BRIDGEWATER, VA. — Two Bridgewater College campus officers, checking out a report of a “suspicious man” near a classroom building, were suddenly shot and killed here Tuesday afternoon, authorities said. A suspect was taken into custody a short time later, not far from the campus, and charged with two counts of capital murder.
The college, located near Harrisonburg, identified the victims as campus police officer John Painter, 55, and campus safety officer J.J. Jefferson, 48. A message sent to the Bridgewater community said that the two officers were close friends and that Painter was the best man at Jefferson’s recent wedding.
“This is a sad and dark day for Bridgewater College,” college president David W. Bushman said in the message. “I know we all have so many questions and not many answers. One thing I do know, though, is that we will rally around one another and support each other as we move forward from this day.”
Authorities identified the suspect as Alexander Wyatt Campbell, 27, of Ashland, Va. In addition to the two counts of capital murder, he was also charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of use of a firearm in a felony. Campbell was hospitalized briefly for treatment of a non-life-threatening gunshot wound, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said, and then taken to the Rockingham County jail, where he was held without bond.
No students appear to have been injured. Several told The Washington Post they heard multiple shots from the area of Flory Hall, a classroom building on campus. Students and staff members were ordered to shelter in place for more than three hours before being released.
Willie B. Jefferson, the mother of the slain campus safety officer, said J.J. Jefferson was a hard worker who loved his wife and family.
“I loved my son, and he loved us,” she said. “He went beyond to help people.” He had just celebrated his 48th birthday Saturday, Willie B. Jefferson said. She said that was all she could say right now.
Jessica Painter, the wife of officer John Painter, declined to comment Tuesday evening. Painter was a former police chief of Grottoes, Va., a small town southeast of Harrisonburg, where he served for 18 years.
“Chief Painter leaves a legacy of true diligence, heart, honor and leadership within our community,” Grottoes Mayor Jo Plaster said in a statement. “Chief Painter was gentle, a kind spirit and it has been a true privilege knowing him and having him serve Our Town.”
The National Fraternal Order of Police said 30 officers were shot in the first month of this year, five of whom died. There were 62 police officers shot to death last year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Geller said in a news conference Tuesday night that the two officers were responding to a call at 1:20 p.m. about a suspicious man on the grounds of Memorial Hall. “After a brief interaction with the man, the subject opened fire and shot both officers,” Geller said. She did not know if the officers were able to defend themselves, or whether Campbell’s gunshot wound was from Painter’s gun or self-inflicted. Jefferson, as a safety officer, was not armed.
The officers died at the scene, Geller said. There are six sworn officers and four safety officers on the campus, campus police chief Milton S. Franklin Jr. said.
Geller said Campbell fled on foot, was spotted near the North River, and that he waded through the shallow water to an island, where officers found and captured him without incident. In retracing Campbell’s steps, Geller said police found other guns connected to him, but she declined to say how many or what type. She declined to say what connection Campbell might have to the college.
Campbell has a short criminal record in Virginia, with one felony arrest in July 2017 for burglary and grand larceny. The burglary charge was reduced to misdemeanor trespassing, the larceny charge was dismissed and he was sentenced to 20 days in jail, state court records show.
Bridgewater College is a liberal arts school of about 1,460 students located about 140 miles southwest of Washington and just west of Interstate 81. Founded in 1880, it was the first coed four-year university in Virginia.
A number of students recounted the horror of the day. Kai Bowman, 21, was returning to his dorm from a campus lunch spot when he and his friends heard shots fired, sending everyone scattering.
“That’s when my heart stopped,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to run or hide.” He ran to the nearest building, where a group of frightened students were already huddled. Bowman phoned his roommate, learning that he was locked down inside the library. Other friends called or texted, asking if anyone had seen the shooter.
The college first tweeted out a notice of a reported active shooter at 1:24 p.m. and told everyone to shelter in place. “This is not a test,” the college said. Officials periodically tweeted more messages with updates, while instructing people to remain where they were. The “all clear” message didn’t come until 4:30 p.m. Bowman said it took him another hour to feel safe enough to walk outside. “I’m still waiting to see who this was,” he said. “And why here? Why now? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Kasey Truslow, a 21-year-old senior from Lyndhurst, Va., said she was sitting two desks away from her classroom window on the second floor of Flory Hall when “I heard a gun shot outside the window.” She said the 19 students and one professor acted quickly.
“After the second shot, we got on the floor. We remained on the floor for an hour. My teacher barricaded the door with a big desk with computer monitors on it. We stayed there. There was a secondary door that the students blocked,” she said.
Tyler Tabor, a senior at Bridgewater, said he was taking an exam for his debate and argument class in Memorial Hall when he heard seven shots in quick succession. They came from outside the building between Memorial Hall and Flory Hall, he said. “I ran,” Tabor said. “The whole class ran.”
Tabor said he and other students took shelter in a bathroom. “We have to combat this type of thing, especially on a campus like this,” he said. “We advertise that we’re the safest in the country, but obviously today it did not feel like it.”
Dalton Tusing, 19, a freshman at Bridgewater, said he was walking to Flory Hall to finish up an art project when he heard “a lot of gunshots” and ran back to his dorm, where he sheltered in place as police streamed into the campus.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said in a statement he had ordered flags lowered to half-staff and that his “heart is broken tonight by the tragic loss of two officers at Bridgewater College.”
Bushman said in his message to the college community that Painter and Jefferson were “known to many of us as the ‘dynamic duo.’ … They were beloved by students, faculty and staff. I hurt for their families and loved ones, as I know we all do.”
Laura Vozzella, Matt Zapotosky, Alisa Tang, Karina Elwood, Nick Anderson, Alice Crites and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.