June 23, 2018 10:03:08 PM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
A Columbus man is charged with aggravated assault for allegedly shooting an assistant manager Friday afternoon in the Cracker Barrel restaurant on 18th Avenue North.
Robert Beck, 28, is being held in Putnam County (Tennessee) Jail after Tennessee Highway Patrol officers arrested him during a traffic stop early Saturday morning in Cookeville -- about 320 miles from the shooting scene. The patrolmen had received Beck's photo, license plate number and vehicle description through a national crime database, Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton said during a press conference Saturday afternoon.
An armed Beck allegedly entered the Cracker Barrel just before 4:25 p.m. Friday looking for his girlfriend who works there, Shelton said.
Several other employees intervened, and an altercation ensued during which Beck fired several shots in the dining room and hit the male victim. The suspect then left the scene.
At the press conference, Shelton said the victim, who remains in stable condition at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, gave officers a statement and positively identified Beck as the shooter.
Officers also used statements from other witnesses inside the restaurant, as well as seven minutes of restaurant surveillance footage, which showed Beck entering and leaving Cracker Barrel, Shelton said.
Beck, who Shelton said has a prior felony conviction, also had a history of harassing his girlfriend at work. Officers responded to a 911 call at Cracker Barrel "a couple of weeks ago" when Beck was asked to leave the restaurant. A copy of that incident report wasn't immediately available on Saturday.
There were no other injuries to employees or patrons from the shooting in Cracker Barrel, Shelton said.
He added that the girlfriend let her managers know she was having problems with Beck, which might have kept the incident from being much worse.
"If you're having a problem with a significant other, tell somebody. Let somebody know," Shelton said. "... Management was aware there was a problem with this guy, so they confronted him and tried to protect their employee."
Beck is expected to be transferred to Columbus and booked in Lowndes County Adult Detention Center later this week.
Cracker Barrel closed until further notice
A Cracker Barrel corporate spokesperson told The Dispatch the Columbus restaurant will remain closed until further notice as restaurant leadership continues to cooperate with the criminal investigation.
Janella Escobar, with Cracker Barrel corporate communication, said a crisis action team with the Lebanon, Tennessee-based company has deployed to Columbus to assist employees with counseling and human resources.
"Our crisis action teams will do that for anything from an employee loss (of a family member), a natural disaster or something like what happened in Columbus," Escobar said.
She did not speculate on when the Columbus location may reopen.
Escobar did, however, called the employees who intervened with Beck "true heroes," especially the assistant manager who was shot.
"We're very proud of these employees," she said. "... There's no way to control the actions like those taken by (Beck) on Friday, but we believe our employees acted appropriately and even went above and beyond what was expected."
The shooting scene
Law enforcement from multiple agencies responded to the shooting scene Friday, including Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, the U.S. Marshal's Task Force, Mississippi Highway Patrol and Bureau of Narcotics.
While officers collected evidence and talked to witnesses, a crowd of onlookers gathered on the other side of crime scene tape roping off the parking lot, and remained after the victim was taken to the hospital.
Some of the onlookers had their arms around employees. At one point, the crowd gathered in a circle to hold hands and pray. Most employees appeared shaken and several looked as though they'd been crying.
One employee who crossed the crime scene tape to pray with onlookers collapsed in the grassy area beside the parking lot. Officers helped her back to the restaurant's front porch and called an ambulance for her. Authorities at the scene later said she was OK, just shaken, and did not need to be taken to the hospital.
News editor Isabelle Altman and reporter Hannah Greco contributed to this report.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.