By Fredrick Kunkle, Josh White and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 11:55 AM
APPOMATTOX, VA. -- The sounds of gunfire from Christopher B. Speight's property here came as nothing unusual to his neighbors, who said the avid hunter regularly fired off rounds while shooting rabbit and deer or taking target practice behind his wooded country home.
But on Tuesday morning, something very different and still-unexplained was happening along hilly Snapps Mill Road. Shots were fired again. But as a neighbor drove her Jeep by Speight's home, she noticed someone lying in the middle of the road.
"I figured the person might be drunk because we always hear partying over there," said Tammy Lee Randolph, 29, who lives on a farm adjacent to Speight's. Randolph said she found a man lying face down on the pavement around noon, his grey hoodie covered in blood. She called 911, and after a sheriff's deputy arrived, they turned their attention to Speight's driveway, where several cars were parked. "I was like, oh my God, there's another body."
So began a nearly 20-hour manhunt for Speight, 39, who held police at bay with a rifle as he retreated to the woods around his home. By the time it all ended with Speight's surrender to a SWAT team early Wednesday morning, eight people had been found dead in and around Speight's home and a state police helicopter allegedly had been downed by his shots. Now police are trying to piece together the worst mass shooting in Virginia since the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 left 33 dead.
"We've never had a tragedy like this in Appomattox," said state Del. Watkins M. Abbitt Jr. (I-Appomattox), who traveled to the historic town from Richmond after learning of the shootings. "Typical of small towns, everybody suffers when something like this happens."
Speight surrendered to police about 7:10 a.m. Wednesday, as more than 100 federal, state and local police combed the area around his white-painted house looking for him. Corinne Geller, a state police spokeswoman, said Speight walked up to police officers wearing a bulletproof vest. He was unarmed, and police are searching the area for weapons, including the one used in Tuesday's shootings.
Speight is suspected of fatally shooting eight people, including at least one teenager, in and around his home. Four victims were found outside the house, three were inside, and one was in the road. But police said Speight has not yet been charged and is being interviewed about the incident. Speight could be charged with capital murder -- a count that carries the potential for the death penalty in Virginia -- if he is linked to more than one slaying.
Police said Speight, a co-owner of the property, "was acquainted" with all the victims but would not discuss the nature of those relationships. Neighbors said at least five people lived in the home. Authorities have not released the identities of the victims as they work to notify family members, but they said the victims included both males and females.
Geller said police were carefully going through the house Wednesday morning with a bomb squad, because they have reason to believe it could be rigged with explosives.
Police and neighbors said the incident began sometime before noon -- the first 911 call came in at 12:02 p.m. Tuesday. Randolph said the discovery of the person in the road -- a man wearing blue plaid shorts and a grey hoodie, still moaning and laboring to breathe -- was followed by the discovery of what appeared to be a teenager's body wearing blue jeans, brown boots and a blue sweatshirt in the driveway near a red Jetta. The man later died at a hospital.
As sirens approached from emergency vehicles coming to back up the first deputy, someone poked a gun out of his home's window and blasted seven shots, Randolph said. The deputy tucked his head to the microphone on his chest and yelled, "Shots being fired!"
"We took off running," Randolph said. "You could tell it was a high-powered rifle."
The shots were similar to what neighbors have heard on the property for some time, and some speculated that he had a shooting range set up behind the home.
Rebecca Rankin, 51, who lives behind Speight's property, said she often heard shooting near the house as well. "It might be every two weeks, it might be every weekend," Rankin said.
During the standoff, police said, Speight allegedly took numerous shots at a state police helicopter that had arrived to help with aerial surveillance. Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the state police superintendent, said the helicopter had been hit about six times and that an upright strut supporting the front skid was the only thing that stopped a bullet from hitting the pilot.
A bullet also hit a rotor and the fuel tank, causing the helicopter to leak fuel and forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in a nearby farm. Flaherty said the incident made the pilot think of the Vietnam War.
"If that skid support hadn't been there, [the bullet] would have gone right through the seat," said Flaherty, who examined the helicopter in an Appomattox field early Wednesday morning.
Appomattox is best known as the place where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War. The house where the shootings apparently took place is about 10 miles from the historic site, and about 200 miles from Washington.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell called the shooting rampage "a horrific tragedy."
"The governor's thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families," a statement from McDonnell's office said.
White and Wilgoren reported from Washington.