Long-running dispute cited in shooting at Bladen pork processing plant that wounded two
Posted November 21, 2019 2:29 a.m. EST
Updated November 21, 2019 6:27 p.m. EST
Tar Heel, N.C. — A St. Pauls man was arrested Thursday after two employees were shot at a pork processing plant in Bladen County just after midnight, authorities said.
Jaquante Hakeem Williams, 20, of 872 Shaw Road, was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder and was being held without bond in the Bladen County jail.
The shooting occurred at Smithfield Foods, at 15855 N.C. Highway 87 in Tar Heel, which is the world's largest pork processing plant.
Two Smithfield Foods employees, Michelle Hernandez and Anthony Ratley, were shot in a stairwell in the plant’s administrative building, authorities said during a Thursday morning news conference.
Williams was a contractor with a sanitation company, authorities said.
Hernadez and Ratley suffered serious injuries and were taken by helicopter to nearby hospitals. Ratley underwent surgery, and both were in stable condition Thursday morning, the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office said.
"This world we live in today, I would never think something like this would happen in Bladen County, but it did," Sheriff Jim McVicker said. "This world is changing."
Williams and Ratley were in a weeks-long dispute, McVicker said. Three to four weeks ago, the two got into an argument in a bathroom when Williams was assaulted and had to miss several days of work, the sheriff said.
Williams' family said Ratley had bullied him for months – they even accused Ratley of shooting at their house – and Williams shot him in self-defense.
"Enough was enough. He had enough," Chris Williams said of her son. "Nobody should have to go to work and go through that."
April Edwards, Williams' aunt, said she doesn't know how the dispute started, but it was enough that her nephew tried to transfer to another work site.
"For him to retaliate like this to protect himself, I feel like it had to be something that was to the point where he felt it was a life-and-death situation," Edwards said.
On Thursday morning, Jaquante Williams and Ratley exchanged words in the stairwell during a shift change, McVicker said, and Williams fired five shots from a handgun.
Hernandez was a bystander not involved in the dispute, he said.
"He was sorry for the lady. He did admit that," Edwards said. "I hope the charges will be changed because his intent was not to harm this young lady. His intent was to protect himself from this gentleman who has literally threatened him over and over."
No charges were ever filed after the Williams family's home was shot at. Smithfield Foods officials didn't respond to questions about the bathroom assault.
After the shooting, McVicker said, the gunman, who was dressed in all black, fled the plant.
A person who knew Jaquante Williams was able to talk with him on a cellphone after the shooting, authorities said. Williams was found in a wooded area behind the plant, where he surrendered to law enforcement without incident, McVicker said.
"To tell you the truth, the fellow, he wanted to surrender. He was very afraid," the sheriff said.
Authorities were still combing the woods Thursday afternoon looking for the gun.
The plant was placed under lockdown as several law enforcement agencies responded, including the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, the Elizabethtown Police Department and the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office.
Smithfield Foods was evacuated, with hundreds of employees leaving the building – more than 2,000 were inside at the time, but some were told to shelter in place because the location of the gunfire was unclear.
One worker said during a 911 call that she was hiding in the plant after hearing gunshots.
"Oh my gosh, can you hurry up, please? Please hurry up," the terrified woman said over and over.
Workers were allowed back into the building after Williams was arrested. Kyle Narron, vice president of operations for Smithfield Foods, said business resumed as normal after a three-hour delay.
Based in Virginia, Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, according to its website.
"We are shocked and saddened by the senseless shooting that took place at our Tar Heel, North Carolina, processing facility overnight," the company said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with our two Smithfield Family members who suffered serious injuries and were taken by life flight to hospitals, their families and loved ones."
Some employees complained to WRAL News that there is no metal detector at the plant for security.
"I think they need to, probably have to search cars and stuff [to] make sure they keep the weapons and stuff away," former worker Ronnie Council said.
Narron said workers have to pass through a security checkpoint where all bags are checked. Only clear bags are allowed in the plant, he said.
Plant managers plan to review their security procedures and will consider adding metal detectors at the plant entrance, he said.
Narron said the company would provide counseling for any employees who request it.