Auburn community shaken in wake of senseless weekend killings

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AUBURN, Ala. -- The trucks and cars were lined 34 in a row on a quiet street in Auburn, Ala., on Sunday evening, only yards away from where the blood was shed. Television broadcasters put on makeup, holding mirrors close to their well-coifed heads, while other reporters paced back and forth, looking at the crime scene tape and trying to understand what had happened here only hours earlier.

This is what we know: At 10:03 p.m. on Saturday, police in Auburn received word that multiple gunshots had been fired at the University Heights apartment clubhouse, where a pool party was being held. Minutes later arriving officers found Edward Christian, 20, an Auburn football player who was off the team because of an injury, dead on the scene. Former Tiger player Ladarious Phillips, 20, and Demario Pitts, also 20, died later at a local hospital. Two other people, including current Auburn offensive lineman Eric Mack, 20, were taken to a hospital in Opelika, a nearby town. (Mack is expected to make a full recovery.)

According to reports, about 50 people were enjoying a carefree, relatively quiet night by the pool when an argument erupted over a woman. Words were exchanged and, minutes later, shots were fired. As of Monday morning, police were searching for Desmonte Leonard, 22, of Montgomery, Ala., who is charged with three counts of capital murder. Officials are offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

After spending more than 12 hours in Auburn reporting on this tragedy -- talking to locals, police officers, hospital workers at a morgue, Tiger athletes -- it's clear this was nothing more than a senseless act of violence. This is not a story about a football program out of control or a narrative of players doing the wrong thing at the wrong hour. This is a tragic tale of someone having a gun -- someone who, according to police, was charged in 2008 with carrying a gun without a permit -- and using it with reckless and deadly abandon.

I'm based in Birmingham, and over the last three years I've spent a lot of time with Tiger coach Gene Chizik. His main pitch to recruits is that if they come to Auburn, they will be part of a tight-knit family. The notion of family flavors everything -- everything -- Chizik does at the school, from how he talks to players in his office to how he treats his assistants to how he'll often call a player's mother just to check in. With Chizik, a deeply religious man, the idea of family isn't merely lip service.

And so what transpired Saturday night shook the Auburn coach to his core. Chizik said he was "devastated" and labeled it a "sad, sad day for everyone associated with the Auburn family."

Late on Sunday afternoon, as a cold rain fell from the Southern sky, an Auburn fan stood across the street from where the killings had occurred. He had tears in his eyes. "Football is just so huge here and I don't think people in other parts of the country can grasp just what it means to our lives in Auburn," he said. "You never want this type of media coverage, but this was just a case of bloodlust and being stupid. People were killed and many, many lives were ruined for nothing. For nothing."

And then he kept walking, with his head down, through the rain.