Just after midnight on Sept. 11, 2017, three shots ripped through the front door of a Black family's Sandy Ridge Drive home. The next night a Black man was fatally shot at a Florida Street bus stop. Another Black man was shot to death two nights later walking to his shift at Louie's Cafe.

Kenneth Gleason, a White man who lived on Sandy Ridge Drive in Baton Rouge, was quickly booked and indicted in the homicides and attempted killings, and on Monday morning jury selection is set to begin in the alleged serial killer's long-anticipated trial.

Gleason, 27, is being tried on a first-degree murder count in the second of the killings, but evidence relating to the other homicide and the non-fatal shooting also will be introduced into evidence.

He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted as charged. The verdict must be unanimous.

The trial is expected to last two weeks, including several days of jury selection. State District Judge Beau Higginbotham will preside over the trial. 

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Friday his office is confident that after a full presentation of the evidence — subject to cross examination and inspection — "justice will prevail."

"We are prepared to present the state's case against Mr. Gleason and bring justice and closure to the families who have been tragically affected," he added.

Gleason's attorney, Ashly Van Earl, said his client maintains his innocence.

"I believe the state has a heavy burden in this case, and this will be a great judge of whether you're innocent until proven guilty," Earl said.

Gleason was indicted on two counts of attempted second-degree murder in the Sept. 11, 2017, incident in which he allegedly fired several shots into the home of the only Black family on the Sandy Ridge Drive block where he lived several doors down with his parents.

Two men were inside the house but not injured. One of the bullets traveled through a couch, under a chair, out a back window and through a wall into a back storage shed.

Gleason also was indicted with second-degree murder in the Sept. 12, 2017, killing of Bruce Cofield, a homeless man, and first-degree murder in the Sept. 14, 2017, slaying of Donald Smart. The homicides occurred five miles apart.

Authorities have said the three shootings were apparently random and possibly racially motivated.

Cofield, 59, was shot as he sat at a bus stop on Florida Street near South Acadian Thruway.

A Baton Rouge police detective testified in 2019 during a hearing in the case that a witness told police a White male got out of his car and shot Cofield, who then rolled into the street. The shooter then stood over Cofield and fired more shots. The detective, Saundra Watts, said 10 bullets were recovered from the victim’s body, and 13 shell casings were recovered from the scene.

Smart, 49, was killed at the Alaska Street BREC park near the north side of the LSU campus while walking to his overnight shift at Louie's, where he was a dishwasher.

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Two LSU students in the park at the time told police a man drove up in a red car and shot Smart. The shooter then got out of his car, walked over to the victim and continued shooting. Four bullets were taken from Smart’s body, Watts said, and 10 shell casings were discovered at the scene.

Authorities have said Gleason is linked to Cofield's killing and the nonfatal shooting through DNA evidence, and to both fatal shootings and the nonfatal incident through ballistics evidence.

Prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty against Gleason after consulting with Smart's family.

The Louisiana State Police Crime Lab determined that the casings recovered from all three shooting scenes were fired from the same 9 mm gun. The firearm used in the shootings has not been found.

An East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's detective testified at the 2019 hearing that nine hours after the Sandy Ridge shooting, a worker at a Coursey Boulevard Jiffy Lube a half-mile away saw a White man in a red car remove a gun from a mulched area at the store.

Lt. Scott Henning said the worker later identified the man as Gleason.

Watts testified at the same hearing that nine hours before Cofield was gunned down, employees of a surveillance firm spotted a White man with a gun in a parking lot removing the license plate from a red car and putting duct tape over the car's identifying markings.

When Gleason was taken into custody, the red car he was driving had the same dent in the back bumper and an American flag sticker shown on the Custom Security surveillance video, Moore said previously.

Gleason is not charged with a hate crime, but prosecutor Dana Cummings said last week during a hearing that his cellphone records, which will be used at the trial, contained "repeated references" to Adolf Hitler and to cleansing.

Gleason's lawyer said during the hearing that Gleason studied German at LSU.

A sketch of a swastika was found in Gleason's holding cell in 2017, but Cummings said the drawing won't be shown to the jury because it had been misfiled in the case record and was only recently handed over to the defense. 

The Associated Press reported in September 2017 that law enforcement found a copy of a Hitler speech during a search of Gleason's home. The wire service attributed that information to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing at the time.

Gleason grew up in Baton Rouge and graduated cum laude from Baton Rouge Magnet High School, a selective program often referred to as the city's flagship public school.

He became an Eagle Scout in 2012, completing a construction project at St. John's United Methodist Church to earn the title — an achievement shared by only about 5% of all Boy Scouts, according to the organization.

Gleason attended LSU for one year starting in the fall of 2012.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.