BATON ROUGE, La. — An Eagle Scout at age 18, Kenneth Gleason graduated with honors from one of Baton Rouge’s most elite high schools and enrolled at Louisiana State University.
Five years later, the 23-year-old white man was jailed on charges he gunned down two black men and shot up a black family’s home last week in a string of attacks that police say may have been racially motivated.
Gleason’s arrest shocked and baffled relatives. Kerrie Highley, a maternal aunt who lives in Galveston, Texas, said she never heard her nephew express any racist views.
“His family didn’t teach him that,” Highley said Wednesday. “None of us feel that way.”
Gleason wore a T-shirt bearing the name of a Boys Scouts ranch in New Mexico when police officers led him in handcuffs past a bank of reporters Tuesday outside Louisiana State Police headquarters.
“We were shocked to learn about the allegations against this individual. This behavior runs counter to everything for which the BSA (Boy Scouts of America) stands,” said Gary Mertz, a local Scout official.
He could face a possible death sentence if he’s convicted in the killings of a homeless man and a dishwasher walking to work. In each case, the killer opened fire from his car, then walked up to the victim as he lay on the ground and fired again repeatedly, police said.
He also is charged with firing gunshots into the home of a black family that lives three houses down from him and his parents.
Investigators said surveillance footage and DNA on a shell casing linked him to the crimes. Authorities found a handwritten copy of an Adolf Hitler speech at Gleason’s home, a law-enforcement official said.
Highley said she hasn’t seen Gleason since a family trip to Thailand nearly two years ago. She described him as a quiet, polite person who “didn’t fit anything violent.”
“None of this makes sense to me at all,” she said.
Gleason graduated cum laude from Baton Rouge Magnet High School in 2012 and became an Eagle Scout later that same year, a distinction he earned after building choir risers for a local church, according to The Advocate newspaper’s report at the time.
Gleason attended LSU from the fall of 2012 to fall of 2013. He had transferred to LSU from Baton Rouge Community College.
Gleason faces first-degree murder charges in the shooting deaths of 59-year-old Bruce Cofield and 49-year-old Donald Smart. Cofield, who was homeless, was gunned down on a street corner on Sept. 12. Smart was shot Sept. 14 on his way to his job at a cafe popular with LSU students.
“I feel confident that this killer would have killed again,” interim Police Chief Jonny Dunnam said.
Gleason’s attorney, J. Christopher Alexander, said his client “vehemently denies guilt, and we look forward to complete vindication.”
Gleason had a brief court hearing Wednesday and was ordered held without bond, according to a video of the proceeding obtained by WBRZ-TV through a public records request. The video showed Gleason asking Judge Trudy White if he will be taken off suicide watch.
“Do you want us to contact your lawyer and let him know that you’re on suicide watch?” the judge said.
“I haven’t talked to him since I’ve been brought here,” Gleason said.
“We’ll give him a call or a text,” the judge said. “He’ll come and handle it.”
Neighbors said they occasionally saw Gleason sleeping in a car parked outside his parents’ Baton Rouge home, where he was living after a trip to Arizona late last year. It’s not clear why he went to Arizona, but while he was in Phoenix last December, Gleason was arrested on charges of shoplifting wine and razors. Police said he was homeless at the time. The case was dismissed after he completed a diversion program.
Tonya Stephens, a black woman who lives three houses down from Gleason’s parents, said she never interacted with him before the shooting at her home. Stephens said her two adult sons were home — and she was away at her nurse’s job — when three bullets pierced the front door and struck furniture. Nobody was hurt.
“I never paid him any mind,” Stephens said.
Authorities said ballistics tests determined the same gun was used in all three shootings. Also, they said DNA found on one of the shell casings matched genetic material on a swab they took from Gleason.
Investigators have not found the 9 mm gun but said Gleason bought such a weapon last November.
Bynum contributed from Savannah, Georgia.