News Clip: Gunman Threat ‘Unfounded,’ Lockdowns End

First reports were of gunman in woods beyond high school.

Reporting for the following piece involved several staff members, under the direction of Louis C. Hochman, who also wrote the text. Patch updated this story several times over the day.
Originally published on Long Valley Patch · March 26, 2012

Patch is updating this story frequently. Keep checking back.
Latest news:

  • Hackettstown HS students dismissed after hours of lockdown, prompted when man calls police saying he has an assault rifle in the woods near school.
  • Students told threat was unsubstantiated.
  • Centenary ends its own lockdown, had canceled all classes until at least 4 p.m.
  • No confirmed sighting of reported gunman.
  • Towns nearby begin taking measures — some also in lockdowns.

Lockdowns throughout Hackettstown were ending around 2 p.m. Monday, hours after a man called police claiming he had a gun in the woods near Hackettstown High School.

Warren Street, just outside of Hackettstown High School Monday. Credit Jason Koestenblatt

The high school began dismissing students shortly before 2 p.m. Monday. Students with cars could be seen leaving the school in groups, but parents were still not allowed to pick up students at that time.

Junior Rob DiRienzo said the school’s vice principal announced over the loudspeaker that the threat, which shuttered schools throughout town, was deemed “unsubstantiated.”

“The threat was unfounded and the nature of the threat is a matter of an ongoing investigation,” the school said in a notice announcing the dismissal.

Centenary College ended its own lockdown around the same time, but all classes until 4 p.m. remained cancelled.

Midday, nearby Washington Township (Morris County) schools implemented precautionary, security measures as well, Washington Superintendent Jeff Mohre said. Clarification: An earlier version of this post referred to those measures as a lockdown; Mohre said that is not the case in Washington Township. Action was taken in towns as far as 30 miles away: Hopatcong stepped up patrols and Hillsborough High School was put on a modified lockdown.

Centenary had said via its website during the day that police were looking for a white male in blue jeans and a black sweatshirt, with an assault rifle. The alert reminded recipients the person could be hiding the rifle.

“At 10:08 a.m., Centenary received a call from the Hackettstown Police Department alerting us about the possibility of an armed man in the vicinity. The College immediately went into lockdown mode: the emergency siren was sounded, and text and e-mail messages were sent to all students, faculty and staff through our E2Campus alert system,” it said. “Alerts also were posted on the College’s Facebook pages and Twitter account.”

The college is about five blocks from Hackettstown High School.

Sligfhtly past noon, it said, “a high ranking member of the Warren County Tactical Unit has requested that ALL personnel, students and employees alike, remain inside as there are police all over the area. People outside compound their efforts.”

Bianca Alfiera, a student at Hackettstown High School who spoke to Patch by phone during the lockdown, said students there weren’t really scared — they were curious. An alert came over the loudspeaker putting the school in lockdown, doors were closed, and the students hadn’t been able to find out much since, she said.

Students weren’t technically allowed to use cell phones, but many had been contacting their parents without interference, she said.

Centenary College freshman Rebecca Balfour of Randolph said students were told not to leave their dormitories.

“We have some people who are panicking,” she said. “Most people are staying in their dorms, relaxing. I mean, usually around the college there are lot of cops. This year there have been a lot of incidents involving the police. I was a little surprised it was a gunman. But i wasn’t surprised at all the police action.”

Balfour said resident assistants were checking dorm rooms, making sure students had’t left. Balfour said she’s only left to take a shower.

Caitlin, a senior at Centenary, told News 12 that sirens went off shortly after 10 a.m. on the campus and then students received an e-mail and text messages from college officials, telling them that the school was on lockdown.

She said students were sitting in their classrooms with the doors locked and the lights off. She told News 12 that students were not able to see anything going on outside but have heard helicopters passing overhead.

Brianna Pante lives in Hackettstown with her grandmother a mile away from the Centenary campus. Currently, Pante is at Sussex County Community College.

“I guess it’s hard to believe,” she said. “I’m not home, but I’m scared for everybody i know. My grandma is at the home by herself. My neighbor is home with a new born baby. I guess right now I’m more in shock than anything.”

“I live near the highschool and continue to hear helicopters circling and hovering over the area of Warren St, Arthur Terrace and Mitchell Road,” Judi Menzel told Patch via Facebook around 12:30 p.m.

The public school district’s superintendent’s office said early during the day that no parents should come to schools. But several parents already standing outside Hackettstown High School—where officials from multiple law enforcement agencies are on hand, and a police chopper is overhead—said they came after getting word of the reported danger in text messages from their children.

Keith Brennen, whose son is a junior, said he got a message that someone is running around with an assualt rifle. Brennen said his son tried to leave the school, but was stopped by “a heavily armed policeman.” Dan Monaco got a call from his son, Sal. Monaco was told as well that someone was running in and out of the school with a gun.

They and other parents said initially they didn’t get any sort of alert from the school’s emergency notification system. However, by late morning, a notice was on the school district’s web site alerting parents of the lockdown.

Scott Stalter, whose son-in-law, Jason Terrill, is in the National Guard, said Terrill told him a man in the woods called police and told them he has an AK47, initiating the emergency response.

The emergency prompted responses in other towns as well, some as far as 30 miles away. Hopatcong stepped up patrols and Hillsborough High School was put on a modified lockdown.

As news of the emergency broke Monday, Twitter lit up with commentary from people in and near town, expressing surprise, fear and concern.

“Thinking of everybody in town and wishing for safety. #hackettstown,”  user katievits24 wrote.

“i’ve got helicopters practically in my frontyard,” allisonryan16 wrote.

User schnure wrote he’s “hoping it’s just a very bad prank.”

Are you in or near Hackettstown? Tell us in the comments below what you’re seeing, or call 973-876-3761.

— Jason Koestenblatt, Sue Toth, Brendan Kuty and Louis C. Hochman contributed to this story.