Mass shooting

Greenwood police officers and other first responders stand at the scene of a mass shooting that occurred the night of Oct. 24 on the 400 block of West Martin Luther King Drive.

For members of the Pitts family, the night of Oct. 24 was supposed to have been a bit joyful and yet somber.

But that’s not what happened, and they are plagued with one perhaps unanswerable question. “The only thing I want to know in my life is why?” said Varnika Sewell, 41, of Jackson, a member of the family.

The family’s plans for a congenial gathering that Saturday were cut short by gunfire coming from a semiautomatic-rifle-wielding male assailant, resulting in Greenwood’s sole mass shooting in a year that’s been marred by a heavy amount of gun violence.

On that evening, Varnika Sewell and others had expected to be reminiscing and honoring the memory of the family matriarch, Elizabeth Hunt Pitts.

The 91-year-old, who died Oct. 14 at her Greenwood home, had been memorialized during a  funeral at New Pillow Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, and then she was laid to rest in Salem M.B. Church Cemetery.

Following a funeral repast, members of the family, who came from across the country to gather in Greenwood, congregated at a relative’s house on the 400 block of West Martin Luther King Drive to enjoy each other’s company.

Katrina Pitts and  Jonathan Pitts

Katrina Pitts, left, and Jonathan Pitts, a brother and sister from Chicago, died in a mass shooting in Greenwood last month.

But the gunman put an end to their gathering, in the process killing two — Jonathan Pitts and his sister, Katrina Pitts — and wounding, according to the family, 10 others.

Now, three weeks after that horrific night, members of the Pitts family continue to bear the physical and emotional scars from the mass shooting. They’re left asking numerous questions — most of all, why it happened at all.

• • •

Prior to the shooting, people were eating, taking pictures, dancing and smiling, said Shanteria Sewell of Jackson, the 25-year-old great-granddaughter of  Elizabeth Hunt Pitts.

Another relative, Fornika Pitts, 43, of Greenwood, said “It wasn’t nothing but family having a good time.”

About 20 to 30 adults were outside of the home of Johnny Pitts, hanging out on the lawn, the driveway or the front porch, relatives said. Inside the house was a group of about 10 children, ranging in age from a newborn to a 16-year-old.

Laquandra Pitts, 33, of Jackson said she saw a male figure dressed in a gray hoodie and gray pants walking down the street holding a gun at around 10:30 p.m.

Those gathered heard a shot fired but assumed it to be a random incident, such as someone shooting into the air, with no connection with them. Then they noticed gunfire coming from across the street, and suddenly someone was shot.

“Get down! Get down! Get down!” Varnika Sewell, the mother of Shanteria, recalled someone saying.  

“We all got down on the porch. We were like stacked on top of each other. Everybody was trying to get down because we started knowing then that the shots fired were for us,” Laquandra Pitts said. “Everybody was hollering and screaming and nervous and wondering who would do this.”

Shanteria Sewell said as soon as she dropped to the ground, she  was struck in the leg and thigh area and that the bullet also hit her shin and came out of her calf muscle.

Amid the chaos, family members began dragging each other into the house, one by one, though in many ways it was already late, Varnika Sewell said, since a large group of people had already been hit.

The assailant began firing into the house, which was providing refuge, Laquandra Pitts recalled. “I ran in the kitchen with the kids because the kids were screaming and hollering.”

“He shot at the house up and down. From the top to the bottom. I mean, he just unloaded,” she said.

“The man shot 50 times, dropped a clip and shot 50 more times into the house,” Varnika Sewell said. “The children — I mean, thank God those children were inside of the house.”

Family members were administering CPR and other emergency procedures.

“I applied pressure to people’s wounds. It was so many. It was like a reaction. We all had to help somewhere,” Laquandra Pitts said.

She said she is pregnant and  was grazed in her left arm and lower back by a bullet.

Fornika Pitts said she was struck underneath her left arm. Her rib cage was also hit and broken, and one of her lungs was damaged. She soon went in and out of consciousness.

Varnika Sewell, who wasn’t hit,  noticed Fornika Pitts’ wounds and applied pressure in order to save her. “I knew she was dying because I saw the blood bubbling, like she couldn’t catch her breath.”

Both Shanteria and Varnika Sewell alleged that when Greenwood police officers arrived, the  officers at first asked how many people were dead and stood by idly.

“It was negligence on the Greenwood Police Department, period. When they first arrived, you’re talking about how many people dead. You should’ve been walking inside of the house trying to see how many people you could save,” Varnika Sewell said. “You should have automatically jumped into position.”

Shanteria Sewell said her 19-year-old younger sister had to grab each officer by the hand and direct them to a body. Otherwise, she said, the police officers “were just standing their butts outside.”

