Swan Meadows residents recount hostage standoff Fear sweeps area, followed by relief

February 28, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh and Karin Remesch | Mike Farabaugh and Karin Remesch,Staff Writers

Before dawn, police crept from door to door, rousing people from their sleep and ordering them out of their homes.

The decree sent some of the 175 residents police evacuated into the frigid Thursday morning air clad in nightgowns or pajamas.

Nearby, police said, a 47-year-old woman held her paraplegic boyfriend hostage and repeatedly fired a .22-caliber rifle. Two of the bullets tore through the wall of an Aberdeen duplex and landed in an adjoining house on Defense Drive.

More than eight hours after it began, the standoff ended about 1 p.m., when police stormed the house and captured Mary Ann Garrison, who allegedly had held 59-year-old Edward Sawyers hostage in his home about four hours before releasing him.

Ms. Garrison was taken to Fallston General Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, then released and charged with two counts of assault and one count of false imprisonment on Friday. She was being held without bail at the Harford Detention Center.

Nobody was struck by any bullets, police said. Mr. Sawyers, who suffered chest pains, was in satisfactory condition at Harford Memorial Hospital.

On Friday, residents of the Swan Meadows community vividly recalled the shock and the fear they woke to the day before.

Gloria Du Four, a 68-year-old grandmother who has arthritis, had been baby-sitting two babies, ages 15 months and 2 months, for a friend when the police knocked at her door.

Terrified and shivering, she wrapped the infant and toddler in blankets, and crossed an icy field to Hall's Cross Roads Elementary, which provided food and shelter to evacuees.

"I really didn't want to leave my house," Mrs. Du Four said. "I have never been so scared, and I was scared for the babies."

Emma Fulton, a 55-year-old who has lived in the community 17 years, helped Mrs. Du Four carry one of the babies.

As Mrs. Fulton fled, she assumed police had launched a major drug raid, but she wasn't about to hang around to find out.

"I was scared," she said, "really scared somebody was going to get hurt."

As repeated gunshots pierced the morning air, police lights flashed and officers scattered, Sandy Ross figured a prison escapee had taken somebody hostage.

"I was scared to get out of the door, afraid of getting shot," said the 35-year-old.

But none of the residents got quite the scare George Staples did.

When quiet had returned to the community at last, Mr. Staples, a roofer, cleaned the debris in his daughter's room -- and counted his blessings.

He thanked God, he said, that she wasn't hit by a bullet that tore through the wall and landed just 21 inches above her bed.

"I was getting ready for work and heard two back-to-back bangs and thought it was glass breaking," said Mr. Staples, who rushed to his daughter's room and spotted two bullet holes in the wall above her bed.

Throughout the morning, police negotiators continued efforts to contact Ms. Garrison by telephone. She frequently hung up on them and appeared to be intoxicated, police said.

The last shots were fired about 10:20 a.m., and negotiators had their last contact with Ms. Garrison about an hour later, police said.

At noon, police held a tactical meeting at their command post in Fire House No. 2 and devised the plan for the county Sheriff's Office Special Response Team to storm the house.

Members of the team entered the house and took Ms. Garrison into custody without incident, police said.

Police reported recovering the .22-caliber rifle. Mr. Sawyers owns the rifle, according to Ms. Garrison's sister, Laura Perdew, who also lives on Defense Drive.

A .22-caliber rifle has a range of about one mile, police said. The sporadic firing sent slugs through plaster and plywood walls into the Staples' home. But police did not believe bullets hit any other houses.

Amid the confusion, authorities made the extraordinary seem almost routine, after the initial shock.

Those evacuated were taken to the nearby First Baptist Church of Aberdeen in the 200 block of E. Bel Air Ave. for shelter, and workers at Hall's Cross Roads Elementary already were planning to welcome lots of guests for breakfast.

Wally Brenton quietly supervised.

Even as Mr. Brenton, chief of security for Harford schools, arrived at Hall's Cross Roads Elementary, many of the evacuees already were heading to the school cafeteria for a hot breakfast.

Those who needed clothing relied on an emergency supply school officials had. "We were ready," said Mr. Brenton, noting that the school also served lunch, and the Red Cross was on alert to move in by 3 p.m., in case the incident had dragged on.

By mid-afternoon, life in the Aberdeen community had returned to normal, and Wayne Wigglesworth, director of Harford Red Cross operations, alerted 15 volunteers on stand-by that their help would not be needed.

"All this just doesn't happen by accident," Mr. Brenton said. "Whenever there is an emergency in a local community, a pre-arranged plan of action goes in motion."

As emergencies go, Thursday's incident was relatively small and handled quickly and efficiently at the community level by one arm of the Emergency Operations Center, namely Mr. Brenton and the central office of the Board of Education.

EOC Chief Jim Terrell said police used EOC's mobile command post, a 40-foot bus rushed to Aberdeen to provide a shelter from which police coordinated operations.

In major disasters, representatives from social services, administrative services, health and law enforcement agencies as well the ranks of the EOC would be called on, he said.

"It was minor compared to what could be done if needed," Mr. Brenton said. "We train monthly and have occasional drills. The manuals are written, and when something happens, we just follow the book to take care of it."

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