SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Late-night Fourth of July celebrations in Savannah's downtown historic district erupted into chaos early Wednesday after gunfire wounded three people in a popular nightlife district, leading to a police chase in which a fleeing vehicle crashed and killed three others.
A 17-year-old suspect was arrested on charges including three counts of felony murder and other crimes in what Savannah-Chatham County Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin called "group-gang related" violence.
"The violent crime in this community needs to stop and we need the community's support to stop it," Lumpkin said at a news conference. Georgia's oldest city, which relies heavily on tourism revenue, has suffered more than 20 homicides so far this year — fewer than in the first half of last year, but more than Savannah saw in 2015.
Police had extra officers on duty Tuesday night and early Wednesday as big crowds gathered in downtown Savannah for the city's Fourth of July fireworks display. Some were still celebrating after midnight when shooting broke out in the City Market bar and entertainment district at about 12:13 a.m.
Lumpkin showed reporters surveillance video Wednesday that showed a white SUV drive slowly past a sidewalk bench where several people were gathered sat before they jumped suddenly and started running as gunshots were fired. At least six police officers arrived on the scene within about 10 seconds.
The police chief said the SUV fled when an officer tried to pull it over. The vehicle crashed about three blocks from the shooting scene. Two young men inside the SUV were killed, Lumpkin said. A bystander, identified by police was Scott Waldrup, was also struck and killed. Five other pedestrians were also injured.
Lumpkin said Jerry Chambers Jr., 17, drove the SUV and was being charged with three counts of felony murder for the cash deaths, plus additional charges related to the shootings. It was not immediately known if Chambers had an attorney.
The police chief said Chambers and his two accomplices who perished in the wreck were known to police as members of a local gang.
Just last year, police said, Chambers had been charged in a robbery and shooting at a Savannah Mall. The case was handled in a juvenile court and Chambers was ultimately set free, said Savannah police Maj. Richard Zapal.
"The powers that be there did not feel he was guilty, so he was released," Zapal said.
Waldrup worked as general manager of The Grey, an upscale restaurant located several blocks from the shooting scene. The restaurant posted a sign at the door Wednesday saying it was closed except for "friends and family." A manager told a reporter at the door that he had no further comment beyond a statement posted on social media.
The Grey's page on Facebook called Waldrup a "victim of the unfettered violence that plaques the City of Savannah. Scott was more than the General Manager of The Grey. He was part of the very soul of who we are and what we do."
Three people were wounded in the shooting that preceded the chase, Lumpkin said, and one victim was in critical but stable condition. A fourth person was injured by gunfire in a separate shooting nearby about 15 minutes later, but the police chief said investigators had not determined if it was linked to the other shootings.
Lumpkin has asked the Georgia State Patrol to investigate the crash, but he said the pursuing officers appeared to have followed the department's policy for chases in crowded public areas.
"The officers, I think, chased appropriately," Lumpkin said. "If we had not chased, the question would be: Why do you allow people to shoot and drive off."
Patrick Brown told WTOC-TV he was working in City Market when the shooting started.
"Just heard about 7 to 10 shots ring out, and at that point I just laid down," Brown said. "After that, I just saw hundreds of people sprinting through City Market. Once I felt safe, I looked out the window and saw multiple people laying down, and finally police kind of ushered everybody through City Market to get everyone out."
Another bystander, Jeffery Wilson, told the TV station he saw the fleeing SUV crash into a light pole.
"As the SUV swerved to the right, left, and back to the right again, that's when they lost it and hit that pole, and then they hit several other small poles along the sidewalk," Wilson said. "And somebody got hit in the process from pushing some kids out of the way."