Beach town reels over chief's death after gun investigation

Posted at 12:50 PM, Sep 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-10 12:50:12-04

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (AP) -- Worries would seem to be few and far between in Bay St. Louis, a community of sandy beaches and monthly art walks that bounced back strong after 2005's Hurricane Katrina all but wiped it out. But the death of the city's well-respected police chief who shot himself in the chest after being suspended from duty has shaken many in the small Mississippi Gulf Coast community.

The shooting - in the police station's parking lot - happened soon after police chief Mike DeNardo had learned authorities were investigating allegations he illegally sold city-owned firearms, including an assault rifle, a sheriff's deputy said.

Hancock County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Don Bass told The Associated Press that DeNardo illegally sold one city-owned assault rifle, and that authorities were looking into allegations that other city-owned weapons were sold as well. But Bass said the investigation was in the early stages, and the chief's decision to take his own life stunned Bass and others law enforcement.

"We can't get his side of the story," Bass lamented. "It's terribly upsetting. We're in shock."

Bass said the investigation started from an anonymous tip.

It wasn't clear if the buyer knew the sale was illegal, and Bass said he could not discuss whether the weapon was evidence from a case or had been purchased for the department's use.

Sheriff Ricky Adam said a "multipoint investigation" had been going on for four months and included payroll fraud, the Sun Herald reported. The police chief left three apology letters - to the sheriff, the mayor and one other unspecified person - for the payroll fraud, Adam said. Those were turned over to the FBI.

Those are the latest developments in a case that has shocked many in this small, tourist-friendly beach community.

On Thursday, hours after DeNardo killed himself, the mayor had said the chief was under investigation by the sheriff's department. A federal official also had said investigators received "unsubstantiated criminal intelligence" about DeNardo. But until now, there were no details of what the investigation concerned.

DeNardo was informed of the investigation Thursday at city police headquarters, where he was suspended and his equipment confiscated. He then went to the parking lot, retrieved a shotgun from his trunk and shot himself, Bass said.

Earlier Friday, Jason Denham, the resident agent in charge for the Gulfport field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the agency received "unsubstantiated criminal intelligence" about DeNardo only a day or two before his death. They had not yet opened a formal investigation and had not approached him or confronted him about the allegations.

He said barring DeNardo's death, the agency would have moved forward to confirm or dispel the intelligence. He could not give details on what the intelligence was about.

Mayor Les Fillingame told The Associated Press on Thursday that he believed DeNardo would have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

DeNardo also appears to have been grieving a personal loss. Doug Seal, a member of the city council, said Friday that DeNardo's mother had passed away last week, and he had been away for her services.

As the beachside bars and restaurants prepared for the weekend influx of tourists, no one could fathom why DeNardo would take his own life. They knew little of the events before he killed himself - his suspension without pay pending an investigation or his recent family loss.

Mockingbird Cafe owner Alicein Schwabacher knew him as a strong but soft-spoken man, a lover of veggie burgers, who ran a good police department and was "loved by the community."

The cafe's executive chef Julie Ragusa spent the morning preparing freshly baked muffins for delivery, along with fresh coffee, to the grieving police department.

"It's tragic and it's sad and this is such a small, tight-knit community it affects a lot of people," Ragusa said.

Ragusa was gassing up her car near the police station Thursday when a sudden onslaught of police cars and other emergency vehicles rushed by.

"I honestly thought they were running some kind of drill," she said.

During an emergency city council meeting Thursday, the council turned control of the police department over to the sheriff's department. The Sun-Herald reported that the move was temporary, as the city goes through a tumultuous period.

An interim replacement for DeNardo has been named but will report to the sheriff's department.

DeNardo had been with the department since 2004, according to the department's website. The mayor appointed him police chief in 2010. Before coming to Bay St. Louis, DeNardo worked for 18 years at the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana, the website said.

DeNardo's death hit especially hard in this city, which bounced back from bleak devastation 11 years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

"So much healing has taken place here. I don't know what he was dealing with, that he felt he had no one to reach out to," Schwabacher said. "He was loved by the community."


Santana reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.