Investigation continues into Van Buren shots

Thursday, October 18, 2007
After a bullet broke a window at a Clay County elementary Thursday afternoon, officials in Putnam County were on the lookout for a black van and its suspected occupants. South Putnam schools were on alert due to the shooting, and police monitored the afternoon dismissal of students, but all other Putnam County school districts had taken the afternoon off for parent-teacher conferences. Clay County officials are continuing their investigation. For a report on the shooting, see Page 2A

Officials are looking for any information about individuals alleged to be involved in shooting at least one bullet into the Van Buren Elementary School’s cafeteria door Thursday afternoon.

Shortly before 12:48 p.m., a bullet pierced both glass door windows on the west side of the building and went into the ceiling of the cafeteria area.

No one was injured by the shot itself, but flying glass from the broken window struck a male custodian standing in the area. The custodian was taken to St. Vincent Clay Hospital for eye injuries.

“The staff did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Van Buren Principal Gail Williams said, adding how grateful she was no students were injured. “We have a terrific staff. It was remarkably calm, the kids did a great job.”

“Everything went real smooth,” School Safety Officer Lynn Stoelting said, adding that the staff implemented emergency protocol procedures and kept the children calm until they were picked up by their parents or released from school authorities to go home.

At 12:51 p.m., deputies arrived and quickly closed a one-mile section of Harmony Road (Clay County Road 200 East), north of the intersection at CR 1200 North, to protect the crime scene.

During an early press conference, when asked if this was a potential hunting accident or a stray bullet, Clay County Sheriff Mike Heaton said this was not being considered an accident. He explained that the bullet was a straight shot through the door windows into the building, which were more than five feet off the ground. Heaton said there is no known motive at this time.

Soon after hearing about the incident, a steady stream of distraught parents started arriving at the school to pick up their children. At the roadblock in front of the school, officials informed parents that no one was hurt and that they could pick up their children on the east side of the facility while Indiana State Police technicians investigated the crime scene.

While staff members and students at Van Buren kept calm, decisions had to be made about what to do with the other schools within Clay Community School Corporation.

With Superintendent Dan Schroeder out of town, Building and Grounds Director Tom Reberger followed protocol and ordered the other schools to lock down their facilities.

Officers of the Clay County Sheriff’s and Brazil City Police departments were dispatched to provide security at the facilities. The Clay City Police Department provided security at the elementary and junior/senior high school.

Parke County Sheriff’s Department and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources assisted at the scene while members of the Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department and Clay Community Corrections provided traffic control.

Only one shot was confirmed at this time to have struck the school, but Indiana State Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Joe Watts said investigators would be checking the entire west side of the facility for other shots.

During the investigation, several witnesses, including a cafeteria worker who was outside at the time of the incident, reported hearing four to five shots in the area.

“We’re not sure if the shot came from there, but it was the only vehicle in the area at the time,” Watts said.

But witnesses conflicted slightly on their descriptions of the van. One description was of a shiny black, late-model, full-size van, with no side windows, traveling north on Harmony Road, with two white males inside, while another said it was a dirty, older-model, black van with no side windows and some damage done to it.

“It is not uncommon for witness accounts to vary, but we have some common factors in this case,” Chief Deputy Rob Gambill said. “A black van and two white males are the common threads to all their statements. If anyone has information about the van, we need them to call the sheriff’s department or Indiana State Police.”

Officials confirm that law enforcement will be looking for the van and the suspects, which are considered, at this time, to be dangerous. Members of the Clay County Prosecutor’s Office were briefed about the investigation when they arrived on the scene.

“There is a wide range of possible charges that could be filed when the perpetrators are caught,” Prosecutor Lee Reberger said. “It all depends on the outcome of the investigation, but rest assured the prosecutor’s office will prosecute to the most aggressive extent possible.”

With foul weather predicted for Thursday evening, investigators began a race with time to secure any evidence at the scene. K-9 Handler/Deputy Josh Clarke and K-9 Officer Forrest searched the area for bullet casings while other officers searched the roadside.

A press release by the Clay Community School Corporation confirmed that school would be in session at all facilities Friday, with additional security in place. Counselors will be available for students and staff members at Van Buren Elementary.

To report information about the suspects or the vehicle, contact the Clay County Sheriff’s Department at (812) 446-2535 or the Indiana State Police at 1-800-742-0717.

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