An emotional police chief spent Monday morning sharing the somber news of the killing of a nearly 24-year veteran officer in the parking lot of the police station on Porter Avenue.
Chief John Miller, his voice shaking at times, said Officer Robert McKeithen died after the suspect walked up to the uniformed officer and shot him near his police SUV, parked just feet from the front door of the Lopez Quave Public Safety Center.
“It’s a very sad day for the city of Biloxi,” Miller said, adding there’s no easy way to say what happened other than the officer “was murdered right here in our parking lot.”
“Robert was an unbelievable, fine policeman,” he said. “He did a great job. The animal who did this is still on the run and we are going to do everything in our power to bring him to justice for Robert and his family, for the men and women of the Biloxi Police Department and for the city of Biloxi.
McKeithen planned to retire at the end of the year.
Coast law enforcement officials, other first responders, various Biloxi council members, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gillich and others attended the press conference to offer their support.
Gulfport Police Department, the lead investigating agency, and the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department are working in conjunction with federal officials to find the suspect and bring him to justice, Miller said.
Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania said officers have been working around the clock and will continue to do so to solve the case and bring justice to the fallen officer’s family.
“This is very active investigation,” Papania said. “We need our community to help us on this one. We have disseminated some photos (of the suspect). We are not going to be able to provide a lot of information. I know you (the media) are here on behalf of our community.”
Immediately after the shooting, a law enforcement helicopter searched in the sky while cops searched on the ground nearby.
The suspected shooter was wearing navy blue short and black shirt and red beanie cap and black high-top shoes when he first went inside the police department on Sunday. The shooting happened soon after, outside in the parking lot.
He is about 5-feet 7-inches to 5-feet 10-inches tall, Papania said. Papania released a photo of the suspect to the media on Sunday.
Mississippi Coast Crime Stoppers is offering a $5,000 reward for information in the case. In addition, the FBI has put up an additional $20,000 in reward money and the U.S. Marshals Service added another $10,000, bringing the total reward money to $35,000 to find the person responsible for the crime.
Since the shooting, Miller said the department has received calls from residents offering to help in any way possible to find the officer’s killer.
Twice on Monday police responded to properties on Popp’s Ferry Road. They spent more than 90 minutes at the Summer Cove Apartments with heavily armed officers pointing guns in the windows of the apartment. The identified owner later arrived and unlocked the door. The woman said she wasn’t home when someone reported that they saw someone who looked like the suspect trying to break into her apartment. Her dogs scared the person away, she said.
Police showed her a photo of the suspect. The woman, who said she is not originally from Biloxi, said she did not know the man. She said there may have been a mix-up with another apartment, and police also went inside an apartment directly opposite with a similar number.
No motive yet
Papania warned of the seriousness of the way the attack happened.
“Any time you have this kind of deliberate and violent attack on a police officer especially right here at a police station, it should cause everybody great concern,” he said.
Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson echoed the concerns of Papania and other officers who gathered Monday morning, each of which had their badges covered in black stripes in honor of their colleague and friend.
Miller and others in law enforcement asked the community to keep McKeithen, his wife and children in their prayers.
The family lives in the Woolmarket area, said Biloxi Councilman Nathan Barrett, who represents that area and called the officer a “super nice guy.”
Miller said at this point in the investigation, police do not know if the officer was personally targeted in the attack.
Five Biloxi police officers have been killed in the line of duty, according to Sun Herald archives.
When asked Monday, District Attorney Joel Smith said it was too soon to say what charges the suspect would face.
To report tips, call your local law enforcement agency or Mississippi Coast CrimeStoppers at 877-787-5898.
Officers killed in Biloxi’s history
Five Biloxi officer have been killed in the line of duty:
- Officer David Higginbothom, 34, was shot to death June 2, 1972.
- Officer Emery Wilson, 29, died in a motorcycle accident Nov. 9, 1970.
- Lt. Michael Meaut, 42, died of a heart attack after testifying in court Sept. 21, 1989.
- Animal-control officer Nathan Mitchell, 33, was hit by a train and died March 6, 2001.
- Officer Robert McKeithen was shot to death May 5, 2019, outside the Biloxi Police Department.