published Friday, January 24th, 2014

Southern Adventist University locked down over reported threat (with video)

  • photo
    Hamilton County officers suit up on the Southern Adventist University campus Thursday during a lockdown. A male suspect has been detained at Collegedale Police Department whose "credible threat" against Southern Adventist University personnel prompted a two-hour lockdown at the university.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Rick Griggs did some serious praying Thursday afternoon.

The sophomore theology student at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale found himself face down and handcuffed on the floor outside his fourth-floor room in Talge Hall, a men's dormitory on the campus of the small, private Seventh-day Adventist school.

Officers in SWAT-style gear had assault weapons pointed at Griggs. They were shouting at him, saying he shouldn't turn his head to look at them.

"Literal quote: 'If you so much as fart, we will shoot you,'" Griggs said.

It was a case of mistaken identity.

Police were searching for a man identified as former Southern student James Gaines, whose alleged threats prompted the school to lock down its campus for two hours Thursday. Police later said Gaines never set foot on campus.

Gaines was at Chattanooga State Community College when he reportedly made threats just after noon to use firearms and explosives on the university's campus, because he was upset about a delay in paperwork he wanted from the school, Collegedale police said.

Officers later found Gaines off campus, and detained him.

Just after noon, Campus Safety department Lt. Josh Fraker ordered the first-ever, campuswide lockdown at the nearly 3,000-student school after hearing that Gaines had made the threats and was on his way to the university. Other Seventh-day Adventist schools nearby also were placed on "precautionary" lockdowns, meaning no one was allowed in the schools.

Students and staff got texts, emails and voicemails alerting them of the lockdown. They were advised to stay in their dorm rooms or offices and stay away from windows. Electronic locks were activated on lecture halls to prevent entry. About 1,100 students were locked inside in the main cafeteria, said senior Jesse Congo, while police guarded the doors.

"I was about to leave and they told me I couldn't leave," said Congo. "If there was a threat, lockdown was a good idea."

Students on campus quickly took to Twitter to report what they were seeing and hearing during the two-hour lockdown. Many other people off campus used social media to offer prayers and support for those on campus.

While police searched for Gaines, they got reports of shots being fired inside Talge Hall, Collegedale police said. They also got 911 calls from students there who believed Gaines was inside the dorm.

That's why Collegedale's Special Operations Response Team, which was on campus within minutes, searched Talge Hall, Collegedale Police Department public information officer David Myrick said.

"As a department, we feel very good about our response today," Myrick said.

Police said officers searched Talge Hall and found no evidence of shots fired.

Southern Adventist administrators emphasized that campus safety is a top priority and the school "responds appropriately to perceived threats."

The school held a joint worship for students at the church sanctuary Thursday night.

Griggs said that he and his roommate Theodor Roman, a nursing student, were complying with the lockdown. They lay on the floor of their fourth-floor dorm room and Griggs even pulled a mattress off the bottom bunk bed as a makeshift shield when they heard police in the dorm next door. They apprehended a student whom Griggs said was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and stuck his head out of the window.

Then the Special Operations Response Team burst into Griggs' room. Police apparently had a master key to the electronic key card lock, Griggs said, because they didn't break down the door.

Officers cuffed the roommates face down in the hallway, searched them for weapons, ransacked their room and then left without any apology, he said.

"I would love an apology," Griggs said, though he added, "I'm fine with being thrown around as long as everybody is safe."

Roman said he was answering phone calls afterward with, "This is Theodor. I've just been arrested by SWAT."

The Collegedale police spokesman was unapologetic about the Special Operations Response Team, saying its members believed a gunman was inside the building firing shots.

"They don't know if this is the active shooter," Myrick said.

Gaines was in custody Thursday evening with charges pending, though no specific charges had been filed, Collegedale police said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township┬╣s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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