By Mary Pat Flaherty and Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Anger over a poor grade drove Jason M. Hamilton to target his college math teacher with a hunting rifle -- and only a gun jam prevented him from getting off extra shots in a full classroom, Prince William County police said Wednesday.
His weapon malfunctioning and rendered useless, Hamilton, 20, leaned it against the door frame of the classroom Tuesday and took a seat in the hall to wait for police, officers said.
Hamilton gave officers a statement when they arrived at Northern Virginia Community College's Woodbridge campus, according to court documents. He said "basically, 'I'm the guy you want,' " said Maj. Ray Colgan, assistant police chief for criminal investigations.
Hamilton, of Manassas, was charged with attempted murder and discharging a firearm in a school zone.
During the attack, the teacher shouted "run" to her students before ducking under her desk. Hamilton got off two shots that missed before the gun jammed, police said. No one was injured.
After being absent from the class for several weeks, Hamilton returned with a fury Tuesday, police and eyewitnesses said. A long, black canvas bag at his side, he stood outside the classroom door in the main administration building as other students filed in.
Jessica Gilbert, 18, said she asked him what he was doing. " 'I'm waiting for her,' " Gilbert recalled him saying, an apparent reference to the teacher. Hamilton had otherwise been nondescript, several classmates said.
"Not somebody you pay attention to," said 18-year-old Alyssa Brown.
"Just another face in the class," said Amanda Guevara, also 18.
On Monday, police said, Hamilton bought a Marlin rifle at a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Woodbridge. Early Tuesday, police said, he bought ammunition at the same store. By 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, he was heading into the back of Room 412, where his teacher had just told everyone to boot up their computers, students said.
He pointed the .30-06 rifle with a 26-inch barrel at the professor and fired, police said.
"We look back, and we see him in the doorway, like, reloading his gun," Gilbert said. "He just seemed, like, determined, and he had, like, a really nasty smirk on his face."
The gunman walked forward silently as the teacher yelled for everyone to run and call 911, witnesses said. About five feet from his teacher, he fired another shot, Gilbert said.
The teacher declined to comment. The Washington Post generally does not name crime victims.
"I just ran. I never once looked back. I didn't stop. I just ran," Gilbert said.
"He didn't say anything at all the entire time," Guevara said. "I just knew I had to get out of there."
Next door, students in a public speaking class heard the gunshots. Tyler Miller, 21, said he immediately moved to barricade the door with a filing cabinet.
"I was just in protective mode. I wanted to make sure nothing happened to anyone," he said.
Moments later, the doorknob turned, and someone banged on it, other witnesses said. No one saw who it was.
"You could see someone try to push to get in," said Christal Edwards, the public speaking teacher. "We don't know if he was trying to get in to harm us or trying to get in to hide."
Hamilton apparently was having trouble in the math class, police said. It is designed to hone basic skills and does not affect a grade average, said Colgan, who has been an adjunct professor at the campus.
"A lot of people are having a problem in that class. It's just, like, the class," Gilbert said.
Investigators searched the Hamiltons' four-bedroom home on Baneberry Circle and the car that Hamilton drove to campus, Colgan said. Officers were reviewing computer files, Colgan said, but had not found any indication that Hamilton had threatened the teacher earlier or shared his plans.
Sam Hill, provost of the Woodbridge campus, said officials had not had disciplinary problems with Hamilton.
Hamilton, who is listed in court records as 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds, graduated this year from Hylton High School in Woodbridge, where he ran track, three of his Hylton classmates said. He was "a pretty good student" and "very quiet" but otherwise unremarkable, said Gregory Alvarez, 21, at student at the community college.
Hamilton's track coach, Michael Thornton, said that Hamilton specialized in the two-mile and "was always respectful. A nice kid, very quiet." Hamilton sat out one track season, Thornton said, to "focus on some issues in his classwork," but he never lost sports eligibility. "When I heard he was accused in this, I couldn't believe it," Thornton said.
Colgan credited the college and police for being prepared for a shooting. After the attack, a campus officer alerted the county, and 911 calls went out from phones that had been installed in classrooms. Text alerts were sent to students and staff members, and flashing messages saying that the campus was on lockdown appeared in red on computers and TV screens on campus.
"If the gun hadn't jammed, we could have been looking at something much worse," Colgan said. "But preparedness would have helped then, too. If you can say something good came out of Virginia Tech," where a student killed 32 students and himself in 2007, "preparedness was it."
Staff writers Tom Jackman, Jonathan Mummolo, Josh White and Clarence Williams and staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Meg Smith contributed to this report.