Victim arrived 10 minutes before shooting began
A 22-year-old Duluth man shot and killed outside a Central Hillside duplex Sunday night apparently was an innocent victim of an earlier dispute over a Pekingese dog.
Curtis Michael Cooney was shot once in the head and pronounced dead at St. Luke's hospital in Duluth, police said.
The shooting, Duluth's first homicide of the year, happened about 10 p.m. outside 417-419 N. Second Ave. E.
Another Duluth man, Ephriam "Darell" Burks, 21, was shot once in the upper leg and suffered a head injury in the incident. He told the News Tribune his injuries were not life-threatening, but he was still being held for observation later Monday.
Police had no one in custody Monday evening but said they are following some leads.
Police, witnesses and people involved in the shooting, including Burks, said it might have been spurred by an incident about an hour earlier Sunday evening when one of Burks' friends threatened a neighbor's dog.
"That's one of the strong possibilities we're following up on," said Lt. John Beyer, adding that there apparently was an "ongoing neighborhood issue over the dog."
At least six witnesses described chaos and confusion before and after shots were fired.
A group had gathered at the duplex to drink beer and listen to music, including at least eight men, three women and a child. Some were inside while others were gathered on the front porch. They said they saw three men approach down the alley, across Second Avenue East, from the east.
Several of the men outside the duplex walked toward the three men approaching from the east. Others came out of the duplex.
The three men at first had baseball bats, then dropped the bats and produced at least one gun, several witnesses said. The shooter or shooters fired at least five shots down the alley toward the duplex. Police said they have not recovered any guns.
Witnesses said the shooters and victims were about 100 feet apart. They said the shooters fled east down the alley between Fourth and Fifth streets in a large white truck, possibly a Suburban.
Witnesses said one of the first shots hit Cooney in the head, and he dropped immediately on the sidewalk in front of the duplex. Another shot went through a large window of the ground-floor apartment. Another shot hit Burks in the back of the upper thigh, with the bullet exiting above his knee. It was not a life-threatening wound, he said.
"When we came out ... they dropped the bats and started shooting," Burks said. "When I heard the first shots, I turned and started running. I saw [Cooney] go straight down. I knew he was dead."
It wasn't clear how many of the three men were shooting or if they were aiming at anyone specifically. Burks was still in the hospital Monday afternoon for observation of a head injury suffered in the incident.
Deputy Chief John Beyer said more than a half-dozen spent shell casings were found at the scene.
Cooney uninvolved in argument
Cooney had been at the party for about 10 minutes, witnesses said, and had no part in the earlier fight over the dog. No one at the duplex even knew Cooney's last name.
"When the shooting stopped, I went to him and rolled him over like this ... and I put my finger in the hole in his head and was holding him," said David Washington, who was in the group being shot at. "He was alive then ... and he was looking at me, like for a solution."
Washington said he said a quick prayer and that Cooney's heart seemed to stop beating.
Regina Cameron lives in the house next door to where the men were shot and ran to the scene when she heard the shots.
"This is just sick that a poor child is dead because of a dog," she said.
Dog incident described
Burks and others told the News Tribune that he and some friends had been walking down the alley earlier Sunday evening when one of his friends "joked that he was going to kill this little dog." The man, who said his son had been bitten by the buff-colored Pekingese dog in the past, raised a rock in a gesture to hurt the dog but didn't actually throw the rock.
The woman who owned the dog took the threat seriously and a man came out of the house and into the alley. An argument started and Burks' friend hit the man with his fist at least twice in the head. The dog wasn't harmed.
The owner of the dog, who asked that her name not be used for this story, had a different perspective on events.
The woman, who lives a half-block from where the victims were hit, said earlier in the day she had returned from church, looked out her window and saw a group of men -- many of whom were shot at later that night -- threatening to kill her dog, Cassinova, with a large rock.
The woman said she and her husband confronted the men, who punched her husband in the face.
"They were screaming and threatening us," said the woman, who has four children ages 8-12 in her home.
Burks said the man defending the dog threatened to "go and get his gun."
The police responded to a disturbance call at the alley below Fifth Street at 8:39 p.m. and dispersed those involved in the fight.
Police have responded to a dozen calls to the duplex at 417-419 N. Second Ave. E. since January, most for disturbances, Beyer said.
About an hour later, police said, three men fired eight shots at a group standing outside an apartment building near the alley between Fourth and Fifth streets off Second Avenue East, killing one and injuring another.
The dog's owner said she has no idea who the shooters were and doesn't believe they were retaliating for the dog incident.