POLL: Was Thursday's shooting an act of terrorism?
For Scott Meyer, the news reached him through a series of text messages.
The first one came around 3 p.m. Thursday, when he finished his shift caring for hogs at a local farm in Paulding, Ohio. "Call me," a friend said. That's how Meyer learned that 26-year-old Randall Smith, a childhood friend and a logistics specialist in the Navy, was in critical condition, shot multiple times by a stranger in Chattanooga.
Then, after two days of praying and stewing in disgust over the shooter, Meyer plugged his dead phone into a charger Saturday morning. The screen lit up, and a string of messages poured through. Smith was dead.
"I was just numb," Meyer said Saturday afternoon. "It's still kind of sinking in."
The Navy announced Smith's death at 2:47 a.m. Saturday. In Smith's hometown of Paulding, a village of about 3,700 people in the northwest corner of the state, the news spread. You couldn't see anything other than Smith on Facebook news feeds, some of his friends said.
Outside the local Veterans of Foreign Wars building, a sign read, "RIP Randall Smith." Behind it, five flags flew at half-staff.
The state's governor, John Kasich, called for prayer. In Georgia, where Smith had been living, Gov. Nathan Deal said flags will fly at half-staff on the day of his funeral. And in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam said, "we as a state mourn another life lost from this senseless act."
In Chattanooga, a large crowd formed Saturday at the Lee Highway military recruitment office, where the gunman had first opened fire. People laid flowers and other mementos. American flags flapped around the yellow caution tape surrounding the perimeter of the strip mall. On their knees, parents helped children lay wreathes, patriotic pinwheels and toy soldiers.
Five white crosses bearing the names of the dead — Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Skip Wells, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt and, now, Smith — stood planted side by side.
Danielle Pope had driven alone to the site from her home in Rossville, compelled to pay her respects. Crying, she knelt to pray and removed her shoes.
"I just felt I was on hallowed ground," she said.
Two days earlier, authorities say 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, of Hixson, opened fire outside the recruiting center and then the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway. He killed five people and wounded two others before police shot him dead.
On Saturday, the investigation into the attack continued as FBI agents from three offices processed the crime scenes. The agency has received more than 200 leads so far.
Smith had joined the Navy in 2010, Department of Defense officials said, and had been assigned to Chattanooga last August.
On his street in Rossville, Ga., Smith's neighbors said he came home from work at 4:30 p.m. every day. He rode bicycles with his three daughters. His next-door neighbor, who declined to give her name, said Smith shared a picnic on the Riverwalk with the girls and his wife Thursday morning, just hours before the attack.
On Saturday, Smith's friends from home shared memories about him. He loved baseball, like many members of his family. He pitched and played middle infield for Paulding High School. His dad was an assistant coach. After high school, Smith played at Defiance College, a Division III baseball team, the type of squad filled with men who know they won't make it to the pros but want to keep playing anyway.
Meyer said two of Smith's grandparents died of lung cancer, and he wanted friends to help fund research to kill the disease. He often punctuated Facebook posts with "Cancer Sucks," even when he was just congratulating recent Paulding High School graduates.
He also shared his faith often. Jason Thomas, pastor of First Baptist Church of Fort Oglethorpe, said Smith and his family had been attending for a little less than two years.
This October, Smith planned to host Meyer and some other high school friends. They were going to drive to Nashville and watch the Tennessee Titans.
Corbin Vance, who was two years behind him at Paulding High, said Smith also planned to come home for Labor Day weekend. Vance first learned about the mass killing in Chattanooga through a Fox News alert on his phone Thursday morning. Later that afternoon, Vance's brother called to tell him the shooter hit Smith.
"Being from a small town, you don't truly understand these major happenings until it affects one of your own," he said Saturday. "Then it's like, 'Damn.'"
Vance doesn't yet know how to process his former teammate's death.
Meyer, meanwhile, thought about text messages. Not the ones he received this week, the ones that changed his town. Instead, he thought about the old ones, the ones Smith sent long before he was gone.
The Navy petty officer had a goofy side. At any moment, for no reason, Smith used to text Meyer song lyrics. He quoted "Lips of an Angel," "You're Beautiful" and "Hit Me Baby One More Time."
On another occasion, though, Smith texted the words to his favorite song.
"Sweet Caroline," he wrote.
Good times never seemed so good.
Staff writers Kate Belz and Joy Lukachick Smith contributed to this report.
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.