WEST MEMPHIS, AR (WMC-TV) - Two West Memphis police officers were shot and killed Thursday during a traffic stop along a busy cross-country interstate highway. The local sheriff and his chief deputy were wounded in a later shootout that left a pair of suspects dead.
Officers pulled over a white minivan with Ohio license plates while "running drug interdiction" on Interstate 40 in east Arkansas, said West Memphis Police Inspector Bert Shelton. Two men got out of the van with the assault rifles and opened fire on the officers, he said.
Sgt. Brandon Paudert, 39, the son of West Memphis' police chief, died at the scene and Officer Bill Evans, 38, died at a hospital, authorities said. Evans made the initial stop, and Paudert arrived moments later as backup, Assistant Police Chief Mike Allen said late Thursday.
"In what was probably only a few minutes, Officer Evans was shoved to the ground and the men in the minivan started shooting at both officers," Allen said.
Arkansas State Police spokesperson Bill Sadler said the suspects were armed with, "a long rifle and a handgun."
After the shootings, the suspects escaped. Truck driver Johnny Thompson drove past the scene before ambulances even arrived.
"Two police cars were sitting there," he said. "One police car was shot up, and one was laying in the road."
Moments later, Arkansas state troopers shut down I-40 in an attempt to root out the shooters.
"I knew there was something," motorist Bobby Hubble said. "They started pulling out vests, pulling out guns, AK-47's and stopped everything."
Another witness described the scene on Interstate 40 as "chaos." Stacy Gilchrist said she saw a police officer lying in the road when she pulled up.
"It was a disaster, cars were just going everywhere," Gilchrist said.
Ninety minutes later, authorities tracked the suspects and their van to the Walmart in West Memphis. Dozens of officers swarmed the van and both suspects were shot and killed, authorities said.
Additionally, Crittenden County Sheriff Dick Busby and a deputy, W. A. Wren, were shot and wounded. Both men were taken by helicopter to The MED.
According to Crittenden County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Tommy Martin, Busby was listed in stable condition with a gunshot wound to his shoulder. Wren was shot multiple times in the stomach, and was listed in critical condition.
Officials said late Thursday evening that both men are expected to recover.
After the shootout, the Walmart was closed as law enforcement secured the area.
"I heard quite a few loud pops," Johnna Long, who was inside the Walmart with her 14-year-old son during the shootings, told The Associated Press.
At first, she thought something large had fallen from an upper shelf, she said. But she'd gotten a call a few minutes earlier about a police shooting, and made the connection. She then heard more pops and people screaming.
"I couldn't see what was going on," Long said, adding that she and other shoppers were confused because no one knew if the shootings would move inside the store.
Wal-Mart employees moved shoppers into the store's lawn-and-garden section and eventually told them they could get their cars if the vehicles were outside police tape cordoning off the shooting scene, she said. Long left without her sport utility vehicle. She returned about 6:30 p.m., but still wasn't allowed to get it.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said the killings were a reminder of the risks that police face.
"I have reached out to express my condolences to the entire West Memphis Police Department, including Sergeant Paudert's father, Chief Bob Paudert," Beebe said in a statement. "This is a loss shared by all Arkansans."
Outside the West Memphis Police Department station on Thursday, officers went in and out, some hugging each other as they passed.
"The men and women of the West Memphis Police Department are deeply saddened," West Memphis Police Assistant Chief Mike Allen said. "It's going to hurt for a long time."
According to vehicle registration records, van driven by the suspects is owned by an Ohio church - the House of God's Prayer in New Vienna, Ohio.
Action News 5's attempts to reach someone from the church were unsuccessful Thursday. A postal worker in New Vienna said the church rents property in the town, but does not hold services.
Visit YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD: Crittenden County for additional updates on this story.