Union Bridge couple shot

Nearby high school is locked down during standoff

Students' parents anxious

Husband in hospital with self-inflicted wounds, police say

November 11, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh and David L. Greene | Mike Farabaugh and David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

A Union Bridge man who police said shot himself and his wife yesterday held officers at bay for nearly five hours, disrupting classes for most of the day at nearby Francis Scott Key High School and forcing the evacuation of his neighborhood.

Four officers, including two armed with shotguns, stood as sentries atop the school's roof as a precaution, while students were herded from classes to the cafeteria, gym or auditorium. Outside, a handful of anxious parents waited to take their children home.

"We basically moved students to areas away from windows and entrances," said Gregory Eckles, county director of secondary schools. "All this caught us by surprise, but we were prepared."

Ernest L. Armstrong Sr., 62, of the 600 block of Raywell Ave. shot himself twice in the chest during the standoff, which ended in midafternoon, police said.

Armstrong is in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where he is under police guard, said Maj. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.

Shirley A. Armstrong, 34, who was shot once in the abdomen, was treated at the trauma center and released.

Yesterday's lock-down at the high school marked the first time any county school had implemented the new crisis plans developed last year to bolster security.

During the lock-down, no one was permitted to leave or enter the school. State police closed nearby roads until 2: 45 p.m.

Students described the scene inside as tense when they were initially told during second period to remain in their classrooms. Rumors spread rapidly about what was unfolding outside.

"I was hearing all these rumors about bombs and stuff," said Sean Taylor, a freshman from Taneytown.

"A lot of people were talking about Columbine," said Carrie Ness, a junior from Taneytown. "I was kind of scared. We were watching the helicopter out the window."

The shooting began around 10 a.m., shortly after Mrs. Armstrong and a male friend had gone to Westminster, where they told city police that her husband was distraught and possibly dangerous, Shipley said.

They asked police to check on him, and then went to the large rancher on Raywell Avenue. Mr. Armstrong had a rifle and fired a shot inside the house, they later told investigators.

Tfc. Michael Duears of the Westminster barracks arrived as Mrs. Armstrong, running from the house, was shot in the abdomen with a .22-caliber rifle, Shipley said.

"Trooper Duears returned fire and was able to reach the woman -- who had fallen in the driveway -- and rescue her, getting her and her friend to safety before calling for backup," Shipley said.

State police surrounded the rancher, partially hidden by large bushes, evacuated several nearby homes and alerted officials at the high school on Barksdale Road, about a half-mile from the scene.

State police feared that the man had run from his home while Duears administered first aid and helped Mrs. Armstrong to a waiting ambulance.

Parents express concerns

Dozens of concerned parents -- some listening to the situation unfold on their police scanners, school officials said -- called the high school or the central office to ask whether they should pick up their children. They were told that parents were not being permitted in the school and that students were being kept safe inside.

A handful of parents stood along Middleburg Road, down the hill from the school, angry they could not take their children home.

"If anything happens to my son, I am going to hold the school and the Board of Education responsible," said Julie Ambrose of New Windsor, who stood on the road for almost three hours waiting for her son, a ninth-grader.

"Why don't they let me get my son and go? If he's [the shooter's] only a couple houses from the school, he could go in and kill half the students in there," she said. "My heart is just pounding."

Attempts at negotiation

State police negotiators repeatedly tried to contact Mr. Armstrong by phone and bullhorn. They got no response, Shipley said.

At 1: 40 p.m., a state armored personnel carrier arrived on a flat-bed truck and was moved into position to assist troopers preparing to storm the house. Troopers searched the house and at 2: 40 p.m. found Mr. Armstrong in a rear portion of the basement, Shipley said.

"He was conscious and alert and told troopers his wounds were self-inflicted," Shipley said. "The investigation is continuing and we will be looking to determine whether any of the shots fired by Trooper Duears struck Mr. Armstrong."

By midafternoon, tension at the school had eased. Many students were gossiping, playing table football, talking about how it was fine they had to miss class.

Students were dismissed at 2: 30 p.m. as buses were loaded in front of the school, farther from the shooting scene.

Ness, a member of the girls volleyball team, was standing in the parking lot after school with her teammates -- all in red uniforms -- and relieved that their evening home playoff game was not canceled. Some after-school activities, such as weightlifting, were called off.

Cynthia Little, director of pupil services, the department that oversees school security, said opening the school to parents during the day would have created chaos.

"We were trying to secure the high school," Little said. "If we have 100 people coming and going, then you lose your security."

A letter from Superintendent William H. Hyde was sent to Key High School parents last night explaining the school system's actions yesterday.

At Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary in Union Bridge, school officials planned to ask pupils who live near the crime scene to wait in the building after dismissal and not walk home until it was safe. But the incident ended in time for a routine dismissal.

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