CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — First he noticed waitresses and kitchen staff leaving hurriedly through the front door. Then a man dressed like a restaurant employee, in an apron and backward ball cap, strolled into the dining room and made an announcement.
“He said, ‘There’s a new boss in town,'” recalled Peter Siegert IV, whose family from Galesville, Maryland, was about to dig into their fried chicken lunch Thursday at Virginia’s in downtown Charleston. “I don’t think anybody realized he had a gun until after he locked the door.”
The gunman kept his revolver by his side as he ordered patrons in the crowded restaurant to get on the floor and crawl toward the back. Then he ordered them to “get out,” Siegert said.
They fled through the open rear doors.
Siegert said he never heard a gunshot. But authorities and one of Virginia’s owners said a fired dishwasher fatally shot the restaurant’s executive chef. Deputy Charleston County Coroner Sheila Williams identified the victim as 37-year-old Anthony Shane Whiddon.
After shooting Whiddon, authorities said, the gunman held a person hostage for about three hours before police shot the suspect, critically wounding him.
Thomas Demetrius Burns, 53, was identified as the suspected gunman by Charleston police Friday. Police spokesman Charles Francis said Burns had not been charged. The suspect was taken to the Medical University of South Carolina hospital, where spokesman Tony Ciuto said it had no information to release on Burns.
Burns has a lengthy arrest record spanning more than three decades, according to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. His record includes prior convictions for assault and battery with intent to kill in 1983, receiving stolen goods in 2009, possession of LSD and cocaine in 2010, strong arm robbery in 2012 and larceny in 2015.
The chef he’s accused of killing was “just a gem,” a weeping neighbor of Whiddon’s said in an interview Friday.
“That man would leave early in the morning and not come home until late at night,” said Terri Thomas Wall. “He loved to fish. He was always outside when he wasn’t working. Outside with his kids or working in the yard.”
Wall said he lived with his wife and two young sons in a home that had previously belonged to his mother in nearby Goose Creek.
She said Whiddon found time to help others, despite his busy schedule. He and his wife rushed clothing and personal items recently to a nearby family whose home caught fire. And he was always quick to offer Wall help her when her lawnmower wouldn’t start or she had trouble with a stubborn water spigot.
A Georgia native, Whiddon was hired a year ago as top chef at Virginia’s, located in a tourist-heavy stretch of retail shops and upscale restaurants along King Street. He had been cooking for more than 17 years at restaurants in the South, including at the Sea Island Company’s posh resort on the Georgia coast, according to Holy City Hospitality, the company that owns Virginia’s.
“We are deeply saddened and heartbroken by what transpired yesterday at our restaurant Virginia’s on King,” Marty Wall, managing director of Holy City Hospitality, said in a statement the company posted online. “We are devastated by the passing of Shane Whiddon, our beloved and well-respected chef and friend.”
Holy City Hospitality did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press.
Mayor John Tecklenberg said the hostage was freed uninjured after the standoff. Tecklenburg said the shooting was “the act of a disgruntled employee” and not a terrorist attack or a hate crime. He called it “a tragic case of a disturbed individual, I think, with a history of some mental health challenges.”
Virginia’s is a few blocks from Emanuel AME church, where nine black church members were gunned down by a white man during a June 2015 Bible study. Dylann Roof was sentenced to death in the case. It’s also not far from where more than 100 cruise ships dock in Charleston each year.
One of the restaurant’s owners, John Aquino, told WCSC-TV that a dishwasher who had been fired came back to the restaurant and shot a chef to get revenge.
The restaurant was packed with a lunchtime crowd and the first officers to arrive were able to get the man who was shot and a number of diners out, interim Charleston Police Chief Jerome Taylor said.
Steven Knotts, who tends bar at another restaurant owned by Holy City Hospitality, said he spent much of Thursday with other service industry workers. They shared a sense of collective grief and solemn solidarity.
“It doesn’t make me scared,” Knotts said of the shooting. “That could happen anywhere, anytime. You want to be more careful. But what are you going to do?”
Associated Press writers Seanna Adcox, Jeffrey Collins and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.