A 23-year-old U.S. Army soldier in training stationed at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, is in police custody after leaving the base with a rifle and hijacking a school bus full of children.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott discussed the incident on Wednesday via Facebook live. “One of the scariest calls we can get in law enforcement [from] a school district, [is] that a school bus has been hijacked with kids on it, with someone with a gun,” Lott said. “That’s what we had this morning.”
He explained that at around 7 a.m., the Fort Jackson trainee dressed in physical training clothes and armed with a rifle left his post without permission. The individual, who’s been a trainee for the past three weeks but was not identified at this writing, attempted to flag down cars on the interstate to hitch a ride.
The trainee reportedly ended up at a school bus stop, where he saw children boarding the bus destined for Forest Lake Elementary. When all children boarded, the trainee also boarded the bus with a rifle in hand.
The trainee reportedly told the school bus driver he didn’t want to hurt him and only wanted a ride to the next town. The bus driver started driving, while the trainee brought the 18 students on board to the front of the bus.
The children reportedly kept asking the suspect if he was going to hurt them or the school bus driver. Lott said the trainee became frustrated and told the driver to turn into a church parking lot, where the students and bus driver exited. The suspect continued driving down the road for around two miles, before abandoning the bus and leaving the rifle inside.
Fort Jackson Commander Milford Beagle Jr., confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the weapon was not loaded, as no ammunition is provided to trainees three weeks in.
The suspect then reportedly walked through neighborhoods looking for rides and different clothing, until a deputy spotted him. The trainee was arrested without incident, Lott said. The suspect is currently in jail and will be charged with multiple counts of kidnapping as well as any other charges prosecutors determine are relevant.
Beagle said the Army could also charge the suspect with going absent without leave and theft of a weapon.
Beagle also addressed the community following the incident. He added that that trainee jumped the fence line, which was unmonitored at the time but was lined with barbed wire, with his issued weapon, and made his way into the community. Beagle added he believes the individual was homesick and attempting to get back to New Jersey, adding that there is nothing that makes him believe the suspect was trying to harm himself or others.
“Three weeks in we do experience several soldiers that over the course of their initial stages — that have the desire, the anxiety, due to the separation from their families to get home,” Beagle said. “And we think that was truly his intent and nothing beyond that.”
He added that the trainee left during personal hygiene time and before breakfast. Beagle explained the suspect likely took his unloaded rifle with him because leaving it behind at the base is a red flag that a trainee is missing. By taking the weapon with him, Beagle said the trainee bought himself more time to escape.
Beagle noted that this was a failure in the Fort Jackson accountability process and protocols will be changed going forward to ensure an incident of this nature doesn’t occur again. He added that the 52,000-square-foot base may also need perimeter monitoring.
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James Manning, chair of the Richmond School District Two Board, said during the press conference Wednesday morning, “On behalf of the Richland Two School Board, we are so thankful that our students and bus driver are safe. We appreciate the fast response and the cooperation we received from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Columbia Police Department. Our school district practices for emergencies and today that practice proved to be immensely beneficial.”
Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis added that the driver’s calm response exemplified the training he received from the Safe Pupil Training Course required for all district school bus drivers.
Lott added that his deputies and district staff were prepared for such an incident, as law enforcement agencies have practiced breaching a school bus with an armed hijacker on board and school district personnel trained on notifying parents about an emergency. “Training does pay off, and that’s why we do it,” Lott said.
Davis added that once all students were accounted for and physically safe, the district immediately deployed social and emotional counseling resources to the school. “We will continue to provide counseling services for the students and their families, our bus driver, and employees as long as necessary,” he added. “We will also cooperate fully with law enforcement as they investigate this incident fully.”