Kids safe after ordeal

Published 10:27 pm Monday, June 9, 2014

Students and faculty file off a school bus that was used to evacuate them to King’s Fork High School. (Matthew Ward/Suffolk News-Herald)

Students and faculty file off a school bus that was used to evacuate them to King’s Fork High School. (Matthew Ward/Suffolk News-Herald)

School locked down and then evacuated

Elephant’s Fork Elementary School was dramatically evacuated Monday after a suspect barricaded himself inside his nearby home when state police arrived to serve arrest warrants.

The man was discovered dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to state police spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya.

Gary Abernathy, 52, was found dead inside his home by a remote-controlled robot sent in following the evacuation of students, faculty and staff at the nearby school, Anaya stated in a news release.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

When Elephant’s Fork went unto lockdown earlier in the day, Candice Gober thought the code announced over the PA was just another drill.

“We have drills all the time,” said Gober, a nurse employed by the mother of fourth-grader Thomas Lawrence because of his severe asthma.

But it wasn’t a drill this time.

About 8:30 a.m., Virginia State Police special agents had attempted to serve arrest warrants for obtaining money by false pretense and arson, according to Anaya.

In the 2200 block of William Reid Drive, the house is not only very close to Elephant’s Fork but “lines up parallel,” according to Anaya.

The lockdown was precautionary, she stated. Police sealed off William Reid — the only way in and out of Elephant’s Fork — at Godwin Boulevard.

Inside the school, time passed quickly, according to Gober.

“We started texting each other as we heard more and more” about what was happening outside, she said.

At some point during the morning, students and staff in 11 mobile classrooms, including Gober and Thomas, were brought inside the main school building.

“We stayed in the gym probably about three hours,” Gober said. “Then we went to lunch; then they told us we would be evacuated after lunch.”

As the drama unfolded, Thomas’s mom was among about a dozen anxious parents gathered in a vacant lot across from the school.

Outside the house where the barricade situation continued, the law-enforcement response included Suffolk Police Department’s mobile command unit, military-style tactical vehicles and tactical officers with assault rifles and body armor.

“I’m worried sick,” Sherry Lawrence said. “They haven’t been able to say too much.”

Armando Romero, whose son is in kindergarten, was concerned about what he regarded as a lack of information in the recorded message school officials sent to parents about 10:30 a.m., the first move to fill them in.

“They didn’t tell us anything,” Romero said.

From Elephant’s Fork principal Andre Skinner, the message mentioned police had blocked entry to the school “because of a situation across the street,” advising that children were safe in their classrooms.

Pete Williams, another father, said his daughter’s fifth-grade teacher texted him some news at 11.28 a.m. An excerpt read: “Police presence all around school and in school.”

Williams, thinking the message was from officials, was surprised when he rang the number and his daughter’s teacher answered.

Williams said he learned from the teacher that the suspect had made “threatening remarks (toward) the school” to officers serving the warrant.

The teacher let Williams talk briefly to his daughter. “She sounded nervous, and a little scared,” he said. “I told her everything was going to be all right and we were outside. I let her know it would be over soon. She didn’t say much; she was just kind of nervous and kind of quiet.”

Inside Elephant’s Fork, the officers described to Williams were preparing about 675 students and 85 staff to evacuate. Troopers and local police made a joint decision to evacuate those in the school for their safety and security, according to Anaya.

School district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw wrote in an email that dispatchers started calling drivers close to the school, and after the ramp off Route 58 onto Godwin was blocked, 13 regular and two special education buses lined up alongside 58 eastbound, at the back of the campus.

The evacuation route was “a creative decision” that district administrators and police made based on the circumstances, according to Bradshaw.

District maintenance workers were brought in to clear a path through the thin strip of brush between the campus and Route 58. They cut open a fence and laid plywood across ditches, making a safe path to the buses, which would be bound for King’s Fork High School.

Beginning just before 1 p.m., classes were dismissed one at a time, and all evacuees were off the property by shortly after 2 p.m., Bradshaw wrote.

Students left their backpacks behind “to allow a speedy and unrestricted walk,” she stated.

Though the bright-yellow convoy on Route 58 was hard to miss, the operation was secretive.

“We were not able to notify parents … until all Elephant’s Fork buses arrived safely at the high school, because police asked us not to compromise security,” Skinner wrote to parents.

After collecting a safe-and-sound Thomas Lawrence at King’s Fork High, where parents were reunited with their children in the auditorium, Sherry Lawrence praised the response.

“I’m fine with what the school did. My son is safe,” Lawrence said, adding that Principal Skinner “handled the situation very well.”

Gober — Thomas’s nurse — said of her experience: “You see it on TV, everything that’s going on with the schools. The first thing you start to think is, ‘Oh my God, something really horrible is going to happen.”

Third-grader Alyssa Hubbard said she felt safe during the incident. Her teacher, Rebecca Knight, “told me we were all OK and we would be somewhere safe,” Alyssa said.

But her father, Darryl Manning, also criticized what he perceived as a lack of information. “They are trying to keep it quiet,” he said.

Abernathy’s family has been notified of his death, and an autopsy will be conducted to determine the exact cause of death, Anaya stated.