A violent threat prompted the lockdowns of the Haywood County Health and Human Services building on Paragon Parkway near Clyde, as well as multiple schools, Thursday.
According to a press release sent out by the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, detectives investigated the threat after an individual called the district attorney’s office claiming to be in the area of the office and threatened harm.
“Several law enforcement agencies responded to the plaza, HHSA went into lockdown while law enforcement alerted businesses in the plaza of the threat,” the release reads. “Approximately one hour later, the scene was cleared.”
Based on communications that were heard over a radio scanner, the suspect was on the phone with the district attorney’s office until about 3:52 p.m.
Although law enforcement officers tried to gain an understanding of the suspect’s location while he was on the phone, they were unable to do so.
The suspect, who has not yet been named on the record and has not yet been charged, wasn’t found by law enforcement after an initial sweep of the surrounding area, but he was arrested not long after at about 5:10 p.m.
While DSS was placed on lockdown, a few local schools followed suit. Haywood County Schools Superintendent Bill Nolte said they made the decision to place Tuscola High School on lockdown before law enforcement ever contacted them, thanks to social media posts talking about the threat.
“We got the word that something was going on at DSS, so I called principal Trantham and asked him to do a soft lockdown for folks on campus,” Nolte said. “He told me he only had a few drivers ed students and basketball players.”
“Almost immediately thereafter, we got word from law enforcement that there was someone who had been very threatening,” he added. “The initial social buzz was it was an active shooter. We got word pretty quickly from law enforcement that it was an individual that they feared might be armed and was likely to be at DSS, and we told them what we had done.”
Eventually, the students at Tuscola were told simply to go home and avoid the area directly around the DSS building.
“I talked about literally asking those students to call their parents and say, ‘we’re OK but there’s something going at DSS. We’ve been advised to leave campus. We’re OK and here’s where we’re going,” Nolte said.
Nolte also decided to place Junaluska Elementary in a soft lockdown, but at that time, the only people at that school were a few staff members and some latch-key kids.
“All this was happening in the first five or 10 minutes,” he said. “ We also called Lori Fox, principal at Haywood Early College, and they dismissed a little earlier than the rest of us, so when I got to her, she said, ‘I’m the only one here and I’ll be leaving.’”
While trying to maintain a secure perimeter in the area of the DSS building and sweeping the surrounding area, some deputies had to leave the scene to answer another call in the area of Mustang Alley in Cruso when a man allegedly broke into the home of a woman he somehow knew, brandished a handgun and demanded he get some stuff he left there back. That man was also later arrested.
“They were trying to assure both events were separate and one wasn’t a distraction,” Nolte said, adding that although he didn’t know all the details of that call, law enforcement filled him on some things. “They had protocols for that, but they didn’t tell us what those were.”
While all this was going on outside the DSS building, inside the building, the atmosphere was tense. Ashley Stokely was inside with her two children, ages 4 and 10, renewing the benefits on her EBT card.
“I filled out the paper work, and I just sat down,” she said. “I saw the workers talking to the sheriff, who has a desk in there. Then I saw another Waynesville cop come in.”
Right then, DSS workers began scrambling to lock all the doors, and Stokely said the deputy at the security desk informed everyone in an intense fashion that there was some kind of threat.
“He was yelling at a man, and he said, ‘Sit down. No one’s going in or out. This is a lockdown,’” Stokely said.
From there, Stokely, her children and a few others were brought into a small room, but was still in the dark as to why.
“They wouldn’t tell nobody what was going on,” she said.
Not long after they got to the small room, Stokely and the others she was with were brought to a large filing room, where she said there were 40 to 50 other people waiting.
“They moved us to the very back,” she said. “The room was huge. The building’s huge. It used to be a Walmart.”
“I was afraid,” she added. “I was getting aggravated because everyone was just standing around laughing and talking. It was like a school cafeteria.”
Stokely said that although one woman who worked for DSS repeated her warning for people to quiet down, not all listened.
“Everyone would be quiet for a couple minutes and then they’d get worked up again,” she said.
Stokely said there were eight or nine kids total in the room and that some were becoming uneasy. She added that during the lockdown, which last an hour or so, things became tense, and although some didn’t seem nervous, she was scared, mainly because she wanted her children to know everything was OK.
“I was mainly just worried about my kids and I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “I went on Facebook and posted asking if knew anything. I felt like nobody took it serious, and that kind of aggravated me.”