A bank robbery at the N.C. State Employees Credit Union last week in Cullowhee saw a series of recent safety measures at Western Carolina University suddenly transform into the real thing.
In 2007, a shooter went on a rampage at Virginia Tech, resulting in universities across the nation reviewing and implementing safety protocols such as the ones WCU put into action.
The Cat Tracker, a WCU notification system previously used only to report class cancellations and scheduling changes because of weather, was activated. Sirens on campus sounded, and local and university law enforcement officers shut the campus down until a suspect, a WCU junior from Hendersonville, was arrested at his nearby apartment.
The lockdown meant students and faculty across campus were ordered to stay in rooms or buildings they were in. This precaution also applied to the standing-room only crowd gathered in the Ramsey Center’s hospitality room for a press conference unveiling the university’s new athletic director — a crowd that included Chancellor David Belcher.
Norman West, a real estate agent from Cullowhee, accepted the several-hour lockdown with patience, as most in the room seemed to do, saying he understood the necessity for the procedure. He did worry about making it to a funeral he’d planned to attend.
“Last time I remember something like this was a bomb scare in college,” West said.
The shut-ins included a number of reporters from news outlets across Western North Carolina. They were covering the athletic director announcement, ensuring the lockdown received ample and detailed coverage across the region as the journalists witnessed it first hand.
WCU Spokesman Bill Studenc described the lockdown and other safety measures that were instituted following the 10:20 a.m. robbery on Dec. 14 as proceeding “fairly smoothly.” He said that campus leaders planned to review the situation and correct any problems.
Some business owners on the Catwalk near campus complained that WCU’s radio station did not provide an alert, causing confusion as the sirens howled, and leaving restaurants still accepting and serving customers with doors open and unlocked.
Robin Lang of Catnip Café said those on the strip finally learned what was happening via the notification system, which consisted of text messages, voice calls and emails. There were reports, Studenc said, of “some members of the campus community (who) did not heed the shelter-in-place advisory and were moving about on campus. As part of our post-incident evaluation, we will be looking at this issue and work to find additional ways to address it.”
Suspected robber used plastic gun
Deputies arrested student Brian Anthony Edwards, 21, of a Hendersonville address, on armed robbery and possession of stolen property charges. He was arrested at his apartment on Pointe Lane in Cullowhee at 12:45 p.m., a little more than two hours after the robbery.
Edwards robbed the credit union of $3,343 using a plastic gun, according to court papers on file at the Jackson County Courthouse. In the warrant issued for his arrest, the “gun” was described as closely resembling an automatic-style weapon.
Bank employees reported to police that the robber had run from the credit union on foot, and that a dye pack given to him in the stolen money exploded, according to a search warrant application written by Jackson County Detective John Buchanan.
Eyewitness descriptions of a getaway car matched an SUV found parked at “The Peaks” apartment complex.
“Jackson County deputies spoke to the owner of the vehicle and after an interview the owner of the vehicle confessed to robbing the bank, and the money was inside the apartment,” Buchanan wrote.
An inventory of items seized during a search of Edward’s apartment and vehicle included a black plastic gun under the SUV’s front passenger seat, clothes that appeared to match descriptions of ones worn by the robber also in the SUV, and a black mask on a bed in the apartment.
Edwards was jailed in lieu of a $250,000 secured bond.