TBI: Factory employee shot & killed 2 supervisors then took his own life

Investigators say a factory employee shot & killed 2 supervisors then took his own life in McMinn County. (9/22/16 11 p.m.)

MCMINN COUNTY, TENN. - Authorities have released the name of the victims and suspected gunman from a workplace shooting Thursday afternoon at the Thomas & Betts factory in Athens, Tennessee.  

According to the preliminary investigation from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Ricky Swafford, 45, shot and killed his two supervisors, James A. Zotter, 44, and Sandra H. Cooley, 68, after he became upset with them during a meeting. 

TBI said Swafford abruptly left that meeting and the building but then returned a short time later. He went to the office where the supervisors were and shot them both.

Athens Police Chief Charles Ziegler said Swafford first attempted shooting in the front office area, but no one was hurt then. After that, Swafford continued shooting "deep inside the factory" and in areas the Chief described as in the north and middle side of the factory.  

As officers began clearing the building they learned that Swafford's body was found in one of the bathrooms. Chief Ziegler said it appears he took his own life. 

TBI says no other employees were hurt in the shooting incident. TBI’s Violent Crimes Response Team with Special Agent Forensic Scientists from Nashville arrived at the scene Thursday evening to collect evidence and will be processing the scene throughout the night. 

There is a news conference scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Friday to give an update on the investigation. 

The Athens police chief described the factory as a steel manufacturing organization. He said they didn't have their own security on-site. 

The shooting has shocked residents and officials in the small East Tennessee town of Athens, which is located about an hour southwest of Knoxville.  

"I don't think you ever want to think this will occur in your community," Sheriff Joe Guy said.  

The Athens Police Chief said he can't remember any other shooting incident in the area with three fatalities. 

“This is one of those tragedies that we see on TV all the time, it happens everywhere else, it never supposed to happen in Athens,” Chief Ziegler said.   

As of Thursday night's press conference, officials said they've yet to do any type of investigation inside the plant and don't officially know the identity of the suspected gunman or the two victims.

The parent company for Thomas & Betts, ABB, is sending a team to help with counseling or other services for the factory employees. In a statement, they described the loss as profound and are shocked and saddened by Thursday's tragedy at the Athens facility. 

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families during this difficult time. We will have grief counselors available to all of our employees at the facility. ABB is working closely with authorities to cooperate and assist in their investigation,” the statement read. 

Dispatchers first got calls about the shooting around 4:16 p.m. Thursday.

The plant is located near McMinn County High School but school had dismissed at the time of the incident. 

Director of Schools Mickey Blevins said a number of athletic teams were still at school and a citizen alerted a rugby coach about the situation and they started moving kids inside. The school went on full lockdown. 

After getting the all clear, Blevins said students were dismissed to their parents and teachers walked drivers to their cars. 

The employees who witnessed the shooting have been taken to McMinn County High School so they can talk with investigators. Concerned family members are advised to go to the school. 

Authorities said they'll decide sometime overnight whether the high school will be in session Friday. 

Athens Police Department, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, fire crews, and EMS are all responding. 

Thomas & Betts is located at South Congress Parkway, near McMinn County High School. 


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