Man holds police at bay

Gunman in wheelchair threatens suicide, collapses at library

No one injured

150 patrons trapped in building during two-hour standoff

February 08, 2000|By Kris Antonelli and Erika Niedowski | Kris Antonelli and Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

About 150 people were trapped inside the Central Library of Howard County in Columbia for more than two hours yesterday as police negotiated with a wheelchair-bound gunman in the parking lot who had threatened to kill himself.

No one was injured in the standoff that ended about 6: 20 p.m. when the man, identified only as a 37-year-old from Laurel, collapsed in his wheelchair, apparently from a seizure, said Sgt. John Superson, a county police spokesman.

Criminal charges are pending the outcome of the man's psychological evaluation at Howard County General Hospital, police said.

The incident began about 4 p.m. when the man entered the library -- with elderly patrons and children -- on Little Patuxent Parkway and handed a library worker a note, Superson said.

Although the contents of the note were not known last night, Superson said the man was suicidal, became angry and brandished what looked like a handgun, which later was determined to be fake.

"Somehow he got outside the building and the doors were locked" after him, Superson said.

The first officers who arrived at the scene hid behind cruisers and a van with their guns drawn while they tried to get the man to drop the gun, witnesses said.

Across the street on the Sears parking lot at The Mall of Columbia, officers from the Tactical Unit -- Howard's version of a SWAT team -- gathered on the lot to develop a plan. After a short time, the tactical officers climbed into an armored personnel with a long pole, or "boom," and an orange box attached to it. Inside was a phone that was dropped in front of the gunman.

Police negotiations

A female negotiator spoke to him over the phone, urging him to drop the gun and assuring him no one wanted to hurt him. "You look like you're cold and you're tired," she said. "You're doing so well."

The man kept shaking his head and sat slumped in the chair. At one point, he said he wanted a cigarette and reached into his jacket.

"OK, why don't you put the gun down," she said a moment before he lighted a cigarette and exhaled smoke. "No one's going to hurt you. Are you getting tired? Are you getting cold? No one wants to take a shot."

Library patrons who were spread out on three floors -- some looking out the doors and windows -- were unsure what was happening.

Camille Miller, 38, of Wilde Lake village said she saw the man and two officers with guns as her husband dropped her off at the front door.

"They had their revolvers drawn and they were negotiating with him, so I thought they had the situation under control and I went in," she said.

Miller and her husband, J. P., described the man as "just sitting there."

"The two officers had their guns drawn, but he wasn't brandishing a firearm or anything," J. P. Miller said.

Camille Miller and other library patrons said everyone was calm in the library and watched as tactical police officers, carrying shotguns and dressed in camouflage clothing, prowled outside.

"There was no panic," said Kimberly John, 26, of Kings Contrivance. "It wasn't until I walked downstairs and I saw the SWAT team in the camouflage and pieces of trees stuck to a sheet that I knew something was going on. I looked outside and saw the man in the wheelchair just sitting there."

"We were all looking out the windows," said Mary Karr of Columbia, who was at the library to tutor adults in the Project Literacy program. "You could see the man in the wheelchair, and you could see the police cars. "At one point, they told us to get away from the windows. So we got down, and one student wrote a story about the incident, a story of what was going on."

Tanasha Reid, 25, of Laurel was at the library for the first time to get a card and check out videos.

"He just came around and rolled over to the information desk," she said. "I guess he had a piece of paper in his hand."

Reid said the man was upset, but he wasn't yelling.

As they waited for the standoff to end, Reid said, people trapped inside the library were wondering whether police were going to shoot the man.

As officers negotiated with the man, a white bus waited outside the library. Officers herded library patrons out a side door to the waiting bus. The bus made three trips to Wilde Lake High School, where anxious parents and friends were waiting.

Steven Feldstein, 46, rushed to Wilde Lake to pick up his daughter, Andrea, and her friend, Courtney Vaughan, both 17-year-old seniors at Hammond High School in Columbia.

"I heard about this on the news, and I came right over here," said Feldstein. "I didn't know what was happening."

"We weren't really that nervous," said Courtney. "It was pretty calm in there."

The spacious high school cafeteria served as a station for those who had been evacuated. Refreshments were waiting for library patrons and employees, who signed in with county officers as they got off the bus in front of the school.

When asked, many were vague about what had taken place on the library parking lot.

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