Two months after Chattanooga attack, many questions remain unanswered
By SHELLY BRADBURY | Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn. | Published: September 16, 2015
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — When a lone gunman killed five U.S. service members in a July 16 attack on two military sites in Chattanooga, the city began a search for answers — a search that continues today.
Some answers came quickly. Within hours, the shooter was identified as Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, 24. The FBI opened an investigation and the city learned that Abdulazeez, a local man, raced in a rented Ford Mustang from the Armed Forces Recruiting Center on Lee Highway to the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve on Amnicola Highway, rammed through a gate and started shooting with an assault rifle.
Within a day, the U.S. Marine Corps identified the four slain Marines as Sgt. Carson Holmquist, 25; Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40; Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells, 21; and Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, 35. A fifth man, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26, died from his wounds on July 18.
After a week, the Times Free Press could trace Abdulazeez's steps from the beginning to the end of the attack, when he was shot dead by police. But then, federal investigators clamped down and the flow of information froze. Now, two months after the attack, many key questions remain unanswered.
Investigators won't say what motivated Abdulazeez to attack the sites. They won't say whether he obtained his weapons legally or illegally and won't say whether he was influenced by known terrorist organizations. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner's office will not release the men's autopsies.
Investigators won't say how many times Abdulazeez was shot, and police won't reveal which officers shot him, although they confirmed on Tuesday that five officers fired at the 24-year-old.
The city of Chattanooga and officials in Hamilton County have denied open records requests filed by the Times Free Press asking for access to 911 calls, dashboard camera footage, radio traffic transcripts and the computer-aided dispatch report generated during the attack. Releasing any of that information, authorities say, would compromise the FBI's ongoing investigation into the attack.
"We have no new information to provide," said Joyce McCants, FBI spokeswoman in Knoxville.
"There is no new information to share publicly at this time," said Sharry Dedman-Beard, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Tennessee.
"This is still an open FBI investigation and not subject for release at this time," police communications coordinator Kyle Miller wrote when asked how many shots the officers fired at Abdulazeez.
All declined to explain how the release of such information could derail the FBI's investigation. No agency would say whether the FBI is pursuing any accomplices in the attack. On the day of the attack, FBI Special Agent Ed Reinhold said that while Abdulazeez was the sole shooter, investigators had not ruled out accomplices.
It's also unclear how long the FBI's investigation will last. Immediately after the attack, more than 900 FBI personnel worked the case. Reinhold said the investigation could take "weeks, months and even years." Now, only 75 personnel are on the case, McCants said.
Nancy Savage, a former FBI agent who now works as the executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI near Washington, D.C., said that the clam-up is standard procedure.
"There is no reason to release preliminary information in this situation that might not tell the whole story," she said. "If there was something that needed to be released for public safety, they would prioritize that. But to give out bits and pieces would be inappropriate."
She said agents likely are still working through forensic evidence, examining items collected during searches and interviewing anyone and everyone who crossed paths with Abdulazeez. She added that if an investigation stretches overseas, that tends to take longer.
The fact that 75 FBI personnel are still on the case shows that the agency is making it a priority, she added.
"That still seems like a significant amount of resources, two months after something like this," Savage said. "But each case is different. You have to go where the evidence leads you as an investigator. You could develop extensive information that requires significant follow up or you could be hitting blank walls."
Outside of the FBI's investigation, the people and places involved in the attack have slowly and steadily returned to normal.
The five police officers who shot at Abdulazeez are back at work after taking a mandatory seven days off. Police and the FBI will review their actions to ensure they were justified when they killed Abdulazeez.
Officer Dennis Pedigo, wounded in the attack, is still on paid leave — and he is receiving 100 percent of his salary, Miller said. Typically officers who are injured while on duty earn 75 percent of their pay while they recover, but Mayor Andy Berke ordered that Pedigo be given 100 percent.
At the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve on Amnicola Highway, construction workers are still repairing the physical damage Abdulazeez did during the attack, said Lt. Cmdr. Tim White, the commanding officer at the center who fired at Abdulazeez as he rushed the building.
The Marines are back in the center working, while most Navy personnel are working at another military office across town until the construction at the center is finished. White said he'd like to have most Navy personnel back in the center during the next couple of months.
Across the road from the site where the five men died, five American flags — pressed flat and encased in glass — are bolted to the fence.
"Both the Navy and Marine Corps teams here in Chattanooga think of our fallen brothers and their families daily, but we hope that we can honor them by continuing to serve with excellence — just like they did," White said.
Thousands of mourners made the trip to the recruiting center on Lee Highway in the days after the attack. However, on Tuesday the parking lot at the shopping center was less than half full. The makeshift memorial that drew many is gone, and a permanent memorial — dark slabs around a flagpole, engraved with the names of the fallen — stands in its place.
Atop the slabs, mourners have left pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Someone shaped the coins into the letters 'USA.'
In one corner, carefully tucked under a half-dozen quarters, is a snapshot labeled "12/26/14." In it, three young men sit at a table, eating McDonald's and mugging for the camera, half-eaten burgers in hand.
At the top, someone scribbled a message in black ink, all caps.
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