“If we didn’t have nurses in our family, there isn’t no telling where the hell we would’ve been,” she said.

“If we didn’t have our family members taking care of us, doctoring on us, there isn’t no telling where the hell we would’ve been.”

Distress grew as family members realized that the two or three ambulances they saw arrive  wouldn’t be enough to carry all of the people who were wounded, which included a total of 12 adults, 11 of whom were members of the Pitts family.

Though Varnika and Shanteria Sewell said they saw three ambulances, Laquandra Pitts said she only saw two. Shanteria Sewell recalled that a man in a red truck showed up after hearing about the shooting and transported several people to the hospital himself with his truck.

“To hear we don’t have enough ambulances in the city to help everybody. What type of stuff is that?” she asked.

None of the family members interviewed said they know Tyrell Stigler, the 24-year-old Greenwood man charged with murder in the mass shooting.

Tyrell Stigler

Stigler

“No one knew that guy,” Varnika Sewell said. “Nobody even knew anything about him, period. Who is he? Where did he come from? How does he exist? What’s his presence? What’s his past? Who knows him? Nobody does.”

• • •

Stigler, described as a “stone-cold killer” by Greenwood police and a man without any remorse by the Sheriff’s Department, has been charged with six counts of murder in connection with four different shooting incidents that occurred throughout the Greenwood area beginning in May 2018.

Stigler is a 2016 graduate of Amanda Elzy High School, where he played as a safety on the football team his senior year. He most recently lived at 126 Grenada Lane until he was arrested late last month.

Greenwood police, with assistance from outside agencies such as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, through the use of the CrimeStoppers anonymous tip line and the aid of surveillance cameras, were able to apprehend Stigler three days after the mass shooting.

He was charged with two counts of murder, eight counts of aggravated assault, shooting into a dwelling, possession of marijuana enhanced by a firearm and trafficking a controlled substance (ecstasy) Oct. 29 in connection with the mass shooting.

Stigler also was charged with two counts of murder in connection with the Sept. 17 shooting on East Johnson Street that led to the deaths of two 34-year-old Greenwood men, Larry Montgomery and William McGee Jr.

On Nov. 2, Greenwood police charged Stigler with an additional count of murder in connection with a fatal drive-by shooting that occurred on Sept. 27 near the intersection of Garrard and Linden avenues and led to the death of a 34-year-old Greenwood man, Cordarell Stanley.

He also has been accused of a  murder two years ago, when authorities believe he was responsible for killing his brother, Jakarrius Thomas. This charge has been leveled by the Leflore County Sheriff’s Department.

Thomas, 19, then a soon-to-graduate North New Summit senior, was sleeping in bed at a mobile home on Sherman Street in the Buckeye community where he lived with his family when he was fatally shot early morning May 7, 2018.

Stigler, who also lived at that mobile home, was the prime suspect at the start, according to Sheriff Ricky Banks, though deputies were unable to charge Stigler.

Following the death of Stigler’s brother, the only other criminal charges Stigler had on his criminal record until the homicides earlier this year, according to the Police Department and Sheriff’s Department, were various misdemeanor traffic infractions incurred in the city of Greenwood throughout the first half of 2019.

Stigler’s first major criminal offense for which he was charged involved a shooting incident that occurred Nov. 12, 2019, at the Williams Landing apartment complex.

A 20-year-old man had been shot several times outside. The victim was taken to Greenwood Leflore Hospital, and deputies arrested Stigler at the scene that night. They also recovered several .40-caliber shell casings as well as a .40-caliber pistol.

The Sheriff’s Department was able to charge Stigler with attempted murder based on accounts from witnesses as well as evidence collected at the crime scene.

Stigler’s bond was initially set at $500,000, but he was released from Leflore County Jail on Jan. 15 after his bond was reduced to $150,000.

Kelvin Pulley, Leflore County’s prosecuting attorney, said all of Stigler’s charges will be handled during a preliminary hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Leflore County Courthouse.

The hearing will allow various parties, from arresting agencies to Stigler’s attorney, to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for County Court Judge Kevin Adams to bind Stigler’s case to a grand jury. A grand jury would then choose whether to indict Stigler on his charges.

• • •

The family has other questions as well. They are asking why several city leaders held a press conference against the state’s medical marijuana initiative three days after the mass shooting but did not make a public statement about the shooting.  They are also wondering why Stigler wasn’t charged with attempted murder in connection with those who were shot but survived.

Deputy Police Chief Marvin Hammond said Friday that Stigler was charged with eight counts of aggravated assault, rather than attempted murder, because it was discovered  through an investigation that the group of people Stigler shot at were not his intended targets.

