By Fredrick Kunkle and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; B01
APPOMATTOX, VA. -- Eight people were fatally shot by a lone gunman Tuesday, according to Virginia State Police, in what a spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell called "a horrific tragedy."
Authorities said they had a "possible suspect" surrounded late Tuesday night in woods near where the shootings occurred. Early in the search, at least four shots apparently fired by the suspect disabled a State Police helicopter as it flew overhead.
The shootings were thought to be the deadliest such incident in the region since 33 people were killed at Virginia Tech in 2007.
"The governor's thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. He is closely monitoring the situation," the statement from McDonnell's office said.
In an interview Tuesday night, an Appomattox County official said that based on information from other county officials, he thought that the shootings centered on a domestic dispute.
Samuel E. Carter Jr., vice chairman of the Appomattox County Board of Supervisors, said he understood that a man had "shot and killed his wife and his son" during a dispute.
A male teenager was also apparently killed, Carter said. He said he did not know the teenager's connection to the family. Carter spoke before officials announced the number of deaths.
Carter said he was not aware of any history of trouble in the family.
He said he understood that those involved in the incident were "good citizens." He added that he did not know what caused the incident.
State Police identified the possible suspect as Christopher Speight, 39, of Appomattox County. No names were immediately available for the victims.
The fatalities were discovered after one of the eight victims was found on a rural road about noon by a sheriff's deputy who had been called to the scene, about 10 miles west of Appomattox Court House, the village where the Civil War ended.
The victim was taken to a hospital but died, authorities said.
After the discovery on Route 703, the deputy heard several shots and called for assistance, said Sgt. Tom Molnar, a spokesman for the state police.
Three other victims were found dead in a house near the scene. Four others were found dead outside the house, a State Police spokesman said.
It was not clear precisely where they were found.
State Police said the seven found dead at the scene included males and females.
But no further details were available about them or about any relation to the suspect.
In addition to the State Police, members of several other law enforcement agencies were reported to be among 100 or more officers lining the perimeter of the woods where the suspect was thought to be.
Witnesses said they thought the area cordoned off by police was a roughly triangular section, about one mile on a side.
"We have no reason to believe he is not in the perimeter," a State Police spokesman said.
One nearby resident said that law enforcement officers "told us to stay locked inside" and that some houses were evacuated.
"All I know is there was a shooting," a man said.
"I saw a lot of cops."
State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said a police helicopter sent to the scene early in the search for a suspect began to leak fuel after it was struck by gunfire.
The shots apparently hit a fuel line or fuel tank. The helicopter made an emergency landing in a field, Geller said.
Weil and staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty reported from Washington; staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report from Richmond.