RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Tech police officer who was gunned down in a campus attack joined the force six months after the university was the scene of the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. He was a proud policeman who recently invited a friend to ride along with him, which made his death during a traffic stop even more puzzling.
Deriek W. Crouse, an Army veteran and married father of five, was killed Thursday after pulling a driver over in a school parking lot. Police said the gunman walked up, shot the officer and then fled on foot before he apparently killed himself nearby. The deceased suspect was not involved in the traffic stop.
Police said they don’t know what motivated the officer’s killing or whether there was any link between the shooter, who has not been identified, and Crouse.
“At this point, we haven’t been able to establish any kind of immediate connection between the officer and the shooter,” State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller told The Associated Press late Thursday. “That’s obviously something that’s being looked into.”
State police said in a news release early Friday that ballistics tests confirmed Crouse and the deceased suspect had been shot by the same handgun. The tests have “officially linked the two fatal shootings,” the release said.
Authorities also said a review of Crouse’s in-car video showed a male suspect with a handgun at the officer’s car at the time of the shooting.
The news release said clothing found inside a discarded backpack recovered by Blacksburg police seemed to match that of the male subject in the officer’s video. Police said they were awaiting confirmation of the deceased suspect’s identity as well as autopsy results from the medical examiner in Roanoke.
The events unfolded on the same day Virginia Tech officials were in Washington, fighting a federal government fine over their handling of the 2007 massacre where 33 people were killed. The shooting brought back painful memories. About 150 students gathered silently for a candlelight vigil on a field facing the stone plaza memorial for the 2007 victims. An official vigil is planned for Friday night.
Police said Crouse called in the traffic stop at 12:15 p.m. After a few minutes passed without hearing from the officer, 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.
Authorities refused to say whether Crouse was able to defend himself or fire back at his assailant.
Local, state and federal officials responded immediately. At 1 p.m., an officer saw a suspicious man in a parking lot. He had a gunshot wound and a gun nearby.
This time, though, the school applied the lessons learned during the last tragedy, locking down the campus and using a high-tech alert system to warn students and faculty members to stay indoors.
Heavily armed officers swarmed the campus and caravans of SWAT vehicles and other police cars with emergency lights flashing patrolled nearby.
Crouse was an Army veteran and married father of five children and stepchildren who joined the campus police force in October 2007. He previously worked at a jail and for the Montgomery County sheriff’s department.
He was a jokester who enjoyed riding his motorcycle and rock music, his friend Aaron Proden told the AP. The two recently saw Metallica in concert in Charlotte, N.C. Crouse recently invited Proden to go on a ride-along “just to see what he does, his job, his lifestyle,” the friend said.
“He was a standup guy,” said Rusty Zarger, a former neighbor whose two young daughters used to play with Crouse’s sons at the townhouse complex where they lived. “He was very mild-mannered, very confident. You could tell he was strong in believing in himself, but very comfortable.”
Zarger said that after the Fourth of July, Crouse had leftover fireworks and went around the complex knocking on doors to get neighbors — especially the children — to watch him set them off.
“He came over and got all the kids to come outside and watch it — made it a very community thing when he didn’t have to,” Zarger said.
A woman who answered the door at the Crouse home at the end of a three-unit townhouse building Thursday night said it wasn’t a good time to talk, and they were trying to get the children to bed. A group of people were sitting around a table inside.
Crouse was one of about 50 officers on the campus force, which also has 20 full- and part-time security guards. Crouse received an award in 2008 for his commitment to the department’s drunken driving efforts. He was trained as a crisis intervention officer and as a general, firearms and defensive tactics instructor.
“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 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 until Saturday.
The university also its counseling center would be open all day Friday for students.
“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.
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 text message alert.
White said he didn’t panic, thinking instead about a false alarm involving 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 shooting came soon after the conclusion of a hearing at which Virginia Tech appealed a $55,000 fine by the U.S. Department of Education 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 dorm before sending an email warning, and the message was too vague because it mentioned only a “shooting incident.” 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 school has since 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 in place similar systems.
Andrew Goddard, who has crusaded for stiffer gun 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, whose daughter and nephew 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.”
During about a one-hour period on Thursday, the university issued four separate alerts.
Derek O’Dell, a third-year veterinary student at Virginia Tech who was wounded in the 2007 shooting, was shaken.
“It just brings up a lot of bad feelings, bad memories,” said O’Dell, who was at his home a couple of miles from campus at the time of the shootings.
“At first I was just hoping it was a false alarm,” he said. “Then there were reports of two people dead, and the second person shot was in the parking lot where I usually park to go to school, so it was kind of surreal.”
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.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Kimberly Hefling and Ben Nuckols in Washington; Michael Felberbaum, Larry O’Dell, Steve Szkotak, Bob Lewis and Dena Potter in Richmond, Va.; and Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Va., contributed to this report.
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