DADEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — A high school senior who planned to play college football was celebrating at his sister’s 16th birthday party Saturday night in Alabama when gunfire killed him and three other people and wounded several others.
Police were gathering evidence Sunday at a dance studio where the party was held in downtown Dadeville. They did not immediately say if a suspect was in custody, or if they knew more about any motivation.
Philstavious “Phil” Dowdell, a Dadeville High School senior who had committed to Jacksonville State University, was celebrating at his sister Alexis’ party before he was shot to death, his grandmother Annette Allen told The Montgomery Advertiser.
“He was a very, very humble child. Never messed with anybody. Always had a smile on his face,” Allen told the newspaper, calling it “a million-dollar smile.”
Dowdell’s mother was among those hurt in the shooting.
“Everybody’s grieving,” Allen said.
Sgt. Jeremy Burkett of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said the shooting occurred about 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
“There were four lives tragically lost in this incident, and there’s been a multitude of injuries,” Burkett said during a news conference Sunday.
The shootings rocked the city of 3,200 residents, which is about 57 miles (92 kilometers) northeast of Montgomery, Alabama.
Dadeville Police Chief Jonathan L. Floyd paused to regain his composure before speaking at the news conference.
“What we’ve dealt with is something that no community should have to endure. I just ask for your patience. It’s going to be a long process, but I do earnestly solicit your prayers,” Floyd said.
More than 12 hours after the shooting, investigators continued filing in and out of the Mahogany Masterpiece dance studio, denoted by a banner hanging on the outside of a one-story brick building in Dadeville’s compact downtown. City and county officials milled about the Tallapoosa County Courthouse less than a block away, where officials lowered the American and Alabama flags to half staff.
Dadeville Mayor Frank Goodman said he was in bed asleep when a council member called him just before 11 p.m. Saturday. He said he went to Lake Martin Community Hospital in Dadeville, where some of the people who had been shot were taken.
“It was chaotic,” Goodman said. “There were people running around. They were crying and screaming. There were police cars everywhere, there were ambulances everywhere. People were trying to find out about their loved ones. That was scene, where we never had anything like this happen in our city before.”
Pastor Ben Hayes, who serves as chaplain for the Dadeville Police Department and for the local high school football team, said most of the victims are teenagers. Dowdell was within weeks of graduation and faced a bright future, Hayes told The Associated Press.
“He was a strong competitor on the field,” Hayes said. “You didn’t want to try to tackle him or get tackled by him. But when he came off the field, he was one of the nicest young men that you could ever meet, very respectful and well-respected by his peers.”
Hayes said worried families swarmed the local hospital Saturday night trying to find the condition of their children. He said serious crime is rare in Dadeville, and the small city is “sad, traumatized, in-shock.”
Jacksonville State football coach Rich Rodriguez said in a statement Sunday: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Philstavious Dowdell and the other victims of the senseless tragedy last night. He was a great young man with a bright future. My staff and I are heartbroken and hope that everyone will support his family through this difficult time.”
Dowdell also recently won medals at a high school track meet at Troy University.
Counseling will be available for students at Tallapoosa County schools Monday, said the school district superintendent, Raymond C. Porter.
“This morning, I grieve with the people of Dadeville and my fellow Alabamians. Violent crime has NO place in our state, and we are staying closely updated by law enforcement as details emerge,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement on social media.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the shooting, the White House said, adding that it is closely monitoring the situation and has been in touch with local officials and law enforcement to offer support.
“What has our nation come to when children cannot attend a birthday party without fear? When parents have to worry every time their kids walk out the door to school, to the movie theater, or to the park?” Biden said in a statement Sunday. “Guns are the leading killer of children in America, and the numbers are rising – not declining. This is outrageous and unacceptable.”
Biden called on Congress to “require safe storage of firearms, require background checks for all gun sales, eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability, and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”
The mayor said Dowdell was “a great young man.” He also said he is concerned about those wounded and psychologically traumatized by the shooting.
“We are praying for them,” Goodman said. “We ask God, if it’s his will, to bring them back to their parents safe, so they can mend.”
Goodman said guns and violence are not a frequent presence in Dadeville. He said trying to control guns would prove as futile as trying to control illegal drugs.
This is at least the second time in recent years that multiple people were shot in Dadeville. Five people were wounded in July 2016 during a shooting at an American Legion hall, and a man was later charged with five counts of attempted murder, news outlets reported.
Dadeville High School had 485 students in grades 6-12 in 2022, according to Alabama state data. It serves Dadeville and nearby parts of Tallapoosa County. Like the rest of Dadeville, it’s tucked away just out of view off a busy highway that runs from Birmingham to Auburn.
Michael Taylor is an assistant coach for the football, basketball and track teams at Dadeville High. He said he met Dowdell when Dowdell was 9 and Taylor coached him in youth football. He said the team was invited to Atlanta to play in the stadium used by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
“He did some amazing things there, and he never stopped doing them since then,” Taylor said. “He was the No. 1 athlete in the school.”
Taylor said he last heard from Dowdell on Friday, when Dowdell was seeking video of his athletic exploits. Taylor said he drove to the shooting scene Saturday night from his home in nearby Camp Hill.
“Man, I couldn’t get close,” Taylor said. “So once I found out what’s going on, I really I just had to leave because it was going to be all night.”
Taylor said he returned Sunday to see Dowdle’s body carried out from the dance studio. He said he’s not sure what he will tell other athletes Monday.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to pray our way out of this,” Taylor said Sunday. “There ain’t no other way. And then I can tell you, they’re all real close like family at the high school.”
Like in many other small towns, high school football games are a community focus. It can also open up a route to college for athletes, Taylor said.
“It gives you a way out, you know getting some goals to shoot for, for college,” Taylor said. “Also it gives you a sense of pride for your high school.”
Kim Chandler reported from Huntsville, Alabama.
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