West Point, Miss. (AP/CBS Atlanta) – The police chief of West Point, in northern Mississippi, said one man was arrested Monday and more arrests are expected in a weekend assault that hospitalized a 32-year-old former Marine.
Courtez McMillian, 22, of Okolona, was jailed pending charges of aggravated assault, Police Chief Tim Brinkley said in a statement. Okolona is about 30 miles north of West Point, where events unfolded outside two restaurants early Saturday. Investigators are reviewing video footage from Saturday and have compiled a list of other possible suspects from a nearby county, Brinkley said.
Friends and relatives tell WCBI-TV that Weems and a friend, David Knighten, were at Waffle House, and got into an argument with as many as seven men. It involved some racial slurs.
But West Point police reiterated that they’re investigating the incident as an assault and not a hate crime.
A press release issued by West Point police from WCBI reads: The witnesses described the aggressors as a group of black males but couldn’t provide any other information. The victim of the assault is white. Chief Tim Brinkley said, “This does not appear to be a hate crime. We are investigating this as an aggravated assault. It’s very early in this investigation but thus far the evidence and statements suggest that a verbal altercation turned physical and somebody got hurt.”
Ralph Weems IV of West Point remained in fair condition Monday, said Marsha Tapscott, a spokeswoman for North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. She said she could not comment on a statement by Weems’ brother-in-law, Bradley Barnes of Madison, that Weems had undergone brain surgery.
David Knighten of West Point told The Associated Press on Sunday that he and Weems apparently were followed early Saturday from a Waffle House where Weems had argued with some African-American patrons. Knighten says a man outside the restaurant had waved him over and told him it wasn’t safe for white people because people were upset over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. When he entered, Knighten said, Weems was arguing with a couple of other patrons.
Brinkley said a Waffle House employee told police who answered a 1 a.m. disturbance call that a patron was creating a disturbance and upsetting other patrons. After he was asked to leave, employees also asked the other patrons to leave, Brinkley said.
Knighten said that as he and Weems headed from the Waffle House to Weems’ house, they went into a Huddle House restaurant with a nearly vacant parking lot. However, he said, they apparently had been followed by more than 20 African-Americans. Knighten said he came out of the rest room to find Weems surrounded. When he and Weems left, Knighten said, some in the group kept him behind Weems, and when he emerged Weems was being kicked.
Knighten said he himself suffered broken facial bones, a cut above one eye and a blood clot in the other.
Brinkley told AP that surveillance video and witness accounts indicate far fewer than 20 people were involved and watching. He said investigators reviewing video believe most if not all the people on a list of other possible suspects are from Monroe County, adjacent to both Clay County, where West Point is located, and Chickasaw County, where Okolona is located.
The police chief did not immediately answer an emailed query about McMillian’s race and whether the video shows black people attacking a white person, or whether police can charge someone with a hate crime.
Prosecutors and a grand jury would have to decide whether to bring a hate crime charge, Brinkley said.
“All we do is process the evidence and turn the case over to the district attorney who in turn presents it to the grand jury,” he said in the news release. “It’s within their discretion to add the hate crime enhancement.”
He said the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney’s Office have been brief about the case.
Brinkley told AP on Monday that investigators are also trying to find out why it took so long for anyone to call 911 about the fight outside the Huddle House. He said a caller told a 911 dispatcher at 2 a.m. Sunday that a fight was going on, but when officers arrived “all of the perpetrators had left.” A police statement said authorities found a man unconscious in the Huddle House parking lot.
Authorities have declined to identify anyone but McMillian in news releases.
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