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After minutes of terror in a Waffle House, a 34-hour manhunt grips Nashville

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/24/2018 Dave Boucher and Anita Wadhwani

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NASHVILLE — Rain beat down on members of Nashville's elite specialized investigations division as they scoured the woods in the southeast Nashville neighborhood of Antioch searching for an accused mass murderer

It was just after 1 p.m. CT on Monday, nearly 34 hours after Travis Reinking allegedly opened fire at a crowded Waffle House restaurant. The shooter killed four people, fleeing the diner after a patron ripped an AR-15 out of his hands. 

Although there was at least one credible report after the shooting Sunday morning of a sighting of the shirtless suspect, Reinking seemingly had vanished by Sunday afternoon.

Police received more than 80 tips on where Reinking may have fled, but law enforcement acknowledged the Illinois native could be anywhere. 

April 23: Waffle House shooting suspect Travis Reinking jailed on $2 million bond

April 23: Did Waffle House shooting suspect's father violate gun laws by returning his weapons?

As the detectives fanned out, scanning a wooded area less than 2 miles from the scene of the shooting, Detective Kyle Williams heard the crunch of feet walking. He crouched down to look through the brush and saw a pair of pants. Just behind a tree was a man wearing a maroon shirt, dark jeans and a black backpack.

It was Reinking. 

Trouble in Illinois

The journey that led someone to shoot and kill people at the Antioch Waffle House early Sunday morning may never be fully understood. But interviews with police and others familiar with Reinking, 29, show a life unraveling long before his alleged rampage. 

Reinking previously lived in Morton, Ill., a town of 16,000 people in central Illinois known by some as the "pumpkin capital of the world."

Reinking's parents are established in the area, his grandfather operating a crane company in Morton, local residents said. His parents live in a stately house in a rural part of town. A young man who answered the door at the home Monday evening declined to speak, saying it was "not a good time."

Attending the local high school, for a few months in fall 2006, Reinking didn't return after the Christmas break. Afterward he was homeschooled. 

April 22: Waffle House suspect Travis Reinking deemed himself a 'sovereign citizen,' part of anti-government group

April 22: Waffle House shooting: Suspect previously arrested outside White House

In the last few years, Illinois law enforcement encountered Reinking several times. He told them he was being stalked by Taylor Swift. He reportedly threatened a man with an AR-15. He told an officer that strangers were outside his home "barking like a dog."

Residents in nearby Tremont, Ill., had mostly only heard of Reinking through gossip about his "performance" at the village pool, said Bob Smith, owner of Performance Auto Glass in Tremont. In June 2017, Reinking dove into a public pool wearing a pink dress, then got out and exposed himself, according to police records.

Reinking's father owns a crane company in Tremont. Reinking at one time lived in an apartment on the premises. In June 2017, he threatened a co-worker there with an AR-15, police records say.

Then, in July 2017, Reinking tried to enter the White House, proclaiming he had a meeting with the president, according to U.S. Secret Service agents, who arrested him.

As a result, Illinois state police revoked his state-issued license to own or possess firearms. State law allowed Reinking's father to take custody of his son's weapons.

The father has since admitted he gave the guns back to his son. 

During a news conference announcing Reinking's arrest Monday, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Reinking's father may have violated federal law by giving the weapons back to his son.

"It is possible. If you transfer weapons knowingly to a person that is prohibited, that could potentially be a violation of federal law," said Marcus Watson, acting special agent in charge with the ATF in Tennessee.

Reinking is believed to have moved to Nashville some time in the fall of 2017. Reinking returned to what he knew: On Jan. 22, he got a job with a local crane company.

Within weeks of taking the Nashville job, co-workers became concerned with his behavior, said Clark Elliott, president of Clark Crane. 

Reinking told colleagues that people were “after him." 

“The guy was paranoid. He said people were after him — whatever that meant," Elliott said. 

April 22: Waffle House shooting witness describes scene: 'My heart was beating, my limbs weren't working'

April 22: A 29-year-old man saved numerous lives during Tennessee Waffle House shooting, police say

"When it got to the point that he said people in our company were after him, I asked that he be (fired).”

Reinking's last day was April 3. But he soon found a similar job, joining La Vergne, Tenn.-based CraneWorks on April 16. He lasted one day. 

On April 17, instead of returning to work, Reinking visited a Brentwood BMW dealership and stole a car. Police chased after the car, but ended the pursuit because of safety concerns for other drivers.

Authorities later tracked the car's GPS to the parking lot of Reinking's apartment complex. Because no one knew the identity of the man who stole the car, Reinking was never arrested. 