Hammond had previously said that police collected six to seven AR-15 shell casings at the crime scene. On Friday, he clarified that authorities picked up around 10 to 15 AR-15 shell casings at the scene. The AR-15 rifle in Stigler’s possession that’s since been confiscated is still being traced by the Jackson office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Hammond said.

Concerning the family’s complaints about too little aid from police officers, Hammond, who was not at the crime scene that night, said that officers helped the best way they could.

Hammond said police are investigating what the motive for the shooting might have been. One floating rumor that authorities are looking at, but can’t confirm, is whether Stigler was a hired hitman, Hammond said.

“On this particular case, it’s not over until we get all the facts,” he said. “We hope to have a good, solid strong case against him.”

Hammond would not comment about the motives for the other homicides in the city in which Stigler has been charged. Hammond did say that Stigler had made a statement concerning his alleged role in those homicides and police are looking to see if there’s any truth to that statement. The deputy chief did not elaborate on what type of statement Stigler made.

When asked Friday about the family’s allegations that city leadership hadn’t offered any public statements of condolence to the family, Mayor Carolyn McAdams said “I think that we responded. Everyone is certainly sorry that this happened.”

The mayor pointed out that she had spoken on the phone with several of the surviving victims, such as Varnika Sewell, and also said that city leaders, including Police Chief Jody Bradley and three city council members, had held a press conference to announce the arrest of the mass shooting suspect. McAdams was not at that press conference since she said she had a previously scheduled meeting in Jackson.

McAdams added that everyone, from herself to the City Council, is “saddened by what has happened” and that her office is always open.

Regarding the city’s handling of crime, McAdams said the revamping of the anonymous tip line, CrimeStoppers, has led to calls from the community and that residents have began calling the Police Department for tips concerning crime.

• • •

The wounded members of the family were transported to Greenwood Leflore Hospital and required different levels of treatment.

Shanteria Sewell was released from the Greenwood hospital later that night. She got stitches  and then had follow-up treatment at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

After arriving at Greenwood Leflore Hospital, Fornika Pitts was later taken by ambulance to UMMC in Jackson. She was hospitalized for nine days and was released Nov. 1.

“I’m still having difficulties breathing, and I’m still sore from my ribs because they’re broke,” she said. “The bullet wound underneath my arm is swollen and it’s open.”

When Laquandra Pitts got to the hospital, she said, medical staff told her that it was “by the grace of God” that the bullet that grazed her arm and back didn’t enter her body; otherwise she wouldn’t have made it. Additionally, she said her baby in the womb is doing OK.

In addition to the physical pain that members of the Pitts family have faced, they continue to endure the mental trauma from the shooting.

“I feel very traumatized. I still can’t sleep. I still can’t walk,” Shanteria Sewell said. “You still remember how helpless you were that night.”

“It’s hard because I wake up in night sweats. Every time I close my eyes, I see the fire from the gun. It’s hard. It’s really hard,” Fornika Pitts said.

“I lost two cousins that were very close to us,” she added, referring to Jonathan Pitts, 42, and Katrina Pitts, 41, a brother and sister from Chicago.

“They were real good, real good people,” Fornika Pitts said. Jonathan Pitts was “the life of the party.” She said Katrina Pitts, who left behind an adult son and a young daughter, was “real sweet.”

The remains of Jonathan and Katrina Pitts have been flown back to Chicago from Mississippi, but now the family is grappling with the financial cost for their funerals as well as the medical expenses and mental health treatment for the surviving family members.

The family has created a GoFundMe account to raise funds for those efforts, which can be reached at gofundme.com/f/victims-of-greenwood-mass-shooting.

“It’s major trauma when you see two of your family members get gunned down and you see eight or nine or 10 of them lying in the floor. And you’re going from person to person,” Varnika Sewell recalled. “It’s like a blood bath as soon as you walk into the house. Rivers of blood you’re walking through. It was a very horrific situation.”

“Who would come in and do this mass shooting like this? And the reasoning is like, why? We’re  family-oriented. We don’t bother anyone,” Laquandra Pitts said.

Varnika Sewell said, “We’re not coping. We didn’t even have a chance to grieve at our grandmother’s funeral. ... You didn’t even have a chance to grieve over that. It’s right back to double grief and more grief and frustration. Why did he even do the things that he even did?”

Contact Gerard Edic at 581-7239 or gedic@gwcommonwealth.com.

(1) comment

guest480

Thank you, Gerard, for looking at the impact of this act of violence on the family. They deserve all the comfort and support the city of Greenwood can offer them. They still have a long road ahead. Too many high power weapons on the streets and in the hands of people who should not have them, in Greenwood and everywhere.

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