DACULA - An early morning shooting Thursday claimed the life of an off-duty Gwinnett County sheriff's deputy, though it remains to be seen if the slaying was a criminal act or not, authorities said.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department identified the dead man as Lt. Don Bassett, a 17-year veteran of the force. The shooting happened about 1:30 a.m. Thursday at his Austin Ridge Drive residence in Dacula.
Investigators believe the 38-year-old deputy had been involved in a domestic dispute with his live-in fiancee, Morgan Schrader, 20. Officials say during the dispute a handgun was produced and a struggle ensued, ending when the gun fired.
How the gun discharged was not known Thursday.
Investigators questioned Schrader extensively and released her Thursday afternoon, but it's possible she could be charged, Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said.
"Investigators are still attempting to determine the nature of the incident," Schiralli said.
Bassett was transported to Gwinnett Medical Center where he died a short while later from a single gunshot to the chest.
Schiralli said records show police have not been called to the address for any reason recently. Court records show no civil filings by either Bassett or Schrader.
The handgun that killed Bassett was not his department-issued weapon, Schiralli said.
In the tranquil Alcovy Ridge subdivision the two called home, neighbor Josue Morales, 17, expressed disbelief the fun-loving couple could have clashed, as police claim. On Wednesday afternoon, hours prior to the shooting, Morales said the couple had tidied their yard, then sat together on a front-porch bench, Bassett sipping wine while his fiancee smoked a cigarette, he said.
"They seemed like really nice people, calm," Morales said.
The couple's next-door neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, said she rushed with her husband to Bassett's aide after the single gunshot roused them from sleep. Bassett had been shot once in the chest and was struggling to remain coherent as emergency personnel arrived, she said.
The neighbor said she couldn't tell if the shooting was accidental or not. The couple had just moved into the two-story, peach-colored home two months prior. Neighbors recalled often seeing them play soccer with Bassett's children in their well-maintained front yard, or drawing sidewalk pictures in chalk.
"Based on what a loving couple they seemed, I'd like to think it was an accident," she said. "But you never know what's going on inside people's homes."
Bassett is the father of four children, ages seven to 14, from a previous marriage, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais, a personal friend. Bassett worked in the professional standards unit, investigating complaints against employees or fellow deputies.
"He was very laid back, just a very quiet person," Bourbonnais said. "He was a very dedicated employee, hardworking."
Bourbonnais said a ceremony to honor Bassett is pending. In the meantime, she said, grief counselors have been provided to assist employees who knew Bassett.
"The biggest thing as a department is that we are shocked and deeply saddened by his death," she said. "We can't fathom what his family must be going through."
On Thursday evening, a makeshift memorial - flags representing Alabama and Georgia universities, draped over a bouquet of flowers, beneath two flags at half-mast - greeted visitors to the county jail.
Bassett's death strikes a tender nerve for a department that lost a respected deputy last year to domestic violence of a different sort, authorities say.
Investigators say seven-year veteran Joy Deleston was gunned down alongside her two daughters in February 2008 by her teenage son, Anthony Terrell Jr., in the Lawrenceville home they shared.
Terrell Jr. awaits trial in the shooting deaths of Deleston and his sisters, Micaiah, 11, and Jelani, 4.