At the Waffle House 

At about 3:20 a.m. CT Sunday, a grey truck pulled in to the parking lot of the Waffle House in Antioch. A man got out of his truck wearing nothing but a green coat, according to police. 

For the next few minutes, the man fired an unknown number of rounds from a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle, first shooting two men in the parking lot before going inside and spraying the restaurant with bullets.  

His plans were unclear, but police say he brought enough ammunition to continue shooting long after 29-year-old James Shaw Jr., a diner, confronted him. After Shaw wrested the gun from the shooter, the man fled. 

The shooter left his jacket, running from the scene naked.

One credible sighting came in at 8:30 a.m.: Someone noticed a man walking near apartments on one of the rainiest days of the year. He was barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of black pants, the person told police. 

The manhunt began. Nashville police — joined by state law enforcement and agents from the FBI and ATF — tried to find the man they considered armed, dangerous and possibly deranged. 

April 22: Tennessee Waffle House shooting: 4 dead, suspect at large may be armed

Police determined the truck was registered to Reinking. They learned he lived not far from the Waffle House.

With rain pouring down, SWAT members converged on the apartment. 

Reinking was not at home. Police found another rifle and handgun inside. They knew Reinking owned four weapons, raising the possibility Reinking was still armed.

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson said his department was "very concerned," noting they knew of no motive for the shooting. As the suspect continued to elude them, police advised residents in the area to stay home with their doors locked. 

At a Sunday afternoon news conference, Anderson suggested Reinking was probably still in the area, but admitted he could be anywhere.

In Reinking's hometown in Illinois, local law enforcement told their own community to stay vigilant while two school districts in the area ramped up security measures.

Finding Reinking

After searching for more than 24 hours, police had no new leads. They convened Monday morning in the parking lot of the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ. The house of worship, less than 2 miles from the Waffle House, was the scene of its own mass shooting in late 2017 that claimed the life of one church member and wounded nine others.

It wasn't until Monday afternoon that police caught their break. 

Working construction with a crew on a hill in the Mountain Springs subdivision, Lydia French looked at a nearby tree line. She saw a man emerge from the woods who appeared "shocked" and "disoriented."

a couple of people that are standing in the rain holding an umbrella: Godmother of DeEbony Groves, who refused to give her name, cries as she listens to Chief of Police Steve Anderson talk to the media at a press conference after Waffle House shooting suspect Travis Reinking was captured Monday, April 23, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn © Larry McCormack / The Tennessean Godmother of DeEbony Groves, who refused to give her name, cries as she listens to Chief of Police Steve Anderson talk to the media at a press conference after Waffle House shooting suspect Travis Reinking was captured Monday, April 23, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn

She called 911, thinking it may be Reinking. 

Within 10 minutes of receiving the call, about a dozen officers from the specialized investigations division arrived, said their supervisor Lt. Carlos Lara. 

The construction workers pointed the officers toward the woods. The group of officers split in two — half headed to the top of the ridge by the construction site, while others went to the bottom of the hill near an apartment complex.  

Detective Williams was at the bottom of the hill. When Reinking appeared from behind a tree, Williams recognized him immediately.

a group of people standing next to a tree: Law enforcement personnel leave the woods near where Antioch Waffle House suspect Travis Reinking was arrested Monday, April 23, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. © Shelley Mays / The Tennessean Law enforcement personnel leave the woods near where Antioch Waffle House suspect Travis Reinking was arrested Monday, April 23, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn.

The officer identified himself and ordered the man to show his hands. Then, with his gun drawn, Williams ordered Reinking to lay on the ground. 

He radioed two fellow officers, who came and cuffed Reinking.

Except for his backpack, Reinking, dressed in a maroon long-sleeve shirt and dark pants, was completely dry, Williams said. 

One of the officers cut the black backpack off of Reinking. Inside, officers found a silver semi-automatic handgun, a holster and a flashlight. In a back pocket of his pants, they found a wallet with a drivers license identifying him. 

Reinking refused to answer questions after being taken to a local police precinct, instead requesting a lawyer, said police spokesman Don Aaron. He was then transported to Nashville General Hospital. His shirt was ripped and he had cuts on his arms. He walked with a limp.

Later Monday evening, he was booked at the downtown Nashville jail on four counts of criminal homicide.

Police say they aren't sure how Reinking evaded capture — or where he might have been during the 34-hour manhunt that ended less than 2 miles from where it started.

Contributing: Adam Tamburin, Natalie Allison, Elaina Sauber and Sandy Mazza, The Tennessean. Follow Dave Boucher and Anita Wadhwani on Twitter: @Dave_Boucher1 and @anitawadhwani

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