Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sheriff: gang bangers 0-2 after tips pay off

By John Howell Sr. and Rupert Howell
Searchers on Sunday morning quickly located a handgun that was believed to have been tossed from a car on Old Panola Road Saturday afternoon occupied by four men suspected of fleeing a drive-by shooting in Sardis.

The four men were taken into custody near Old Panola Road’s intersection with Highway 310 around 4:30 p.m. Saturday after Panola Deputy Sheriff Lieutenant Earl Burdette spotted the vehicle traveling north and intercepted it.

The deputy said he witnessed a gun thrown from the fleeing auto’s window.

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Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby credited a citizen’s prompt tip with a description of the vehicle leading to the Saturday afternoon arrest. The sheriff said information provided by citizens the day before also led Burdette to an arrest Friday afternoon south of Sardis on Highway 51 with three “gang-bangers” arrested and a possible shooting avoided.

The Saturday drive-by shooting into a Sardis home and the Friday afternoon arrest followed several other incidents that are believed to be the result of gang rivalries that have cropped up in different locations in the county. In another weekend incident, shots were exchanged near Hilltop Store at the corner of Macedonia and Curtis Road across from Concord-Macedonia Community Center, the sheriff said. And on Letha Wiley Road between Greenhill Circle and Highway 315 in Sardis a shooter or shooters on Friday targeted a parked vehicle.

“They shot the fool out of it,” Darby said.

In the aftermath, members of the Panola County Search and Rescue Squad gathered shortly after 8:30 a.m. Sunday to search for the handgun Burdette saw thrown out of the window of the northbound car on Old Panola Road Saturday afternoon. Law enforcement officials had searched briefly but without success late Saturday afternoon in the dense clusters of vines and briers growing in the ditch-side right-of-way on Old Panola Road, just north of its intersection with Dunlap Road.

On Sunday morning the searchers — officers plus volunteers including Panola County Road Department foreman Kirk Reese — returned to the area. Reese drove a county tractor with a bush cutter mounted on an extended arm. He made several passes to clear the thick vegetation. The searchers walked in close proximity to each other on the east side of the road, looking for the weapon.

In less than 10 minutes, a searcher, pointing down through the sheared vines, shouted, “Here, it is.”

Instantly, everyone was smiling, including Burdette, who said he had “marked” the spot when he had sped past it the day before, using a “candy-stripe” roadside caution sign as his landmark. The large caliber, black, semi-automatic handgun lay pristine on its side.

Authorities are expected to compare the handgun with a number of spent cartridges that have been collected as evidence during investigations of recent shootings.