A Greenville Police officer prepares to search an ECU bus for a suspected gunman who was reported near campus Wednesday, Nov. 16. The reports turned out to be unfounded. Photo by Cliff Hollis
(Nov. 16, 2011)
Greenville and East Carolina University breathed a little easier Wednesday afternoon when a suspected gunman near campus turned out to be a pedestrian with an umbrella.
Greenville Police surveillance cameras at 9:37 a.m. captured a man crossing Fifth Street at its intersection with Reade Circle carrying what appeared to be an oblong object in a backpack, said Greenville Police Sgt. J.C. Williams. The video is online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHYSvPrxymo.
At 10:12 a.m., ECU issued an emergency message that a possible armed suspect was spotted at the intersection and put the campus in “lockdown” mode. Students, faculty and staff were ordered to stay inside or get inside buildings and lock the doors.
Approximately 60 law enforcement officers from ECU, Greenville Police, the Pitt County Sheriff’s Department and the N.C. Highway Patrol searched campus and the surrounding neighborhoods for the next couple of hours, assisted by a law enforcement helicopter, Williams said.
Despite reports via social media outlets of persons with a gun and a crossbow and suspicious persons, no one with a weapon was found, Williams said.
Pitt County Sheriff’s deputies identified a man matching the one in the video and determined the object he was carrying was an umbrella, Williams said.
ECU issued an “all clear” message at 12:52 p.m., and classes resumed at 3 p.m.
Though the incident happened near main campus, a few miles away, the ECU Health Sciences Campus also went into lockdown mode. An email message ending that went out at 12:34 p.m.
In addition to the ECU lockdown, four nearby schools – C.M. Eppes Middle School, Elmhurst Elementary, Sadie Saulter and Wahl-Coates Elementary – were put in modified lockdown mode, according to Pitt County Schools.
“We are relieved that the reports of this incident turned out to be unfounded,” said Dr. Steve Ballard, ECU chancellor. “East Carolina University will always err on the side of campus safety when these situations arise. Our response by faculty, staff and students was timely and professional. We appreciate the concern of the parents of our students, as well as the cooperative efforts of the Greenville Police Department and the Pitt County Sherriff’s Office as the university responded to this incident.”
ECU student Jake Hall was in Spanish class in the Bate Building when the lockdown was issued. He said his professor instructed students to tape over the windows for safety.
“Tense,” he said of the situation in the classroom, “but everyone stayed calm.”
Williams praised the response by law enforcement and the coordinated effort to identify the person in the camera footage. He also praised ECU’s response to the potential danger.
“Their process went exactly as planned and exactly as it’s supposed to,” Williams said at a news conference following the end of the lockdown.
Williams said people using social media to report suspicious people led law enforcement officers to “chase ghosts.”
One example was at the Rivers Building on ECU’s main campus, where a student posted a message on a social media site saying a suspicious person was in the building. ECU Police evacuated and searched the building but found no one, police said.
Police were also alerted to possible suspects on ECU and Greenville buses, but searches turned up nothing, Williams said.
“In this case, Facebook and Twitter worked against us,” Williams said.
Nevertheless, he said, the event did have some positives.
“This alert system went perfect,” Williams, referring to ECU’s emergency email, text, Web and speaker network. “Overall, the operation, even though there was no weapon, it went great.”
In August, local law enforcement agencies conducted an “active shooter drill” on the ECU Health Sciences Campus. In that drill, two actors portrayed gunmen who took hostages in a campus building. Police eventually got one gunman out of the building, but not before the mock deaths of an officer, the other suspect and a hostage.
Williams added that even if the person on camera Wednesday had been carrying a gun, it wouldn’t necessarily have been a crime unless he was displaying it in a threatening way.