By Tom Jackman, Jennifer Buske and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
A disgruntled 20-year-old student walked into a classroom at the Northern Virginia Community College campus in Woodbridge on Tuesday afternoon and fired at least two shots from a high-powered rifle at his math teacher, authorities said.
The teacher saw the gun, yelled for her 25 students to duck and then hit the floor.
"We heard a boom," one of the students said later. "I thought to myself, did a computer explode?"
The student's shots missed. He put the gun down, sat on a chair in a fourth-floor hallway and calmly waited for police.
Jason M. Hamilton of Baneberry Circle in the Manassas area was charged with attempted murder and discharging a firearm in school zone. He was being held without bail, and police officers said they wanted to question him about a motive. Officers were at his home late Tuesday, talking to his family, and did not allow reporters to approach.
The incident began about 2:40 p.m. in the college's main administration building off Neabsco Mills Road. Campus police officer Anthony Mellis said he had stopped a car on a traffic violation when he heard what he thought was a gunshot inside the building. He said he saw students running from the building as he headed toward it and then heard a second shot. He radioed for Prince William County police, who arrived in seconds.
Mellis and Prince William SWAT officers entered the building moments later, he said, and saw a man sitting in the hallway. Police asked the man to get up and walk toward them. He complied without resisting. They asked him whether he was the gunman, Mellis said, and the man said he was. He was asked to lead police to the rifle, which he did.
There were no injuries. Police did not release the name of the math teacher.
Alyssa Brown, an 18-year-old freshman who was in the class, described how the sound of the first shot set off a series of swift and dramatic events. The student turned to see an armed man standing just inside the classroom door.
"He was holding a big gun," she said. As he stood no more than five or six feet from her, she said, the man silently cocked the gun.
"I thought it was a joke," Brown said. "He didn't talk or say anything."
When the man cocked the gun a second time, she said, the teacher ducked behind her desk and shouted for the students to get out of the classroom. To run.
She said the man with the gun appeared to ignore the students in the room.
"He was all focused on" the teacher, Brown said. "You could tell his intent was to go after the teacher."
The student followed her classmates.
"My body just took over," she said, "and I just ran" down four flights of stairs.
Police and campus officials employed procedures that have been widely disseminated since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech in which Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself.
Northern Virginia Community College campus officials notified the school's 8,500 students and staff members via text messages, the Internet and phone calls and locked down the campus, meaning that no one was allowed to leave buildings, said Sam Hill, the school's provost.
Police treated the incident as an "active shooter" scene and entered immediately, said Sgt. Kim Chinn, a Prince William police spokeswoman.
"I can't say enough good things about the way this was handled," Hill said.
Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said, "It had the potential for something much worse."
"At the end of the day, when I go home, if everyone is safe, I know I did a good job, and that's what happened today," Mellis said.
Some students were in their classrooms more than two hours after the shooting, as police went from room to room to make sure there was not a second gunman.
A student in the building where the shooting took place, Michelle Wittkoff, 43, said she was in a third-floor classroom and heard no shots. A student from another class walked in and told her class that there had been a shooting. Wittkoff said she looked outside and saw police with guns drawn.
The students began to file out, but a school official told them to stay in the room.
While the students were briefly in the hallway, Wittkoff said, she saw a young man in handcuffs being led downstairs by police. He wore a dark blue hooded sweat shirt and bluejeans. "He didn't look too happy," she said, but he was not speaking.
An hour after the shooting, an announcement came over the intercom that students should remain in their classrooms.
Another student, Kasey Collins, 21, said she was on the building's bottom floor when the shooting happened but heard no gunfire.
"Somebody ran into our room and said, 'Somebody has been shot. Get out of the building,' " Collins said. "At first, I thought they were lying, but when I went outside and saw police, I knew it was for real." Some walked and others ran from the building, she said.
. "You think it's just going to be another day at NOVA, then you hear there's been a shooting," Collins said. "It really makes you stop and think."
Mike Auszar, 22, was also in the building. "The moment I heard shots were fired, I ran out," he said and fled to nearby Freedom High School with some classmates. At 5 p.m., they were still waiting to go back for their belongings.
Auszar said that he thought campus police handled the situation well but that it was chaotic outside the building while people called friends and family. Police sources said the rifle had been bought at a local gun store in the past few days. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was helping to trace it.
The Hamilton home is in the White Oak Estates subdivision, a quiet residential neighborhood. The family lives in a three-story brick house that had a light dusting of snow on the roof and Christmas lights in the front yard. A man who answered the phone declined to comment.
Public records indicate that the Hamiltons are or have been a military family, but that could not be verified Tuesday night.
Jason Hamilton graduated this year from Hylton High School in Woodbridge, where he ran cross country. A Hylton faculty member said he seemed like "a good kid." Neighbors said he has two younger siblings.
Neighbors expressed surprise at the arrest. "They're a really nice family," one neighbor said. "I never would have expected this."
Staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty, Jonathan Mummolo and Martin Weil contributed to this report.