Gun Threat Closes Schools

Police locate 15-year-old student off campus after search

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Law enforcement officers search the Payson High School grounds for a student who had brought a gun onto the campus Wednesday. All Payson school campuses were locked down while police searched for the student. A K-9 unit was also used in the search.

A little more than an hour after school officials learned a student was on the Payson High School campus with a gun, the 15-year-old suspect was located off-campus and arrested a few blocks away.

At the time the suspect was apprehended, he was not carrying a firearm, which prompted law officers, aided by a police dog, to begin searching for the weapon on campus and in the surrounding area.

Acting on a tip from a student, PHS principal Roy Sandoval -- accompanied by school resource officer Mike McAnerny -- found the pistol, which turned out to be a BB/pellet CO2 air gun.

It was located in a car, occupied by two non-students, parked in a lot southeast of the school.

"We are not sure what the role of those two was," Payson Police Chief Don Engler said. "We are continuing to investigate."

The incident started just after the morning school bell rang Wednesday, Jan 30.

A Payson High School student's decision to warn a teacher that a student was on campus and armed with a pistol led to a 90-minute lockdown of all district schools.

The incident began about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, when an instructor was told a student was seen carrying a pistol.

About 90 minutes after the incident was first reported, law enforcement officers found the teenager at Rim Country Health & Retirement Community, which is located just west of the high school campus.

Engler said the teen was arrested without incident, interviewed and transferred to juvenile jail facilities in Globe, where he is being held. Charges are pending.

Even though the pistol turned out to be an air gun, Payson police are investigating as if it was a fully lethal weapon.

"We believe it (the air gun) fits the definition of a firearm," Engler said.

The day after the lockdown, school administrators sent a letter home with students explaining the incident.

Sandoval ordered the lockdown after being told a student had a gun on school grounds. The student was first spotted with the gun near the old gym, not inside a building.

The lockdown, a short time later, was expanded to include all district schools.

Law enforcement officers from the Payson Police Department, Department of Public Safety, Gila County Narcotics Task Force, Tonto Apache Tribe and Gila County Sheriff's Department surrounded the campus and began a classroom-to-classroom search for the suspect.

A Department of Public Safety aircraft that was training in the area volunteered to search for the teen from the air.

During the search, officers and school administrators were told by students that the suspect had been seen leaving the campus, Engler said.

Although the lockdown was unnerving to some, Sandoval lauded the students who reported the presence of a gun on campus.

"Whether it's guns, drugs, alcohol or destruction of school property, it is the students who are our most powerful weapon when they have the courage to come forward and report," he said.

The principal also said the incident demonstrated the entire lockdown system works well. "Officers from the five (law enforcement) agencies came running and the kids were never in any danger."

Although locking down all the district schools -- for what was occurring on one campus --as a departure from past practices, district superintendent Casey O'Brien said it was necessary because the suspect was, for a time, on the loose in the community.

Following the incident, Engler praised school administrators for their quick action in locking down the school and also thanked the other law enforcement agencies who helped out.

"With them there, it expedited everything that was going on," he said.

School and police officials say they will huddle in the next few weeks to debrief the entire situation.

"We want to find out what went well and where there were glitches," Sandoval said.

School officials are also conducting an investigation into the incident.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy on firearms," O'Brien said.

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