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Gunfight in Duluth: 4 shot, 1 dead in shootout over alleged bad drug deal

DULUTH - A gunbattle in a Duluth neighborhood Monday morning left three men hospitalized and a fourth dead, likely the result of a drug transaction gone awry, police said.

Trouble erupted about 10:05 a.m. at 4299 Buckingham Place, a quiet street lined with expansive front yards and 1980s-style homes. The incident would later dot the Duluth area in three separate crime scenes.

Police responding to reports of shots fired found three Hispanic men shot and injured inside the home. Investigators believe the shooting spilled into the home's driveway, ending when two vehicles - a gray Saturn car and a white van - sped away.

Police found the van abandoned a half-hour later on Millerbrook Court, less than five miles away, Gwinnett police spokeswoman Cpl. Illana Spellman said. Whoever was in the van remains at large.

Meanwhile, police located the Saturn shortly after the shooting in a parking lot at Gwinnett Place Mall, where a 911 caller told police a black man was shot inside the parked vehicle. Police found the unidentified man dead inside his car and cordoned off a large parking lot near the former Macy's retail store.

The victim reportedly had a relative who works at the mall whom he was trying to reach. Another black man who accompanied him in the Saturn remains in police custody, Spellman said.

No one involved in the shootout was identified Monday.

The three Hispanic victims remained at area hospitals. A fourth Hispanic male present during the shooting is in police custody, undergoing questioning, Spellman said.

Spellman said the gunfight had telltales signs of a foiled drug deal, though she couldn't release specifics. She said police have no reason to believe gangs were involved.

"Right now, everything is pointing to this being drug-related," Spellman said at the scene. "Other than that, we don't know what happened."

On Buckingham Place, neighborhood resident Mike Thaxton said he heard what sounded like a dozen or so firecrackers going off as he sat down to pay bills at his dinning room table. He's lived in the neighborhood - tucked between Old Norcross Road and Buford Highway - without problems for 14 years, but he's noted a recent shift in demographics and evidence of drug trafficking.

"The more houses that come up for rent, it seems to change the complexion and makeup of the neighborhood," said Thaxton, tending to his lawn amid a hailstorm of police activity and the whir of news helicopters overhead. The 46-year-old said he has no plans of moving.

Another neighbor had to cancel his late-morning jogging path due to police activity.

"This is probably a good reason for citizens to be armed," he said.

As police prowled the neighborhood with K-9 units, crime scene technicians trolled the mall parking lot a couple miles away.

Ingrid Hall lunched at a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant adjacent to the cordoned-off parking lot, where a hearse left the area as she walked to her vehicle.

"You hate to hear about stuff like that close to home," she said. "It makes you feel a little more vulnerable."

Looks can be deceiving, stressed Joe Allen, executive director of the Gwinnett Place CID.

Crime in the community improvement district continued to drop in the first quarter of 2009, following a trend set last year when percentages of nearly all major crimes dipped by double-digits, Allen said, citing Gwinnett police data.

"Despite this situation, this is still a safe and secure area," he said. "The statistics bear that out."

Though Monday's shootout happened elsewhere, it could potentially shine a negative light on the Gwinnett Place Mall area, which leaders are hoping to enliven as a shopping destination. Home to 187 commercial property owners, the CID hosted about 9 million visitors last year.

"It's unfortunate when anything like this happens," Allen said. "It's something that happened outside our district and came here, and of course it's disheartening."

Spellman said police are looking for as many as four suspects who fled the scene.

Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers at 404-577-TIPS. Callers could earn a reward of up to $2,000.