A threat or a joke?: Affidavit details remarks that lead to SAU lockdown

A threat or a joke?: Affidavit details remarks that lead to SAU lockdown

January 30th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

POLL: Did SAU over-react to what sounded like a threat?

"I'm sorry ... I'm just kidding."

Those were the last words that former Southern Adventist University student James Gaines said the morning of Jan. 23 to Chattanooga State Community College's Director of Enrollment Services Kisha Caldwell, after he told her he might have to "strap a bomb on me" and "put a gun to their head" to get the transcript he needed from Southern.

That's according to a court affidavit made available this week.

Gaines' comments led to a two-hour lockdown just after noon that day at the nearly 3,000-student private school in Collegedale. Emergency responders and police -- including some in SWAT-style gear armed with assault rifles -- scoured the campus for Gaines, who now faces a possible felony charge with a minimum three-year prison term for making false reports. The 25-year-old will have his first court appearance Feb. 6 in Hamilton County General Sessions Court.

Gaines hired Chattanooga criminal defense attorney Lee Davis, who said his client was frustrated when he made a stupid joke that he immediately apologized for.

"In this time of school shootings it is understandable that all statements must be reviewed carefully," Davis wrote in an email. "But still there needs to be a difference [between] an off-handed joke comment and a threat."

"The simple truth is that Jimmy was signing up for classes at Chatt State and was frustrated that Southern Adventist University has not released his transcript despite his having paid his bill," Davis wrote.

The affidavit states that Caldwell sent an email to Chattanooga State police in which she described Gaines as an "antsy" student who wanted to know what he needed to do to finish his enrollment.

Hamilton County officers suit up on the Southern Adventist University campus during a lockdown. A male suspect has been detained at Collegedale Police Department whose "credible threat" against Southern Adventist University prompted a two-hour lockdown at the university.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

"He said he had been to Southern Adventist earlier to pick up his transcript but they were waiting on a check to clear," the affidavit reads. "He said I have done all I can think to do except put a gun to their head. I looked and said you can't say things like that. He said, I know, I know, you can't say things like that nowadays."

Caldwell spoke some more with Gaines, and said she'd need to see his 2012 tax return, and that it would take about five days for his financial aid to arrive.

"I guess I will go back to Southern and try to pick up my transcript and strap a bomb on me," Caldwell's email stated. "I said what did I tell you about talking like that. He said, 'I know, I'm sorry ... I'm just kidding.'"

Gaines never went to Southern after making his comments. Instead, he got some food at a Taco Bell and then went to his job as a personal trainer at the YMCA on Shallowford Road, his attorney said. Gaines was "shocked" when police swarmed there to arrest him, Davis said. Gaines, who has no previous arrests and had no weapons, spent the night in the Hamilton County Jail, Davis said.

Gaines still hopes to attend Chattanooga State, Davis said.

Lt. James Fraker in the Southern Adventist University Campus safety department, who ordered the first-ever full-campus lockdown, declined to comment about Gaines' case, since it's pending.

Fraker said the campus safety department has gotten feedback about the lockdown, including about 50 emails, and is reviewing the comments to see what changes might be made to the procedure.

"Any organization that doesn't welcome information isn't a good organization," Fraker said. "I'm happy to work for Southern that welcomes feedback."

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