By Tom Dolan
ELKHART -- Raji Sheppard had been free for less than a week when he was shot and killed Thursday morning.
The 27-year-old Elkhart resident had spent most of his adult life under court supervision or in prison, serving time on charges of reckless homicide and more recently, drug possession, according to the Indiana Department of Correction.
But from witness statements, one investigator said it appeared Sheppard did little to provoke the shooting that left him dead on the front steps of 158 Union St. An argument that started with words at a local tavern ended with the gunfire at Union and Hester streets, police said.
Elkhart police were originally sent to the corner on a report of gunfire at 12:40 a.m. As officers got closer to the scene on the city's near west side, a dispatcher reported someone had been shot.
Police found the victim, identified by passers-by as Sheppard, lying on the ground, partially in the bushes. He was bleeding from the head. Sheppard was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
A neighbor reported hearing three or four shots before he looked out the window to see someone running down an alley. He also saw two people scuffling on a second-floor porch. They went inside and shut the door.
By Thursday afternoon, detectives had interviewed more than a dozen people for various reasons, but no arrest had been made.
"We have had some people come forward who we were looking for," said Tom Cutler, an assistant police chief.
Sheppard didn't live at the Union Street home where he was shot but on East Hubbard Avenue, according to police. Police said people had gathered at the Union Street home after leaving the tavern Wednesday night. A neighbor said it wasn't unusual to see a gathering at the home.
Kimberly Frederick said she felt blessed she wasn't at the house when the shooting happened. Frederick lives in the first-floor apartment of 158 Union St. Police believe Sheppard was there to see residents of the second floor.
Frederick was away Wednesday night and left her three sons with their grandmother.
"I came home this morning and they won't even let me in my house," she said of the officers still collecting evidence in and around the home. "You never think it's going to happen this close to you."
Frederick said she moved into the apartment about a year ago and described her upstairs neighbors as nice guys. She arrived home Thursday morning and found a golf-ball size bullet hole in her front window and police tape around the corner lot.
Unable to reach anyone inside the first-floor apartment, police officers had forced their way inside to look for any additional victims, she said. Later, they received a warrant and did a more thorough search.
"We have not had problems," Frederick said. "I'm glad I wasn't home. I don't even think I could handle it, let alone my kids," she said.
Sheppard was 18 when he first went to jail. Sheppard shot a 15-year-old Chicago boy in the abdomen on June 13, 1994, according to court records. Sheppard was initially accused of murdering Nicholas McClinton, who was visiting his grandmother in Elkhart. A few months later, Sheppard pleaded guilty to reckless homicide.
Before his sentencing, then Police Chief J.J. Ivory, City Councilman Arvis Dawson and school officials wrote letters on Sheppard's behalf to Judge Gene Duffin. Sheppard wrote a letter to the judge as well.
"I have had time to think about a lot of things that I wish I had of thought about before I put myself in the situation to come here. I know that I should not have been messing around with guns. ... Now I have lost a friend for life, and I have to deal with this pain in my heart. This accident has changed my life all around.
"I am really looking forward to getting out and starting a new life ... it seems like everyone thinks I am a bad guy. I am not a bad guy," he wrote. "I have been in here long enough to learn my lesson. I just want to live an honest life in the future so when I have kids, I can be the father to them that I wish I would have had so they won't grow up to be a statistic."
Sheppard served about three years with the DOC and was released in 1997 to two years of supervised parole, a spokeswoman said. In 2002, he re-entered the court system on the cocaine possession charge. After serving just under a year, he was released to probation about a week ago.
Truth Reporter Justin Leighty contributed to this story.
Contact Tom Dolan at email@example.com.