Neighbors describe frightening standoff

Published 11:06 pm Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Donna Perry Photo Police take cover behind an armored personnel carrier while firing teargas into a home on Walter Reid Drive across from Elephant’s Fork Elementary School during a barricade situation on Monday. A suspect, Gary Abernathy, is believed to have taken his own life at the end of the day.

Donna Perry Photo
Police take cover behind an armored personnel carrier while firing teargas into a home on Walter Reid Drive across from Elephant’s Fork Elementary School during a barricade situation on Monday. A suspect, Gary Abernathy, is believed to have taken his own life at the end of the day.

Carl W. New, 66 and recovering from skin cancer, said he was in bed when he heard a “racket going on” around the back of his house early Monday morning.

When New looked out the kitchen window into his backyard, he saw part of his fence lying on the ground.

But before New could fully open the door to investigate, a desperate 52-year-old Gary Abernathy — pursued by state troopers — had pushed his way inside.

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A fuller picture has emerged of Monday’s barricade situation near Elephant’s Fork Elementary School, which led to the school’s evacuation and a violent death for Abernathy, whom police said took his own life at the end of the day.

“He said, ‘I need a vehicle to get away from the police,’” New recalled, describing Abernathy as “a heavyset guy about 6-foot tall, broad shoulders; like he lifted weights or something.”

MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD Carl W. New stands beside his Dodge van, which Gary Abernathy stole from his driveway Monday while being pursued by police.

MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD
Carl W. New stands beside his Dodge van, which Gary Abernathy stole from his driveway Monday while being pursued by police.

New did not know that the drama unfolding in his home had actually begun at 8:30 a.m., when Virginia State Police special agents had attempted to serve Abernathy warrants at his nearby home for obtaining money by false pretenses and arson.

He ran, and he soon had forced his way into New’s home.

New worried for his wife in the other room as a clearly agitated Abernathy asked, “What can I drive?”

“Just take the van,” New replied.

After handing Abernathy a set of keys to the 1993 Dodge van, New said, the man demanded a second set. New had to convince him there was only one.

“He said, ‘If I get in the van and it won’t start, I’m going to break the door down, and when I get in there I’m going to do bodily harm to you and your wife,” New recalled.

Between 9 and 9:30 a.m., according to New, a frantic Abernathy lit out in the Dodge, headed east on Emma Avenue.

According to reports from other witnesses, the van probably sustained four flat tires when Abernathy blasted full-speed across the sharp dip where Emma crosses Lida Avenue. They heard an almighty thud.

Speeding to the end of Emma Avenue, witnesses say, Abernathy continued through a yard and across an overgrown vacant lot, then past Elephant’s Fork Elementary School, and arrived back at his home in the 2200 block of William Reid Drive.

Citing an ongoing investigation, state police spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya would not confirm the details about the theft of the van or Abernathy’s bolt from his home, but she confirmed agents had attempted to serve Abernathy at 8:30 a.m.

Back at home, Abernathy locked himself inside the house, starting a barricade situation that would last the rest of the day, and sparking the eventual evacuation of more than 700 students and staff from Elephant’s Fork Elementary.

The evacuation — kept secret for the protection of evacuees — had police lead children through the woods and onto a convoy of busses lined up on Route 58, while tactical officers stood guard with assault rifles.

A resident near Abernathy’s home who asked only to be identified as “Arnold” said he had had a close vantage point for the whole incident. The first thing he saw, he recalled, was police chasing Abernathy, who was wearing a maroon shirt, across two nearby yards.

Arnold said he started hearing gunshots around 5 p.m. Witnesses have described hearing upward of a dozen shots.

For video of the police assault, click here.

“There were three noises,” Arnold said. “It was really large bangs, there was little pat-pats, like handguns, and one big boom.”

Sgt. Anaya said the only gunshots were Abernathy’s, fired when he apparently took his own life, and then police shooting “chemical irritants” into the house after a remote-controlled robot had revealed the suspect was probably dead.

Without a medical examiner’s opinion, she explained, police weren’t certain Abernathy was dead, and they didn’t know if anyone else was inside, she said, so tear gas was fired into the home even after police saw the images broadcast by the robot’s camera.

“Unfortunately, in our line of work, you never know,” Anaya said.

Earlier, police had used an armored personnel carrier to take out security cameras arranged around the house, to open the door and to break a window, Anaya said.

“At one point, Abernathy was looking through the side of the windows as we were attempting to get him to come out,” she added.

Anaya also confirmed that earlier in the day, at 6:30 a.m., troopers had arrested Abernathy’s wife, Donna Hill, after pulling her over on a nearby highway. She was unable to confirm which highway.

Hill was charged with the same offenses contained in the warrants against her husband, according to Anaya, and was bonded out of Western Tidewater Regional Jail. Police have told her of Abernathy’s apparent suicide.

Meanwhile, New spent most of Tuesday morning cleaning his Dodge of the dirt and vegetation from Abernathy’s cross-county, ill-fated getaway.

With its four flat tires, the vehicle was returned Monday evening, he said.

“We were crying,” New said of his and his wife’s emotional state after their ordeal at the hands of Abernathy. “If it weren’t for the good Lord up above, I believe her and I would’ve been gone.”