KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The gunman who'd just killed three people on Gay Street never said a word to Knoxville Police Department Patrolman Jim Lewis. He just pointed at the rifle lying on the street when Lewis asked about the weapon.

Robert Patty, 43, committed in May 1976 one of the first random, mass-shootings in Knoxville history. It was unheard of back then. Today it would be another entry on a long list of such crimes across the United States.

Lewis, long remembered on the Police Department for his role in confronting Patty, died Feb. 11 at age 84 in Knoxville. He retired from the department in 1991 as a sergeant after 25 years. The Marine Corps veteran was buried Saturday at Greenwood Cemetery.

Patty was a Korean War veteran with a history of mental illness. He'd been treated at the old Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, among other places.

He complained to doctors of hearing voices. Sometimes he took his medicine; sometimes he did not.

KPD Officer James Lewis Sr.
The Lewis Family

He'd complained to Sen. Howard Baker's staff in Knoxville of a device that affected his brain which he blamed on the U.S. Department of Defense.

Patty rented a room by the week at the Elliot Hotel on Church Avenue near State Street, across from the News Sentinel building, now torn down.

The day before the shooting, testimony reported in the newspaper would later show, voices started telling Patty as he walked around Market Square that he needed to kill himself or someone else.

On the morning of May 11, 1976, he stopped by two Market Square restaurants, then retrieved a rifle he'd bought the week before at the Sears store on Central Street.

He went to another restaurant, then walked to nearby Gay Street and started shooting. He killed two women waiting at a bus stop in front of the Kress store in the 400 block of Gay and a man who stumbled inside and died after being hit.

Two other people suffered minor gunshot wounds.

KPD didn't have a SWAT team at the time.

Bystanders gather around rifle used by Robert Patty
WBIR

Patrolman Lewis, who was 41 at the time, was around the corner and down the hill on Union Avenue when he heard the first shot.

More shots rang out, and Lewis recalled rounding the corner to see Patty facing him, putting the rifle on the ground. KPD Patrolman John Faulkner also was there, yelling at Patty to drop the weapon.

Lewis recalled a few days later in a court hearing for Patty that the stone-faced gunman complied with all his orders.

"When he saw me he put his hands out," Lewis testified. "I patted him down because I thought he might have another gun. He didn't. When I asked him, 'Where is the weapon?', he pointed to the rifle laying on the street."

Hours later, while being held at KPD headquarters on Hill Avenue, Patty would remark: "How many people did I waste up there?" according to court testimony.

Afterward, merchants demanded the city honor Lewis for his bravery, his son James Lewis Jr. said Monday. Lewis Jr. said he's been going through his father's things since his death, coming across several newspaper articles from the time, including one from the Washington Post.

Lewis Jr. said his father kept until his death a diagram he'd drawn showing the gunman's whereabouts on Gay as well as the subpoena he was issued to testify in Patty's case.

News Sentinel headline about Patty shooting.
WBIR

A jury convicted Patty two years later in the shooting, and he was sentenced to spend three life sentences in the Tennessee prison system. Lawyers had argued unsuccessfully that Patty was so mentally ill he shouldn't be held responsible for what he'd done.

Patty died years later in prison.

Attorney Herbert S. Moncier was working in 1976 as a prosecutor for the district attorney general. He called Patrolman Lewis to the witness stand to testify at a court hearing early in the case.

"My memory back then was the huge issue was why did he do this in open public?" Moncier said Monday "I'm not sure sure we resolved that question."

It never was.

Patty's crimes resulted in a significant change for KPD. The department decided it was time to create its own SWAT team, to address any gunman in the future who might pose a threat to the public at large