After midnight on College Street in Clinton, traffic slows to a crawl and the busy intersection of NC 403 and US 701 usually sits idle, minus the occasional car or truck taking late-nighters toward their destination.
Although a little busier on holiday weekends like Memorial Day, Clinton becomes a virtual ghost town after 11 p.m., with most convenience stores closing by that time, and even most fast-food restaurants’ business slowing to a crawl, some shutting the lights out at 11, others midnight.
Residents in the area said that was about how it was in the wee hours of Sunday morning — quiet and calm — until, that is, gunshots pierced the air, ringing out from a nearby fast-food restaurant just after midnight.
“My wife woke me up and got me out of the bed, saying the police were over at Burger King” said Jacobs Street resident Glenn Newton, as he leaned against a truck in his front yard Monday morning, just a short distance from the fast-food chain’s parking lot, where, he said, blue lights, lit up the morning sky Sunday.
“She was right. I got up and looked out and, sure enough, there were blue lights flashing everywhere. There was a police car blocking our street and it looked like another police car blocking the driveway of the house up there.” He points a distance up the road, back toward College Street, and shakes his head.
Newton said he could hear a lot of yelling. “It was the police. They were saying something like ‘give yourself up;’ I’m not sure exactly what their words were, but they kept repeating something like that; seems like they kept saying it about five maybe six or more times.”
Then, all of sudden, the Jacobs Street resident said shots rang out. “I heard a lot of shots, then it quit and all I could hear was a horn blowing. That lasted about 10 to 15 seconds, and then it stopped. Then it got quiet, eerie quiet.”
Those gunshots came from Clinton Police officers and a Highway Patrol trooper, all who had responded to a 911 help call at Burger King. What the officers found when they arrived was an unidentified male sitting in a pickup truck in the restaurant’s parking lot. He was armed with a shotgun.
According to preliminary investigative information from Police Chief Jay Tilley, officers cordoned off the parking lot and attempted to negotiate with the man to surrender and put his weapon down. They didn’t get any response until, about 18 minutes into the attempted talk-down, the man raised his weapon and pointed it at law enforcement.
Officers immediately opened fire, killing the suspect.
“It was a very tragic thing what happened over there,” said Robert Oliver, who was across the street at Express Mart Monday filling his truck with gas. “You just never expect something like this to happen in your home town. I have to admit I was shocked.”
He learned of the shooting when he awoke Sunday morning, grabbing his tablet as he often does to check social media. “I couldn’t believe it when I read what everybody was saying, that there had been a shooting. Then my daughter called, wanting to know what was going on.”
Oliver said Clinton and Sampson County were quiet places to live, where people got along. He said he didn’t remember anything like this ever happening in Clinton, and he hoped it wouldn’t again. “I can’t recall a time when our police have actually opened fire on anyone, either. Things like this just don’t happen here. I’m sorry it did this time.”
But Oliver was quick to point out that what happened shouldn’t be considered a blemish on the town, the fast-food chain or the police.
“It was a terrible tragedy, but it could have happened anywhere at any time. I’m just sorry it happened here.”
Newton said he felt much the same. “This is a quiet neighborhood. I was really surprised this happened. You hear that kind of stuff other places, but you just don’t think it’s going to take place right outside your door.”
Former Sampson resident Francisco Zaldivar was eating at Burger King Monday morning, watching his children in the nearby play area. When he learned of the shooting, he was shocked.
“That’s really hard to believe. This is a great place and things like that don’t happen around here,” Zaldivar said. “Clinton is a nice town and this is a great place to eat. My kids love it. This should not be a bad reflection on the town, the restaurant or the officers, I don’t think. It is unfortunate that this happened, but it’s a public place and you see things happening in public places like this all the time. But it’s not the fault of this place.”
Zaldivar said he wanted to move back to Clinton from Maryland, and the weekend incident had not changed his mind. “I love Clinton. It’s a good place to raise your family. What happened doesn’t change my mind about any of that.”
Publisher/Editor Sherry Matthews can be reached at 910-249-4612. Follow her on Twitter @sieditor1960 and like us on Facebook.