A man who allegedly threatened to turn a gun on himself Wednesday prompted a lockdown at West Virginia Northern Community College and put other downtown businesses on high alert - including officials at WesBanco Arena where nearly 2,000 school children gathered to watch a hockey game.
Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said the department dedicated much of its resources to the case, but officers had not located that man as of late Thursday, and were no longer actively searching for him. He said only one person told police that they may have spotted the man walking north on Chapline Street, but that witness did not see him carrying a gun.
According to Schwertfeger, a woman at Northwood Health Systems received a call Wednesday morning from a male acquaintance who threatened to "harm himself" with a gun. The police chief did not comment on the nature of the woman's visit or the specifics of her relationship to the man.
The call was initially believed to be placed from Ohio Valley Medical Center, which shares building space with Northwood. Staff subsequently notified two police officers who were on the scene due to an unrelated matter. From there, much misinformation began to spread and induce panic over thoughts of a man armed with a gun walking the streets, Schwertfeger said. At one point, the man was incorrectly reported to be inside the City-County building on Chapline Street.
Around 2,800 people, including 1,800 children from schools around the Ohio Valley, attended the Wednesday Wheeling Nailers hockey game, which started at 11 a.m. at WesBanco Arena. General Manager Dennis Magruder said the building was not placed on lockdown, but all doors other than those at the front entrance were locked. A police officer was also posted outside of the building while another patrolled the interior.
Magruder said word spread quickly via social media and other digital communication, and arena staff received multiple calls from concerned parents checking for the latest information. Staff kept abreast of the situation through the city manager and mayor's offices, Magruder noted.
WVNCC initiated lockdown procedures around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday after law enforcement advised that a gunman may possibly have been in the area. Only school administrators occupied the campus, and the lockdown was lifted around 12:50 p.m. The school also employs an on-campus police officer through the Wheeling police department.
OVMC Spokeswoman Laurie Labishak refuted the report that stated the man placed the call from the hospital. While the hospital was not placed on lockdown, managers were monitoring the situation closely, she said. She also acknowledged the sense of anxiety surrounding the incident in light of the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 26 people Friday.
"I just think that everyone's on heightened alert since last week's events, and we definitely want to be cautious and diligent to protect patients and staff," Labishak commented.
Ohio County Schools did not initiate lockdown procedures either, but spokesman Gabe Wells said Ohio County sheriff's deputies and Wheeling police officers serving as resource officers in five of the school buildings were notified of the report. Wells also noted that doors to all of the school buildings remain locked.
The latest report on Wednesday placed the man across the Ohio River in Bridgeport. A dispatcher with the Bridgeport Police Department said officers had not made contact with the man.
Schwertfeger said the man used a cellphone to continue communicating with his female acquaintance on Wednesday, but he declined to speak with police. While police are not actively searching for him, they still want to contact the man.
"We're not talking about criminal conduct," Schwertfeger related. "This is a situation where we're concerned about his welfare. He's still communicating with the female acquaintance."