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Coroner rules MSU student death as a homicide

March 25, 2012

Mississippi State University officials say a person of interest has been identified and a weapon was discovered on campus following a fatal shooting at a university dormitory Saturday.

Area law enforcement agencies are searching for three suspects after John Sanderson, 21, of Madison, received multiple gunshot wounds shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday at Evans Hall.

Oktibbeha County Coroner Michael Hunt said Sanderson’s death was ruled a homicide and an autopsy is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Monday.

Many other details into the investigation remain unavailable as police officers continue their investigation.

A 911 call was placed from the residence hall at 9:54 p.m., and officers arrived one minute later. Paramedics arrived shortly after and transported Sanderson to OCH Regional Medical Center. Bill Kibler, MSU vice president for student affairs, said emergency room doctors spent almost 40 minutes attempting to revive Sanderson but were unable. He was pronounced dead about 11:03 p.m.

Oktibbeha County Coroner Michael Hunt and MSU officials would later confirm the fatality. Through inter-agency work, Sanderson’s next of kin were notified of his death after midnight.

Shortly after the incident, investigators said witnesses and security cameras observed three African American males fleeing the scene. MSUPD then began searching for a blue, late model Ford Crown Victoria. It is unclear whether or not the suspects fled the scene together in the vehicle because Kibler said police are searching for a person of interest who was on foot and seeking transportation to Jackson.
Kibler said a firearm was discovered on campus after the event but would not disclose the type of weapon, its caliber or where it was discovered.

It is also unclear how the suspects, who were identified as non-students by MSU officials Sunday morning, gained entrance to the dorm. Kibler said Evans Hall feature three levels of student identification-accessed locks – the main building entrances, wing entrances and individual dorm rooms. While occupants can escort guests into the dorm, he said, it is not known at this time if the victim, suspects or witnesses knew each other.

“Our police department … questioned (witnesses), so we had very helpful information that enabled us to discern with pretty clear certainty that this was an incident that was contained (to Evans Hall) … and the perpetrators fled not only the scene, but our campus and probably the city of Starkville immediately,” Kibler said. “(The investigation) gave us that level of assurance … our campus was not under any imminent threat after the incident was over.

“Nothing about this (incident) … indicated any kind of breach or vulnerability to the security systems we have,” he added. “Our residence halls are staffed 24-7; our staff inside Evans Hall responded to this incident immediately.”

MSU President Mark Keenum said the entire Bulldog family is saddened by the tragic, isolated incident.

“Our hearts go out to John Sanderson's family and friends. They continue to be in our prayers,” he said. “Our university police department is leading the investigation, working closely with Starkville Police, Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office and the Mississippi Highway Patrol. They are actively following all leads. We appreciate their hard work and their support. I also want to reiterate to parents and students that our top priority is always the safety and well-being of our campus and all who inhabit it.”

A series of Maroon Alerts was issued by the university as the situation developed, and the campus remained in an emergency status through Sunday morning. The first alert warned students of a possible stabbing or shooting at Evans Hall, and subsequent messages revealed the number of suspects, described the Crown Victoria and confirmed the shooting.

“(Issuing Maroon Alerts) is always a balancing act; we err on the side of safety, always,” Kibler said.

As MSUPD began investigating the incident, campus police presence was bolstered by Starkville Police Department officers and deputies from the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Office. A temporary call center was also initiated during the event to answer public questions and concerns. Kibler said a number of concerned parents called the university for information as the situation developed.

University officials said twenty-four Evans Hall residents who lived adjacent to the area will relocate to other rooms on campus in order to enhance and protect the integrity of the investigation. Following Sunday’s press conference, Kibler said he would meet with housing officials to work on a precise distribution plan.

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