, was recovered about 10 miles from the suspects’ house, police said. The vehicle had been burned, they said.
Sometime after the shootings, England posted another Facebook comment complaining: “people talking (expletive) on me for some (expletive) I didn’t do it just mite (sic) be the time to call it quits ... I hate to say it like that but I‘m done if something does happen tonight be ready for another funeral later.”
Tulsa City Councilman Jack Henderson said he believed the two suspects simply had a grudge against black people.
If that proves to be true, he said, he hopes prosecutors pursue twin charges of murder and committing a hate crime.
“I think that’s probably what will happen,” said Henderson, the only black member of the Tulsa City Council and whose northside district is where the shootings took place.
Before the arrests, some residents worried about whether it was safe to attend church on Easter Sunday, Henderson said.
Police had few clues in the shootings and pleaded for help from the public on Saturday afternoon.
“We were desperate for leads,” Gordon said.
About 10 of the 40 telephone tips received proved helpful, said Gordon.
Editing by Karen Brooks and Doina Chiacu