By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Tupelo Police Sgt. Gale Stauffer’s widow and mother joined hands Sunday morning as they entered the BancorpSouth Arena to gather in a circle with other family and Tupelo police officers to pray.
Minutes later, they stood alongside FBI Special Agent in Charge for Mississippi Daniel McMullen as he announced a robber killed Saturday in Phoenix, Ariz., is the same man who robbed a Tupelo bank Dec. 23 and later shot two officers along South Gloster Street, killing Sgt. Stauffer, 38, and critically injuring Patrol Officer Joe Maher, 27.
Investigators believe the same man – 40-year-old Mario Edward Garnett of Oklahoma City, who was sentenced to federal prison in 2011 for threatening President Obama – robbed a man earlier on Dec. 23 in the lobby of an Atlanta bank he also attempted to rob.
McMullen said FBI investigators got a court order to inspect Garnett’s cellphone records, which showed him in Atlanta, Tupelo and Phoenix at the time of each crime.
He said commonalities between attempted and actual robberies in the three cities include a wedge used at the banks to keep the doors from closing, using a black bag to fill teller drawers with cash, statements uttered by the robber, use of a late-model gray vehicle and “overall modus operandi.”
McMullen said the “investigation is not over” and that there are more leads to pursue. However, he said he hoped the identification of the man who shot the two Tupelo police officers would “bring (their families) a measure of comfort and peace.”
Beth Stauffer told the news conference that knowing that the person responsible for her husband’s death would no longer hurt anyone else helped her and her family as they grieved.
“We can begin the healing process,” she said.
She also asked for continued prayers and support for the Maher family.
FBI descriptions of the suspect had included a man with a slender build and wearing a facemask during the Tupelo and Atlanta robberies. Reports from Phoenix indicate the robber there wore a bandana to cover his face.
With records of the man’s cellphone calls during the cross-country crime spree along with evidence collected in each city and possibly other locations, McMullen said the FBI would continue the investigation but no longer required the temporary command center at the BancorpSouth Arena.
Support locally for the case has included the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals Service, Lee County Sheriff’s Department, Mississippi Highway Patrol and the state Department of Transportation.
Many people in Tupelo on Sunday focused less on yet-disclosed details of the criminal who left such heartbreak and tragedy for Stauffer’s family and Maher, still recovering in the hospital from a gunshot wound to his head. Tupelo Police Department officers received grief counseling related to the attack on their own crime-fighting partners.
Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre thanked the public for providing food, understanding and other support for the Stauffer and Maher families, along with the entire police force. Thousands of dollars in donations from businesses and individuals to families of the officers have helped ease financial burdens as they continue to cope with on-going physical and emotional pain.
Aguirre acknowledged continued pain but said news of the gunman’s death from Phoenix closes one part of this sad chapter for the city of Tupelo and surrounding area.
“This closure has helped us mend this deep, deep wound,” he said.
For many in this community, Christmas may continue to have a twinge of sadness for years to come. Instead of devoting the holiday to spending time with family and friends, many attended a candlelight vigil at City Hall resulting from a man’s thirst for cash and little regard for human life.
“He took from us the joys of Christmas and this special time with our families,” said Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton. The mayor said he was proud of the way the city had “rallied together” in response, reflecting the “Tupelo spirit.”
An estimated 1,000 people attended Stauffer’s First United Methodist Church funeral service Friday, while 2,000 or so others lined city streets with banners, U.S. flags and blue and black ribbons to show respect for the lawman killed in action.
The condition of Maher, the surviving officer and father of a 15-month-old child, continued to improve as he moved from intensive care to a private room. He has also had recent success walking with his wife’s assistance.
Before leaving the news conference, Beth Stauffer also thanked the Tupelo community for love and kindness shown during tragic times for her and her children, Skip, 2, and Dixie, 6. “We know we have not been going through this alone,” she said.
She also thanked law enforcement officers for helping solve the case.
“You made it possible to continue the long road ahead,” she said. “Gale would be proud.”