'There's nothing about this that makes sense': Authorities grappling with the ‘why’ in South Carolina mass shooting

Authorities in South Carolina have confirmed that ex-NFL player Phillip Adams is the suspected gunman who broke into the Rock Hill home of a prominent doctor Wednesday evening and killed him and four others, before also killing himself.

What police are still grappling with 24 hours later is why.

In a Thursday afternoon news conference, York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson admitted, “There’s nothing about this that makes sense to any of us.”

Tolson described Dr. Robert Lesslie as a devoted father and grandfather, an active church member and “pillar in this community.”

There were no immediate signs that any property was stolen from the Lesslie residence, nor were police able to confirm that Adams was a patient of Lesslie.

“We have probably more questions than what you do about this case right now,” Tolson said. “We are working hard to provide some answers. Obviously one answer is why. That is a question that we are probing as we speak with numerous investigators. We hope to be able to get that answer and provide some why to the family, most importantly.”

The York County Sheriff’s Department learned of the shooting at 4:44 p.m. on Wednesday when the owner of a South Carolina air conditioning company dialed 911. He asked the operator to dispatch police and an ambulance to a Rock Hill home where two of his technicians had just been shot.

“One is non-responsive,” the man said. “The other is talking slurred. I think he has been shot in the head or the face or something because he can’t talk. He just keeps saying, ‘I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot. Call 911. Please, call 911.’”

When deputies arrived at the sprawling property eight minutes later, they found a ghastly, tragic scene. One of the repairmen, 38-year-old James Lewis, was dead. The second was injured and taken to the hospital in “very critical condition.”

York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson speaks during a press conference on Thursday, April 8, 2021 in York, S.C. where he addressed the mass shooting by former NFL football player Phillip Adams. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson speaks during a press conference on Thursday, April 8, 2021 in York, S.C. where he addressed the mass shooting by former NFL football player Phillip Adams. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Inside a back bedroom of the home, Tolson said that deputies found four more bodies. Lesslie, 70, his wife Barbara, 69, and their grandchildren Adah, 9, and Noah, 5, were all dead as a result of multiple gunshot wounds.

Tolson said that deputies quickly identified Adams as a suspect. When asked if that was because the former 2010 seventh-round draft pick had left behind his phone, Tolson only confirmed, “We did recover evidence from the scene that linked Mr. Adams to that scene definitively.”

Upon learning that Adams’ parents lived about a quarter of a mile away, authorities tracked him to that home. They removed Adams’ parents from their home shortly before 10 p.m. Tolson said police tried to negotiate with Adams to leave the house too, but they did not receive what they deemed an “adequate response.” At around 2:30 a.m., police found Adams dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

“It’s speculative as to whether or not he had already shot himself or shot himself as we were arriving or while we were on scene,” Tolson said. “We did not hear any gunshots once we arrived at that house.”

Asked if Adams’ parents believed he was alive when they left the home, Tolson said, “That is what was relayed to us.” The sheriff added that he did not believe Adams’ parents were aware of the mass shooting until informed by police.

Adams is a former two-sport star at Rock Hill High School in South Carolina who led the Bearcats' football team to a state championship in 2004. He was a first-team all-MEAC selection as a senior at South Carolina State and a seventh-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2010.

A cornerback and kick returner, Adams played for six different NFL teams, finding the most success with the Oakland Raiders in 2012 and 2013. He played in all but one game and started four, though he reportedly suffered a pair of concussions two weeks apart during the 2012 season.

Lesslie had been practicing medicine in Rock Hill since 1981. He served as Winthrop University's supervising physician and medical director and founded a hospice service and a house-call doctors' service.

"In my spare time, I enjoy ​writing, golf, hunting, growing fruit and hops, and bagpiping," the bio on his website says.

At the beginning of his news conference, Tolson read a statement from the families of the shooting victims.

“We are truly in the midst of the unimaginable,” it read. “The losses we are suffering cannot be uttered at this time. While we know there are no answers that satisfy the question why, we are sure of one thing: We do not grieve as those without hope. Our hope is found in the promise of Jesus Christ, and we are enveloped by peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Even so, Tolson has pledged not to close his investigation until he can pinpoint why this tragedy occurred. Gesturing to some of his deputies, he said that some of them have not slept yet as a result of trying to find the answer.

“If we can succeed in answering some why questions,” Tolson said, “it will surely relieve the minds of the family and put some closure in investigation.”

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