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Manhunt fails to nab suspect

A Thursday incident involving a man who allegedly pulled a handgun on a driver remains under investigation, with no arrests made.

According to an Archuleta County Sheriff incident report, the victim, a 21-year-old female, stated that she was approached in the parking lot at Wolf Creek Ski Area by a man named Mike who claimed to work for the ski area, asking for a ride to town so he could attend his daughter’s birthday party. The victim told the man she was not comfortable giving him a ride because she did not know him.

The victim then went back up to the ski area to pick up a paycheck and asked if anyone knew Mike. She reported someone said they thought they knew a Mike. When the victim returned to the parking lot, the man was still there and she agreed to give him a ride.

The victim reported that when they left the ski area, the man became very quiet and she tried to make conversation — with the man telling her he was from Texas and that his daughter, Kate, was 8 years old.

Just before Fawn Gulch Road on U.S. 160, at about mile marker 149, according to Det. George Barter of the sheriff’s department, the man took a gun out of his jacket.

According to the incident report, the man held the small silver gun low, pointed at the victim’s side while giving her instructions.

The victim stated that she knew Fawn Gulch Road led into the woods, so she “floored the accelerator,” and noted that the man started screaming for her to stop the car and pull over, but that she repeatedly said “no.”

According to the victim, by the time the vehicle reached the junction with U.S. 84, the assailant was no longer pointing the gun at her, but was still telling her to pull over.

The victim finally pulled into the landfill parking lot at the front of Tequila’s Restaurant, at which time the man exited the vehicle and ran across the street toward Goodman’s Department store and up 4th Street.

The 911 call from the victim was received at 3:04 p.m. by Combined Dispatch and prompted an intensive search of the downtown area by the sheriff’s department, Pagosa Springs Police Department (with a tracking dog), the Colorado State Patrol and an investigator from the district attorney’s office.

The incident also caused the intermediate and junior high schools to immediately go on lockdown at the commands of Lisa Hudson and Chris Hinger, the schools’ respective principals.

Archuleta County School District Superintendent Mark DeVoti said a citizen called and reported hearing about the suspect on a police scanner. The call was received by Robyn Bennett at the district office shortly after 3 p.m. Bennett called Hudson and Hinger, who immediately locked down their schools, then Bennett pulled the superintendent out of a meeting, DeVoti reported.

Hinger noted that, normally, a call would come from dispatch alerting the school of the situation, but said the school officials didn’t want to wait the extra time, something DeVoti agreed with.

“We’d much rather go on lockdown while we figure out what’s going on rather than waiting,” DeVoti said.

The lockdown at the junior high was signaled by three bells, which teachers and students know means locked classroom doors and movement to a safe area within the classroom. After being in lockdown for a while, Hinger said the school went to a “softer” lockdown, allowing for students to be escorted to bathrooms.

Until the normal release time rolled around, students did not know if they were participating in a lockdown drill or a real lockdown. Hinger indicated that some information was given to students after they were released, with a fuller explanation given the following day.

The elementary and high schools had already released students for the day, and school busses were held at the high school until the lockdown was lifted.

At about 5 p.m., after law enforcement had searched and cleared the downtown area, DeVoti said enough law enforcement personnel was able to patrol Lewis Street to safely move children from the schools to the busses. Parents were then allowed into the school to pick up children not riding a bus.

The intensive manhunt for the suspect ended at approximately 5:40 p.m. Thursday evening.

The suspect is reported to be a white male, in his 30s, approximately 5-10, 5-11, 170 pounds, hair color unknown, clean shaven and wearing blue jeans, a dark blue jacket with black lettering, brown hiking boots and a black “beanie.”

Information given to the sheriff’s department indicates the man may not be new to the area.

“The suspect seemed to have some knowledge of the area,” said Barter, citing the assailant’s knowledge of Fawn Gulch Road when he attempted to make the driver leave the highway. Barter also noted that the suspect seemed to have a knowledge of the ski area, including details a “typical person” may not know.

The sheriff’s department has interviewed and released one possible suspect, Barter said, and showed the victim two photo lineups, but she was unable to identify the man.

“It’s a work in progress,” Barter said, noting that more interviews were scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

If caught, the suspect would face charges of attempted kidnapping and felony menacing, Barter said.

The incident also afforded the school district and law enforcement the opportunity to test school protocols and assess how they handle such situations.

DeVoti noted that he felt the school district handled the situation well, but a mindset of continuous improvement persists.

“What better way to challenge the system than when half of the kids have been released already?” DeVoti said. “Had it been 15-to-20 minutes later, everyone would have been on their way home, as far as kids.”

Because of the timing, many parents were arriving to pick up their children and, in light of the potentially dangerous situation, wanted to enter the school buildings to get them.

“We knew that safety inside the school building was not an issue, but safety outside was questionable,” DeVoti said, adding that in a lockdown situation, no one is allowed in or out of the school buildings, including parents, in order to keep kids safe inside.

During the incident, DeVoti sent out two phone messages to parents, one stating that the schools were on lockdown as a precaution and busses would not be running on time, and another when the busses began taking children home.

A third message was sent out Friday morning, further explaining the reason for the lockdown and passing on word from law enforcement to “go about life as normal, with a usual heightened awareness.”

A debriefing session with law enforcement and school personnel is planned for Friday, according to DeVoti and Hinger.

Hinger noted that the schools had no established protocol for a “softer” lockdown like the one they transitioned to Thursday, but that they hoped to change that soon.

Both DeVoti and Hinger were pleased with their staff, with the presence of law enforcement at the school buildings, which allowed them to be updated as the situation progressed, and with the fact law enforcement worked with the school on the safe release of the students.

Anyone with information regarding the incident can call the sheriff’s department at 264-8431.

randi@pagosasun.com