Blacksburg, Va. A gunman killed a police officer in a Virginia Tech parking lot Thursday and then apparently shot himself to death nearby in a baffling attack that shook up the campus nearly five years after it was the scene of the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
The shooting took place on the same day Virginia Tech officials were in Washington, fighting a government fine over their alleged mishandling of the 2007 bloodbath where 33 people were killed. Before it became clear that the gunman in Thursday’s attack was dead, the school applied the lessons learned during the last tragedy, locking down the campus and using a high-tech alert system to warn students and faculty members to stay indoors.
“In light of the turmoil and trauma and the tragedy suffered by this campus by guns, I can only say words don’t describe our feelings, and they’re elusive at this point in time,” university president Charles Steger said. “Our hearts are broken again for the family of our police officer.”
The officer was killed after pulling a driver over in a traffic stop. The gunman — who was not involved in the traffic stop — walked into the parking lot and ambushed the officer. Police did not know what the motive was.
The officer was identified as Deriek W. Crouse, a 39-year-old Army veteran and married father of five who joined the campus police force about six months after the 2007 massacre, the school said. He previously worked at a jail and a sheriff’s department.
While authorities wouldn’t reveal specific details about the gunman, they released a timeline of events.
At about 12:15 p.m., the officer called in the traffic stop. After a few minutes passed without hearing from the officer, dispatch tried to get in touch with him but didn’t get a response. About 15 minutes later, police received the first call from a witness who said an officer had been shot at the Cassell Coliseum parking lot and the gunman had fled on foot.
Local, state and federal officials responded immediately. At 1 p.m., an officer saw a suspicious man in a parking lot known as The Cage. The man had a gunshot wound, and a gun was nearby.
Authorities said they responded to numerous other calls of suspicious activity but found no threats and lifted the campus lockdown, about four hours after the initial alerts.
Asked if police were still looking for the shooter, state police Sgt. Robert Carpentieri said: “I think the investigators feel confident that we’ve located the person. I can’t give you specifics, and I don’t want to confirm that but you can kind of read between the lines so I won’t specifically address that question.”
The officer had served four years on the campus police force, which has about 50 officers and 20 full- and part-time security guards. State police were still investigating whether the officer had been specifically targeted.
Many students were preparing for exams when they were suddenly told to hunker down. Heavily armed officers swarmed the campus as caravans of SWAT vehicles and other police cars with emergency lights flashing patrolled nearby.
“A lot of people, especially toward the beginning were scared,” said Jared Brumfield, a 19-year-old freshman from Culpeper, Va., who was locked in the Squires Student Center.
The university sent updates about every 30 minutes, regardless of whether they had any new information, school spokesman Mark Owczarski said.
Harry White, 20, a junior physics major, said he was in line for a sandwich at a restaurant in a campus building when he received the text message alert.
White said he didn’t panic, thinking instead about a false alarm about a possible gunman that locked down the campus in August. White used an indoor walkway to go to a computer lab in an adjacent building, where he checked news reports.
“I decided to just check to see how serious it was. I saw it’s actually someone shooting someone, not something false, something that looks like a gun,” White said.
The school was a bit quieter than usual because classes ended Wednesday. About 20,000 of the university’s 30,000 students were on campus when the officer was shot. Exams, set to begin Friday, were postponed.
The shooting came soon after the conclusion of a hearing where Virginia Tech was appealing a $55,000 fine by the U.S. Education Department in connection with the university’s response to the 2007 rampage.
The department said the school violated the law by waiting more than two hours after two students were shot to death in their dorm before sending an email warning. By then, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more people and then himself.