BLACKSBURG, Va. — A gunman killed a police officer in a Virginia Tech parking lot Thursday and then apparently shot himself to death nearby in a baffling attack that shook up the campus nearly five years after it was the scene of the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
The shooting took place on the same day Virginia Tech officials were in Washington, fighting a government fine over their alleged mishandling of the 2007 shooting where 33 people were killed. Before it became clear that the gunman in Thursday's attack was dead, the school applied the lessons learned during the last tragedy. They locked down the campus and using a high-tech alert system to warn students and faculty members to stay indoors.
"In light of the turmoil and trauma and the tragedy suffered by this campus by guns, I can only say words don't describe our feelings and they're elusive at this point in time," university president Charles Steger said. "Our hearts are broken again for the family of our police officer."
The officer, identified as 39-year-old Deriek W. Crouse, was killed after pulling a driver over in a traffic stop. The gunman — who was not involved in the traffic stop — walked into the parking lot and ambushed the officer. Police did not know what the motive was and they didn't release the identity of the shooter. Crouse was an Army veteran and married father of five.
A law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the gunman was dead, but he wouldn't say how he died.
Many students were preparing for exams when they were suddenly told to hunker down. Heavily armed officers swarmed the campus as caravans of SWAT vehicles and other police cars with emergency lights flashing patrolled nearby.
"A lot of people, especially toward the beginning, were scared," said Jared Brumfield, a 19-year-old freshman from Culpeper, Va., who was locked in the Squires Student Center.
The university sent updates about every 30 minutes, regardless of whether they had any new information, school spokesman Mark Owczarski said.
During about a one-hour period on Thursday, the university issued four separate alerts.
Harry White, 20, a junior physics major, said he was in line for a sandwich at a restaurant in a campus building when he received the first text message alert.
White said he didn't panic, thinking instead about a false alarm about a possible gunman that locked down the campus in August. White used an indoor walkway to go to a computer lab in an adjacent building, where he checked news reports.
"I decided to just check to see how serious it was. I saw it's actually someone shooting someone, not something false, something that looks like a gun," White said.
The school was a bit quieter than usual because classes ended Wednesday. About 20,000 of the university's 30,000 students were on campus when the officer was shot. Exams, set to begin Friday, were postponed.
Since the 2007 massacre, the school expanded its emergency notification systems. Alerts now go out by electronic message boards in classrooms, by text messages and other methods. Other colleges and universities have put similar systems in place.
At MU, there are 54,074 people signed up for the university's alert system, which includes people from the UM System, MU Health Care and MU Extension, Terry Robb, spokesman for the MU Division of IT, said.
A recent example of when the alert system was used was at the end of January and beginning of February when a major snowstorm hit, Christian Basi, spokesman for MU, said. Those who signed up received a text message and an email.
To sign up for the alert system, visit mualert.missouri.edu, and click on the red box in the right corner that says, "Sign up for text alerts."
Universities are required under the Clery Act to provide warnings in a timely manner and to report the number of crimes on campus.
Andrew Goddard, who has crusaded for stiffer run control laws since his son Colin was wounded in the 2007 shootings, said Virginia Tech's response seemed substantially better this time.
"It sounds like things moved very, very fast this time as opposed to the time before," said Goddard, who has a daughter and nephew that go to the school. "That doesn't surprise me. Virginia Tech really did get the message in the sense that when bad things are happening, you have to ask quickly."
Although authorities wouldn't reveal specific details about the gunman, they released a timeline of events.
At about 12:15 p.m., Crouse called in the traffic stop. After a few minutes passed without hearing from Crouse, dispatch tried to get in touch with him but didn't get a response. About 15 minutes later, police received the first call from a witness who said an officer had been shot at the Cassell Coliseum parking lot and the gunman had fled on foot.
Local, state and federal officials responded immediately. At 1 p.m., an officer saw a suspicious man in a parking lot known as The Cage. The man had a gunshot wound and a gun was nearby.
Authorities said they responded to numerous other calls of suspicious activity but found no threats and lifted the campus lockdown about four hours after the initial alerts.
Asked if police were still looking for the shooter, state police Sgt. Robert Carpentieri said: "I think the investigators feel confident that we've located the person. I can't give you specifics and I don't want to confirm that, but you can kind of read between the lines so I won't specifically address that question."
Crouse had served four years on the campus police force, which has about 50 officers and 20 full- and part-time security guards. Crouse joined the campus police force about six months after the 2007 massacre, the school said. He previously worked at a jail and a sheriff's department. State police were still investigating whether Crouse had been specifically targeted.
The shooting came soon after the conclusion of a hearing where Virginia Tech was appealing a $55,000 fine by the U.S. Education Department in connection with the university's response to the 2007 rampage.
The department said the school violated the law by waiting more than two hours after two students were shot to death in their residence hall before sending an email warning. By then, student gunman Seung-Hui Cho was chaining the doors to a classroom building where he killed 30 more people and then himself.
The department said the email was too vague because it mentioned only a "shooting incident," not the deaths. During testimony Thursday, the university's police chief, Wendell Flinchum, said there were no immediate signs in the residence hall to indicate a threat to the campus. He said the shootings were believed to be an isolated domestic incident and that the shooter had fled.
An administrative judge ended the hearing by asking each side to submit a brief by the end of January. It is unclear when he will rule.
On Thursday night, about 150 students gathered silently for a candlelight vigil on a field facing the stone plaza memorial for the victims of the 2007 massacre. Although the official vigil was moved to Friday evening, many turned out anyway to show their support. One student came forward to invite everyone back a day later. He shouted, "Let's go!" The crowd responded, "Hokies!"
Police would not rule out a connection between the shootings and an armed robbery Wednesday in Radford, about 10 miles from Blacksburg. According to media reports, Radford police were looking for a man they considered armed and dangerous after an armed robbery at a local real estate office.
— Missourian reporter Alison Matas contributed to this report.