CLICK HERE to listen to the 911 tape SHOTS FIRED
BLOUNTVILLE — Two Monday morning 911 calls from Sullivan Central High School reveal a 13-minute standoff between a school resource officer and gunman, with administrators scrambling to get additional deputies a key to enter the locked down facility.
One witness, reportedly huddled behind a hallway corner near the standoff, relays to dispatch the events as they unfold. The other call comes from an unidentified staff member locked in the school office.
Near the end of the latter call, six shots are heard in the background, followed by a relieved, out-of-breath caller asking, “Did you get him?”
Police say Thomas Richard Cowan, 62, last known address 2060 Mountain View Road, Kingsport, entered the school about 9:15 a.m. Monday.
Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson said he pointed a loaded .380-caliber handgun at Principal Melanie Riden’s head, igniting the impasse with School Resource Officer Carolyn Gudger.
Anderson said deputies were on scene within two minutes, with Lt. Steve Williams and Patrolman Sam Matney eventually converging on Cowan and Gudger’s location. After Cowan pointed the gun back and forth at all officers, deputies fired and killed Cowan. An additional .25-caliber gun was later found in his back pocket.
Police say Cowan’s motive is currently not known.
The first two 911 calls were received at 9:14 a.m. by Sullivan County Central Dispatch. Dispatchers kept those individuals on the line while simultaneously providing emergency responders with the information relayed.
“...In the office,” begins the female’s call from the office. “God almighty.”
“We’ve got a gun at Central High School.”
“We have a man with a gun at Central High School!”
The woman relays the man is in the main office. When asked if she knows who he is, she initially says she doesn’t, then says his last name might be Cowan; his brother works at the school.
“He’s in the main attendance office, and he’s got our officer backed up with a gun,” reports the caller. “I’m locked up in my office in here as well. We’ve got people out there, around...”
“He’s in a different office with the SRO?” asks dispatch.
“He’s in — there are offices behind the main office. He’s out front in the main office. I’m locked in my office.”
“Where’s the SRO?”
“He’s got her backed up to here,” responds the woman.
“God bless,” says the woman, and then begins talking to other people in the office. “Hold on. Let me tell these people not to come in. Don’t come in. Go. Get out of here! Get out of here. I don’t care!
“I’m sorry,” she then says to the dispatcher. “We’ve got people trying to come in here.”
“Just don’t hang up. You talk to whoever you need to. We’re going to keep this line open. We’ve got all kinds of officers coming that way.”
The caller reports Cowan and Gudger are walking through the hallway in front of the main office. She asks nearby co-workers if Gudger has a gun, and “What is he going off about?”
Following a briefly inaudible portion, the woman again speaks to people in the office.
“I sent her running,” she says. “When I saw her I opened my window and told her to run.”
Four minutes and 29 seconds into the frantic call, dispatch says officers have an ETA of one minute. The caller says Cowan and Gudger are still in front of the main office, near the cafeteria entrance.
“They need to come in from the door coming over from vocation or the main front door,” she tells dispatch.
A few seconds later, she is speaking to someone else in the office, presumably Assistant Principal Keith Gibson. She then tells dispatch they will throw a key to deputies through a window.
“We’ve got Keith hanging out the window with his clip to let them in,” she says.
“OK,” says the dispatcher. “Is there a restroom in that hallway, ma’am?”
“We’ve got someone else on the line saying (the gunman) is in the restroom.”
“They’re still in front of the main office,” the caller says, then relays they’re walking toward the main entrance doors, each with guns drawn.
“If they’ll come to the front Keith can drop his clip out the window to let them in.”
When dispatch asks if she sees deputies in front of the building, she replies yes. The caller then yells away from the phone, telling someone to come to the main doors where a key will be dropped out.
“I’m trying to help them,” she tells dispatch. “I’m sorry.”
“OK, ma’am. Just keep the line open.”
“You need to instruct them he’s ready to shoot,” the caller warns.
She then says deputies are going around the school to enter another door, away from the gunman and Gudger.
Ten minutes and 30 seconds into the call, the woman says the assistant principal is making an announcement that the school is still under code red.
Over the next minute and a half, the caller says she’s tried to reach the school system’s Central Office but can’t get through. Dispatch says they’ve been alerted of the situation.
“I’m sorry — I got 20 different things going on here.”
“I understand,” says the dispatcher.
The caller then says Cowan and Gudger are still near the front entrance to the school, at a handicap ramp.
Thirteen minutes and five seconds into the call, three distinct bangs are heard in the background, then a brief pause, followed by three more.
“Oh God, shots fired,” yells the caller.
“Oh God, I hope it wasn’t Gudger,” she tells another individual in the office. “Is Gudger OK? I hear her. Is she OK, Keith? Gudger, are you OK? Did you get him?”
The call briefly goes silent, followed by, “Gudger shot him, I guess. God almighty.”
The other caller, who identifies himself as Glen Walden, remains on the line for more than nine minutes, the point that other deputies entered the building. He relays to dispatch the events as they unfold, huddled behind a nearby hallway corner.
“The officer has a gun pulled on him,” he reports. “He has one pulled on her.”
When the dispatcher asks if anyone has been hurt, he replies no. When asked if he knows the student’s name, the caller says it’s not a student, but a man he doesn’t know.
The caller says the man is arguing with the officer. At several points of the 911 recording, muffled yells are heard in the background.
Dispatchers tell the man not to put himself in danger. He agrees, then proceeds to describe the subject’s weapon as a handgun.
Two minutes and 37 seconds into the call, he says, “She’s warning him to sit down or she’ll fire on him, and he’s not complying.”
“She’s worried he’s going to pull the fire alarm,” he says, inaudible cries in the background.
As the dispatcher relays information to units en route, the line goes silent for several seconds. The dispatcher then returns, ensures the caller is OK, then seeks more information.
“It’s a handgun, it’s a — looks like an automatic, possibly a 9 or something like that,” the man says.
“He still has the SRO at gunpoint?”
“They have each other a gunpoint,” the caller relays. “She’s trying to talk him down.”
When prompted, the caller calmly provides a description of the gunman: clean cut, 5 feet 10 inches tall, 150 pounds with a red shirt, beige pants and receding hairline.
Dispatch relays the information to officers, then asks, “OK, what’s going on now, sir? The same situation?”
“It’s the same situation,” he says, now six minutes and 24 seconds into the call. “Same area.”
“Still in the hallway in front of the main office?”
“Yes,” responds the caller. “Now he’s stepped in — I believe he’s stepped in a restroom.”
“They’re stepping in a restroom?”
“I believe so.”
“OK, which restroom?” asks dispatch.
“Uh, I’m not sure. It’s in front of the hallway. Is the police here? I mean I can — I can slip around and open the door for them.”
“You just stay where you are,” responds the dispatcher.
Soon thereafter, just past seven minutes into the call, the witness reports Gudger and Cowan are back in the hallway. Silence for 20 seconds, then dispatch asks if he’s OK and still on the line.
“Yes,” he replies.
“Are both weapons still drawn?”
“And you have no idea who the male is?”
“No I don’t.”
Eight minutes and 30 seconds into the call, the witness says the officer is in the hallway with Cowan at the restroom door. When asked if the subject has dropped his weapon, he replies, “No. She’s still talking with him.”
“Does he still have it pointed at her?”
“Yes. Both weapons are still drawn.”
Thirty seconds later, the caller says other officers are on scene. Dispatch tells him to drop from the line and keep himself out of danger.
“Thank you,” he says.
“Thank you,” responds dispatch.
Monday’s incident is being investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, while the officers involved are on temporary leave.