SAMSON, Ala. (AP) - Many residents of this quiet, close-knit farming community could hear the rapid crackling of gunfire that killed nine of their neighbors. Others got frantic phone calls from friends or relatives.
But none of them knew yet that the heavily armed gunman grew up among them, playing Little League baseball, graduating from the local high school and working by their sides at local factories.
Those who knew 28-year-old Michael McLendon and even those who just remembered his name or face couldn't believe his rampage across two counties near the Florida border Tuesday that left him, five of his relatives and five bystanders dead.
Josh Smith played baseball with McLendon when they were young and later went to Samson High School with him, although he had not seen him since graduation.
"He was just a normal person," Smith said Wednesday. "He was very quiet and, as far as I know, never got in trouble."
Retired teacher Billie June Smith, 68, remembered McLendon from the fourth grade as soft-spoken, a hard-worker and very polite, like his mother. One day McLendon found a $20 bill at school and brought it to Smith to keep until someone claimed it. She that story stuck with her because it showed he was honest.
"He was a student that I enjoyed," said Smith, who lives in nearby Earlytown.
McLendon began his killing spree a dozen miles from Samson in Kinston in Coffee County, where he burned down the home he shared with his mother, killing her. It ended about an hour later with him taking his own life after a shootout with police in nearby Geneva at Reliable Metals, where he worked until 2003.
In between, he gunned down four relatives and the wife and 18-month-old daughter of a local sheriff's deputy on a wide front porch that looks like so many others in Samson. He then turned his gun next door and killed his 74-year-old grandmother and sent panicked bystanders fleeing and ducking behind cars.
McLendon then drove off, spraying bullets through the town lined with old brick buildings, killing three more bystanders.
The shootings cast a pall over an old town of 2,000 people that rarely changes. A black bow blew in the breeze in front of City Hall the day after. Across the street, workers replaced a window at Bradley True Value Hardware, which was hit in the hail of gunfire.
"God bless the victims and their families and God bless Samson," said a scrolling electric sign at Byrd's Nest Florist on Main Street.
"The community's just in disbelief, just how this could happen in our small town," said state Sen. Harri Anne Smith, from the nearby town of Slocomb. "This was 20-something miles of terror."
Darrell "Smitty" Smith, a corporal with the Sansom Police Department, served in Iraq with the Alabama National Guard. He was shocked by the carnage at the home of McLendon's relatives.
"Walking up on that porch and seeing that, it was much worse than anything I ever saw in Iraq because at least in Iraq you expect it, you are prepared for it and you stand a chance to protect yourself," Smith said.
"We are just a small town and we were not prepared for anything like this," he said.
Authorities say McLendon had struggled to keep a job and left behind lists of employers and co-workers he believed had wronged him. The lists found in McLendon's home included Reliable Metals, which forced him to resign years ago, a sausage factory from which he suddenly quit last week and a poultry plant that suspended his mother, District Attorney Gary McAliley said.
The pages torn from a spiral notebook included names of co-workers, including one who reported him for not wearing earplugs, another who made him clean a meat grinder and a supervisor who didn't like the way he cut pork chops, McAliley said.
Investigators offered no immediate explanation for why McLendon targeted relatives and others who weren't on the list as he fired more than 200 rounds in the worst mass killing by a single gunman in Alabama history.
Derek Weeks, 28, was senior class president of McLendon's class.
He was kind of reserved and to himself. I can't tell you one bad thing about him," said Weeks, who lives in nearby Enterprise. "I don't remember him ever getting in any kind of trouble."
He also couldn't really remember who McLendon was good friends with, even though their class was small with about 50 graduates.
As word about the killings spread, Samson high graduates scrambled to find their yearbooks, and many realized they knew the gunman.
Like many, Weeks couldn't believe the terror that shattered the small community.
"But one benefit to living in a small town is the closeness of the people," he said. "So we know that if something happens, everyone will still be together and will be there for the families of those victims."
On Wednesday night, hundreds of community members gathered for a
prayer service at First Baptist Church of Samson.
"Father, there are times in life when we don't have answers to the question 'Why?"' Rev. Steve Sellers told the congregation. "I don't know what set a young man off like that, but I, too, want to pray for his family."
The answers might never be known. Lt. Barry Tucker of Alabama Bureau of Investigations said McLendon was "somewhat depressed about job issues" but that investigators don't believe the shootings were job-related.
"There's no specific indication of 'This is why I did it,"' said Tucker who wouldn't release a motive.
It was not clear how long McLendon had been planning the attack, but authorities said he armed himself with four guns - two assault rifles with high-capacity magazines taped together, a shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol - and may have planned a bigger massacre than he had time to carry out.
"I'm convinced he went over there to kill more people," said Sheriff Dave Sutton.