Mississippi police jail smiling suspect in officer’s killing

Published 11:10 am Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Mississippi teenager accused of gunning down a uniformed officer in a police station parking lot was captured and returned in handcuffs, smiling as he was escorted through a phalanx of television cameras and police officers at the scene of the crime.

Biloxi citizens applauded Monday night as 19-year-old Darian Tawan Atkinson was brought into the station. Police said he’s the same man who walked around inside the station the night before and then approached Biloxi Patrolman Robert McKeithen in the parking lot, shooting him multiple times.

“We feel vindicated. He’s been treated properly and fairly. And now we will grieve for the family,” Police Chief John Miller said.

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It remains unclear whether McKeithen, 58, was targeted or shot at random.

“I can say that probably the saddest thing about this case is we have no motive, we have no reason for him to do this to anybody,” Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson said Monday before the arrest.

Miller said a Biloxi officer spotted the suspect while driving home through Wiggins, 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of the Gulf Coast city. The officer called Wiggins police, who made the arrest.

Tall and lanky in a blue and black baseball jersey, Atkinson was yanked from the back of a police cruiser and smiled as he was paraded past the cameras and a line of officers, who stood as people cheered behind them.

Miller wouldn’t say if Atkinson had told police anything. He was taken into the department for questioning and later taken to the Harrison County jail. It’s unclear when Atkinson will go before a judge, or if he has a lawyer to defend him against a charge of capital murder.

“We want to make sure that we have a solid case,” Miller said. “We want the district attorney to be pleased with the case we present, and we want this guy to pay for what he’s done.”

It’s unclear how Atkinson escaped the manhunt to reach Wiggins, but authorities say he had help. Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania confirmed to The Associated Press that Atkinson’s older brother, 21-year-old Davian Lewanika Atkinson, was charged early Tuesday with being an accessory.

Authorities say the gunman approached McKeithen and shot him multiple times Sunday night after coming inside the station, where a surveillance camera showed him walking around. The suspect, who wasn’t publicly identified until late in the day, “seemed a bit nonchalant” in the video images, Miller said.

Miller turned the investigation over to the neighboring Gulfport police, saying it was better to have an outside agency investigate the death of one of Biloxi’s own officers.

Gulfport police spokesman Sgt. James Griffin said investigators determined Atkinson’s identity through tips and interviews.

State criminal records show no felony convictions for either Atkinson brother.

“There’s nothing that would indicate this,” Papania told reporters of Darian Atkinson. Later, he described the shooting as “a sick and deliberate act.”

“With all of Robert’s training, I don’t know that there was anything else he could have done,” Miller said. McKeithen was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

An Air Force veteran who spent 23 years with the Biloxi police, McKeithen had been planning to retire this year. His death leaves a wife, daughter, two stepsons and a stepdaughter; the family said Monday through Biloxi city spokesman Vincent Creel that they weren’t prepared to talk.

Mourners piled floral tributes on McKeithen’s patrol SUV, which remains in the parking lot where he died. A memorial service is planned Tuesday night at Biloxi police headquarters. The officer’s funeral and burial are planned for May 13.

“This was a senseless murder of a veteran police officer,” Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted Monday after visiting the Biloxi police station, pledging authorities would “find the coward who fired the shots.”

Miller said he and McKeithen had handled calls together earlier in their career. Department records show McKeithen and three other officers were awarded a medal of valor for risking their lives to rescue four special needs children during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“He treated people with respect and dignity and we’re going to miss him sorely,” the chief said.