Armed robbery prompts use of emergency system

By David Reagan, Contributing writer

Durant Police officers received a call about a home invasion, shots fired and a wounded victim only a few blocks away from the school on Friday, Jan. 4 at 7:20 p.m.  The suspect had fled on foot.  Durant Police Department officials decided this was too close for comfort and called to notify SE campus police.

Director of Safety Jon Clouse said, “The suspect was never on campus. We’re thankful of this, but we wanted to alert people just in case. In an elevated situation like this or an imminent threat, we take every precaution.”

What started out as a precaution soon turned into a dangerous situation of which most students have become aware. The only detail of that day that remains unclear among the majority of students is what actually happened.

Weather conditions were severe that day and driving was becoming exceptionally dangerous on the Durant roads. There had been a recent snowfall in addition to the ice hidden and layered below it.

In spite of the roads, Clouse said the response time for law enforcement was very quick.

According to Clouse, the call was made by a disoriented landlord in the vicinity of Grand and Houston. The caller claimed she had been shot, but the police later found that statement to be false.

Clouse said they do not believe this to be an intentional lie. “It is fairly common in a shooting for those involved to become so rattled that they are unable to discern whether they actually have been hurt,” said Clouse. “It’s also common for some witnesses to claim to hear gunshots and others to claim they didn’t. It is hard to determine first hand immediately after something like this happens, so we must act quickly.”

The proximity of an armed suspect quickly snowballed into a full-blown situation for school officials.

At about 8:40 p.m., students, staff and faculty received notification from the SE Alert System in the form of e-mails and recorded phone calls stating: “Please be aware that Durant Police department is currently in pursuit of an armed suspect. We recommend that you stay behind locked doors and take every precaution for your personal safety.”

The seriousness of this message caused quite a stir among many students and parents. According to Sgt. Jody Hall, it had been a slow night at the Campus Police station, and the receptionist who usually managed incoming calls had gone home early that night.  Clouse had already gone home for the night as well and was not available.

All calls were routed to the cell phone of Hall, who was the only on-duty officer and was actually taking his usual lunch break 15 blocks away from the school.

According to Hall, he rushed to the scene, as fast as was possible in the weather, but he said it still took 15 minutes to get to campus in the icy condition of the roads.

Hall said he was quite busy all that night, trying to answer phone calls from frantic family members, monitoring the situation and notifying school officials, as well as patrolling the area.

By the time he arrived, Hall said there were six or seven Durant Police officers at the scene, as well as three or four troopers who were already patrolling due to highway conditions, two Bryan County deputies and later all five Durant detectives from the Criminal Investigative Division.

After Hall was briefed on the fleeing suspect and given a description, he said that he headed back out to scour the streets for any sign of the man on foot. He used his thermal imaging camera to look for the suspect, which he said is a vital piece of equipment and was one of the reasons that the Durant Police Department had requested his help.

According to Hall, the thermal imager works very well at night, especially in the frigid temperatures.

Unfortunately, Hall said, the description of the suspect’s clothing was vague and turned out to be inaccurate. Shortly after the search began, a Durant police officer  temporarily apprehended a suspect who had fled the scene and fit the description, but it turned out to be a false lead.

Hall stated that the suspect was not the armed man they were looking for, simply someone who ran at the sight of police officers.

Hall said the SE campus police was originally notified of the suspect when it was a low-risk situation, but now things were quickly becoming elevated as new information became available.

Hall stated that Durant Police had confirmed the suspect to have gone either east or west, judging from the foot prints in the snow. If the suspect had fled east, it meant he was headed toward the school.

Hall then decided the best course of action was to return to his patrol and keep a perimeter around SE, buffering the Seventh and University area.

Finally after 40 minutes, which seemed like hours to many students, another SE alert notification was sent out at 9:20 p.m. stating that the suspect was in custody.

According to Hall, many panicked students were wondering what exactly had happened as they barricaded themselves inside their rooms.

Hall said that others who were found nonchalantly walking the streets acknowledged the danger of the situation. They said that they had received the notification but had apparently continued to stroll around campus.

Rumors also quickly abounded, such as the most common one that the suspect was a murderer who fled to the dorms on campus, said Hall.

As it turned out, he was never on campus, and the victim sustained only a large contusion on her head and some other abrasions. According to Hall, she was roughed up, disoriented and confused, but she was not shot.

In fact, it was never confirmed there was ever a gun or if shots were fired. Hall also said many students believed the suspect had stabbed his victim.

According to Hall, the large number of phone calls he received from students actually made his job more difficult.

“In a situation like that when there are rumors flying and you want to know what’s really going on, ask your RA Don’t swamp the police station with calls because they’re trying to go out and do their job,” he said. “It’s best to stay put and make sure you have accurate information. Rumors only lead to further panic amongst other students. I would emphasize staying within your dorms. Your RAs are prepared.”

Clouse said he is aware of the fact that many were complaining about the extremity of the choice to send such a frightening alert to students, but he also emphasized the school’s need to use precaution over worrying about interrupting people’s schedules.

He said, “It’s always better to be safe than sorry. It is also important to note that the message was specifically approved by President (Larry) Minks, so the decision made was apparently serious enough that students needed to be informed.”

For information on the SE Emergency Alert system, go to homepages.se.edu/sealert/.