Before Alexis Dowdell headed to her Sweet 16 party, she sat on her big brother’s bed to tell him she was nervous for the event she had been planning for months – only to have him make her laugh and assure her that he would make sure she had fun, she says.
Just hours later, her brother, Philstavious “Phil” Dowdell, was among four people fatally shot at her party at a venue in downtown Dadeville on Saturday night, a massacre that also left 32 other people injured, stunning the small Alabama city and leaving investigators scrambling to find who did it and why.
Phil pushed her to the ground as the shooting started. Later, after she realized he’d been shot, she pleaded with him to stay alive, she recalled in an interview with CNN on Monday
“You’re going to make it. You’re strong,” Alexis told her 18-year-old brother as his consciousness wavered. She begged: “Don’t give up on me.”
Many of those shot were people close to Alexis. Besides Phil, those who died were Marsiah Emmanuel Collins, 19; Shaunkivia “Keke” Nicole Smith, 17; and Corbin Dahmontrey Holston, 23, the Tallapoosa County coroner said.
Though the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has said 32 were injured, the agency has not specified their ages or whether they all were shot. On Sunday, at least 15 teens were being treated for gunshot wounds at one hospital, an official there said.
LaTonya Allen, the mother of Phil and Alexis Dowdell, also recounted the horror of Saturday night.
Allen was standing in the venue’s entryway when the sound of gunshots pierced through the music coming from the DJ booth, she told CNN. She was struck twice during the shooting, though she didn’t immediately realize it amid the chaos.
Panic and fear reigned as people rushed to escape through the front door, leaving behind a floor scattered with the injured and dying, Allen and her daughter said.
Allen could hear her two daughters calling out for her, she said. But Phil’s voice was silent and she couldn’t see him in the crowd.
In the dark venue, Alexis’ stepfather thought he could make out Phil’s body on the floor, Alexis said – a fear confirmed when the lights were flicked on to reveal Phil soaked in blood.
“That’s when everybody just broke down crying,” Alexis said.
Alexis, who had run from the room after Phil pushed her to floor, rushed to her brother’s side and was begging him to “stay with her,” her mother said. “He was trying to say something to her.”
By the time first responders arrived, Phil was dead, Alexis said.
“It’s a nightmare that I don’t wish on any parent – to go in and to see my baby laying there in a pile of blood,” Allen said. “That was the worst thing that I could experience in my life.”
As loved ones mourn the victims, they join a slew of other American families that have been heartbroken by gun violence. Just this year, more than 160 mass shootings have happened in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Like CNN, the nonprofit defines mass shootings as those in which four or more people are shot, excluding the shooter.
With little information from investigators, Phil’s family still is grappling with confusion and disbelief.
“Why would you pull out a gun at a kid’s party and just start shooting and killing other innocent lives and hurting others?” Alexis said.
Investigators have ‘strong leads’
State, local and federal investigators are working to piece together the circumstances surrounding the shooting and are asking for the public to come forward with any information about the incident.
Investigators have “strong leads” about the attack, Dadeville Police Chief Jonathan Floyd told CNN on Monday. But investigators have not named any suspects or announced a motive.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency still was processing evidence and interviewing witnesses, it said Monday.
“Special agents did not recover any high-powered rifle ammunition at the scene; however, they did recover numerous shell casings used in handguns,” the state agency said in a release.
Allen and her daughter didn’t see any altercation or argument before the shooting began, they said.
Allen, however, said she heard a rumor from two partygoers earlier in the evening that someone had a gun. She said she made a stern announcement through the speaker system: “If anyone in here has a gun, then you need to leave because we’re here to celebrate Alexis’ Sweet 16.”
She and other chaperones scoured the crowd for anyone carrying a firearm, but didn’t see one, the mother said.
‘They took away a piece of my heart’
Phil was just weeks away from graduation at Dadeville High School, where he was a star athlete in football, basketball and track, one of his coaches, Michael Taylor, said. He had secured a scholarship to play football at Alabama’s Jacksonville State University.
Alexis said she often turned to her big brother for advice or sat outside talking with him and their grandmother.
“They took away a piece of my heart, and I know the other mothers and fathers feel the same way,” Allen said.
One of the victims, Collins, was best friends with Phil and was also an avid football player who loved to spend time with his sisters, his father Martin Collins told CNN. He said his son was taking a gap year before heading to Louisiana State University in the fall.
“Football was his life. He was very talented and overall, a smart kid,” the father said.
“I have my son’s picture over my bed, and to wake up now and see it and know my son is dead is devastating,” Martin Collins said.
Dadeville High School senior Keke Smith was looking forward to attending The University of Alabama before she was killed on Saturday, her cousin Amy Jackson said. Smith was a student athletics manager for the high school’s track team, Taylor said.
“She was always smiling,” Jackson recalled.
CNN’s Isabel Rosales, Kevin Conlon and Takashi Murakami reported from Dadeville, and Elizabeth Wolfe reported and wrote from Los Angeles. Holly Yan, Chris Boyette, Amanda Jackson and Caroll Alvarado contributed to this report.