Charlie Smith / The Greenwood Commonwealth
John Whitten was "playing war" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina according to the former Biloxi police chief.
by Ward Schaefer
The Jackson Free Press
September 18, 2009
See also: A Delta Manhunt, with Booze and Guns, Sept. 2, 2009
See also: A Sordid History: Manhunt Leader Has History of Violence - Sept. 9, 2009
When Bruce Dunagan heard that Tallahatchie County prosecutor John Whitten III was involved in a vigilante-style manhunt last month, he wasn’t surprised. Dunagan, who was Biloxi's police chief during Hurricane Katrina, remembers Whitten testing the limits of the law in the aftermath of the 2005 storm.
Whitten arrived in Biloxi as a colonel in an all-volunteer organization called the Mississippi State Guard, which the governor can call on to assist the National Guard during natural disasters. Dunagan had never heard of the Mississippi State Guard until several days after Katrina hit, when he started hearing complaints about military officers at Biloxi High School, which was serving as a special-needs shelter.
"A lot of the complaints were that they're all drunk, they've got weapons, they've got machine guns," Dunagan told the Jackson Free Press this week.
Dunagan decided to visit the high school with officers from the Biloxi Police Department and members of the Mississippi National Guard. When he arrived, he saw that Whitten had set up offices inside the school. His officers found loaded .45-caliber pistols in the offices, which they confiscated.
"They are all dressed up in battle fatigues, and unless you look closely at their uniform at the tab—over the right pocket it says 'Mississippi State Guard'—you wouldn't know," Dunagan said. "Everybody thought they were National Guard. I did. The police officers up there did."
After brushing off Dunagan's request to see his orders once, Whitten turned over his orders from the state, which revealed that he was to report directly to the civilian nurse in charge of the shelter.
"He said he hadn't been drinking, but he certainly struck me—from many years in law enforcement—as being under the influence," Dunagan said.
Dunagan then took his officers outside the school, where they searched Whitten and his fellow state guardsmen's vehicles. Among the weapons they found, Dunagan said, were fully automatic M-16 rifles, "ammunition you wouldn't believe, every kind of weapon, bayonets, a machete."
Whitten explained that he had brought the weapons after hearing news reports of dire, unsafe situations. Thanks to his federal Class III firearms license, he is allowed to own military rifles. Nevertheless, Dunagan said, the small armory was dangerous in an emergency situation. Dunagan's officers confiscated all the weapons and asked Whitten to leave.
"That's all well and good up at their gun club, but not down here," Dunagan said. "They were all out there playing war in the middle of a disaster."
Dunagan's description of his run-in with Whitten bears some similarities to the Aug. 20, 2009, incident that landed Whitten in the news. According to some eyewitnesses, Whitten was the leader of a group of armed citizens who assisted law enforcement officials in a search for Will Pittman, a burglary suspect outside the town of Sumner, Miss. in the Delta. Multiple sources, including law enforcement officers, told the Jackson Free Press that Whitten and other armed citizens were drinking and that they heard multiple shots fired during the manhunt. Whitten has also confirmed to the Associated Press that he allowed other citizens to drive an armored personnel carrier that he owns to the search area.
Calls to Whitten's office were not immediately returned.
© Jackson Free Press, Inc.
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