Officers with Columbus Police Department and Lowndes County Sheriff's Office searched buildings on Fifth Street North on Friday, after reports of a suspicious person spotted in the area that fit the description given for a suspect in a shooting at Mississippi University for Women. Now, police believe the victim may have actually shot himself. Photo by: Zack Plair/Dispatch Staff
January 5, 2019 10:18:07 PM
Over the last six years, Greta Allen has spent most of her days working in downtown Columbus.
None have been quite like Friday.
Just after 1 p.m., Allen and her fellow cosmetologists at Blades Hair Design on Fifth Street North heard about a shooting on the Mississippi University for Women campus, followed by reports a suspect was on the loose. Moments later, an older man came in and advised they lock themselves and their customers inside until further notice.
Then city and Lowndes County law enforcement officers suddenly arrived en masse.
"I saw a bunch of cops stop and block the street," Allen recalled. "They had their guns drawn. It was kind of a shock. ... It was a little scary. But we just kept the doors locked and kept working."
For the next 20 minutes, officers clad in tactical gear swept several buildings on the east side of the street, focusing specifically on the Bella Derma day spa where the owner, Melissa Rushing, had reported a suspicious person, who fit the description given of the MUW shooter, might be on the vacant second floor.
Rushing had seen a man she didn't know -- a white man of below average height with brown hair and beard -- walk by Bella Derma. Then she heard someone go upstairs above the spa. She texted the loft owner, who confirmed no one was supposed to be up there, before calling 911.
"Then the whole SWAT team showed up," Rushing said. "The cops got there while I was still on the phone with 911."
The search was fruitless, as officers left empty handed. Now law enforcement believes the whole thing might have been something of a hoax, one that had officers from multiple agencies chasing a possibly fake suspect for more than three hours because the victim may have shot himself.
"The public was really our eyes and ears because they were calling in suspicious sightings and disseminating some information on social media," said CPD Chief Fred Shelton, who put out a statement late Friday evening indicating the nature of the investigation had changed to a possible self-inflicted wound. "We want them calling that stuff in, even if it turns out to be nothing.
"Things like this give us a chance to use our assets," he added. "... If there had actually been a suspect, the way both the public and law enforcement responded would have helped get the suspect in custody quickly."
A call reporting the shooting came in just before 1 p.m., and in less than 10 minutes MUW was observing lockdown procedures and law enforcement, led by the campus police department, had swarmed the scene.
University officials announced through the W Alert System on Twitter that the shooting occurred outside Whitfield Hall, a campus building just off the intersection between College and 11th streets. The victim, a former student at MUW, was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle as law enforcement officers from Columbus Police Department, Lowndes County Sheriff's Office and state and federal agencies arrived at the scene.
Students are off for the winter holidays and won't return until Jan. 15, meaning there were significantly fewer people on campus than usual. However, faculty, staff and others who work on the campus remained hunkered down in their offices for the 2-1/2 hours the lockdown remained in place as police conducted a building-by-building sweep looking for the suspect.
Teachers from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, which is located on campus, had taken carpools to lunch and spent two hours sitting about five to a vehicle while waiting for the lockdown to be lifted so they could get back to their own vehicles and go home. Another woman, who worked in a separate office near MUW Police Department and who did not want to be named in The Dispatch, spent the lockdown sitting in her own car parked just off campus, texting a co-worker locked in their office.
"I never thought in this little town it would happen right here on our campus," she told a Dispatch reporter at the scene.
Another woman, whose bank is located on campus, walked to campus, spoke briefly to police by the crime scene tape and then walked away shaking her head after learning there had been reports of a shooting.
"The devil's busy," she said as she left.
Situation was 'under control'
LCSO Capt. Archie Williams, who leads the narcotics task force and SWAT for the department, coordinated the command post on campus during Friday's lockdown.
That also involved chasing empty leads of suspect sightings -- including the Fifth Street call and another report he was seen running on 11th Street near campus.
As frustrating as it was to chase a possibly non-existent suspect while the public sat gripped in panic, Williams said the exercise wasn't entirely for nothing.
"As part of the Lowndes County Emergency Management team, we ran a drill on almost this exact scenario at MUW not too long ago," he said. "But there's no better training than a real-world situation, because you'll see right then and there what you need to work on. I have no complaints, really, on how everything fell together (Friday). It went pretty smoothly.
"In situations like this, you expect a little fear and chaos from the public, but with the response and management we had in place, we had everything under control," he added.
Coordination between multiple agencies -- which also included the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marshal's Service, among others -- was invaluable, Shelton said.
"We had all these agencies coming together and communicating," he said. "That was a big plus that will help us even more in the future."
'I just hope everyone is OK'
April Clayton, a sales clerk at Grassroots candle and gift shop on Fifth Street North, spent most of her afternoon trying to find out if her friends were safe.
"I have quite a few friends working on campus, and I was deeply concerned about them," said Clayton, a 2011 graduate of MUW. "I started a Facebook status asking all my friends to check-in, which they started doing. ... I never wanted to need something like that, but it was good to have it."
Then Clayton went to her downtown home to be with her family during the chaos, returning to work about 45 minutes after police had searched downtown.
"I know Columbus has a bad reputation, but I love Columbus," she said. "I just hope everyone is OK."
Rushing went home for the day after her harrowing experience, rescheduling the rest of her Friday afternoon appointments.
Until late evening when Shelton released a statement indicating the gunshot might have been self-inflicted, she still believed the suspect might be hiding above her business.
"There are 14 entry and exit points in that building, and so many unsecure places where someone could have been laying low," Rushing said. "It was scary."
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