CLINTON, La. – In a string of attacks that began in July, a plumbing company owner killed three men and wounded a fourth, shooting all of the men at their homes or on their property in a rural area north of Baton Rouge, authorities said.
The slayings put the area on edge for weeks. The latest killing occurred Monday when authorities said Brad DeFranceschi was gunned down while the Boy Scouts employee trimmed weeds in front of his house. DeFranceschi lives on Boy Scouts camp property in Clinton, a town of 1,600 people about 30 miles from the state capital.
Authorities announced the arrest of Ryan Sharpe, 36, late Wednesday. He is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. It wasn't immediately clear whether he had an attorney.
DeFranceschi was the fourth middle-aged or older white man to be shot at their homes or on their property since July. East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux would not comment on a possible motive or say whether Sharpe, also a white man, knew the victims.
A convenience store owner told The Associated Press he saw Sharpe interact with one of his alleged victims at his business within the last year.
Asked by a reporter if Sharpe was a "serial killer," Gautreaux said, "No, but I mean it could be categorized as anything, really. We've been open-minded in this whole investigation."
"Our citizens can rest easy tonight knowing that we are confident we have the right person," the sheriff added.
East Feliciana Parish Sheriff Jeff Travis said Sharpe confessed when investigators questioned him after his arrest, but the sheriff didn't elaborate.
Detectives found "significant physical evidence" linking Sharpe to the shootings, Travis said. The Louisiana State Police crime lab matched bullets found at two of the shooting scenes, according to a sheriff's office report.
Tommy Bass, 62, was killed in his carport on July 8 at his East Feliciana Parish home. Buck Hornsby, 47, was wounded while exercising on his property on Sept. 12 in Clinton. Carroll Breeden, 66, was shot to death on Sept. 19 while doing yard work in front of his home in Pride.
One of Sharpe's neighbors said he stopped by last week — four days before the latest slaying — to borrow her husband's welding helmet. She said she never felt uncomfortable around him.
"He always had friends around," Traci Andes, 46, said. "They would have BBQs, crawfish boils. Just your normal people."
After the most recent shooting, Andes told her husband she would bring her gun outside the next time he cut their grass and stand watch over the street that runs past their home.
"Everybody was scared. Even me. I didn't want to check my mailbox," she said. "Everybody has been on high alert."
The sheriff's office report doesn't explain how investigators identified Sharpe as a suspect.
Earlier this week, DeFranceschi's wife told authorities that she saw a white four-door car with tinted windows near her home after she heard the gunshots that killed her husband. Sharpe drove a car fitting that description.
Sharpe lived off a dirt road in a heavily wooded area. At the gate entrance to his home, there is a "No Trespassing" sign, warning that violators will be shot and "survivors will be shot again."
Investigators were watching Sharpe's home on Wednesday afternoon when he drove away in a white four-door Nissan Altima. They tried to pull him over but he led them on a high-speed car chase that eventually ended with his arrest, authorities said. A lever-action rifle was found in his car.
Lyman Fleniken, who owns a gas station and convenience store several miles from Sharpe's home, said Sharpe was a frequent customer, usually buying beer and cigarettes. But Fleniken hadn't seen him in the store since the first shooting in July.
Fleniken said he and Bass were childhood friends and he had seen Sharpe interact with Bass in his store in the months before he was killed. Their interaction seemed friendly.
"I thought he was a pretty good guy," Fleniken said of Sharpe. "He was friendly, pleasant."
Casey Rayborn Hicks, a spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's office, said she doesn't know if Sharpe has an attorney.
Sharpe owns a plumbing company, according to records filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State's office. His father is a retired police officer who worked for the state Public Safety Department, which provides security at the state Capitol building and elsewhere, according to State Police Maj. Doug Cain.
He told The Advocate on Thursday that he was shocked by his son's arrest.
"We were close, I didn't see him every day, but we talked occasionally and I kept up with him," he said. "I'm in shock of what he allegedly did, but I'm also sorry for the families that were impacted by this."
A task force of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, was formed to investigate the killings.
This story has been corrected to show that that neighbor Traci Andes said she never felt uncomfortable around Sharpe.
Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com