Ft. Jackson trainee accused of hijacking school bus ‘wanted to get home,’ commander says
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC/WIS) - Fort Jackson’s commander says a 23-year-old soldier-in-training escaped the base early Thursday morning with his military-issued rifle and wound up hijacking a school bus with 18 children aboard.
Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr. did not release the trainee’s name during a news conference, but said the trainee is from New Jersey and appeared to be trying to get home after three weeks of basic training.
Beagle provided an update on the investigation into the incident, which happened near Eagle Park Road and Percival Road in Richland County.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said all of the 18 students on the bus and their driver are safe the suspect is in custody.
“Probably one of the scariest calls that we could get in law enforcement as a school district is that a school bus has been hijacked with kids on it with someone with a gun. And that’s what we had this morning,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at a Thursday morning news conference.
Lott says the man will be charged with multiple counts of kidnapping “and whatever charges we can put on him.”
Beagle said the 23-year-old trainee dressed in his physical training gear and armed with a military-issued rifle jumped a fence line at approximately 7 a.m. and made his way into the community.
The sheriff’s office received a call a short time later reporting a man attempting to flag down cars on I-77.
Investigators say when the man was unable to get a ride, he followed children getting on a bus at a school bus stop on Percival Road and got onto the bus with his rifle.
“He told the bus driver he didn’t want to hurt him but he wanted him to drive him to the next town,” Lott said.
Beagle stressed the trainee’s rifle was empty, adding that trainees that early in their training would not be issued ammunition. But, he acknowledged, the school bus driver, the children on the bus and others in the community would have had no way of knowing that.
Shortly after he got onto the school bus, Lott said the parent of a child on the bus flagged down one of his deputies to report there was an armed man on the bus.
The school bus driver started driving the bus and brought the children to the front of the bus, Lott said.
Eventually, the bus driver and the children were able to get off the bus, and the trainee then took the bus and drove several miles before abandoning both the bus and the rifle.
“I think God looked down on these kids this morning and wrapped his arms around them and took care of them,” Lott said.
Beagle said the trainee’s direct leaders describe him as “very quiet.”
“And so we assessed that he was just trying to make an attempt to go back home,” Beagle said. “One thing that he was trying to do, because he was in his physical training uniform was trying to acquire the clothes and a lot, which we assumed would have been to a bus station, the airport, a train station, in order to make it home.”
Beagle said there is nothing to indicate that he intended to harm anyone else or himself.
Fort Jackson officials said they notified law enforcement, but admitted the trainee had been gone for some time before they noticed. He said the trainee disappeared during “personal hygiene time,” which is designed to give them time to prepare to go to breakfast. But he said that by taking his rifle, it made it harder for others to immediately recognize he was unaccounted for.
“If a weapons left behind you would immediately know a person’s missing, but by taking the weapon now you kind of give yourself a little bit of time and space, because the weapon is not missing someone could be just around the corner, or in another location,” Beagle said.
He said they have experienced soldiers who, over the course of their initial stages of training, do experience anxiety and the desire to get home.
“And we think that was truly His intent, and nothing beyond that,” Beagle said. “I do want to express a great deal of sympathy to those parents to the bus route to our community. We are part of our great community here and we take that to heart, every single day. We not only live in the community, we are part of it. And to our community, this is something that was a failure with regard to me and my role in terms of our accountability procedures and processes. So for me this was a key failure in our accountability processes that, that I will fix going forward because the outcome, potentially, could have been much worse. We are thankful, very grateful that it was not.”
He said the trainee would be “separated” from the military pending any military justice or disciplinary action, a process that could take a couple of weeks. But he said they would look at his mental state and still perform medical checks as part of the process.
He was still being held in Richland County at the time of the news conference.
It was not immediately clear how soon he would be released to military officials.
During the pursuit of the suspect, multiple schools in the area were placed into lockout as a precaution. A lockout means students outside were brought in and no one was allowed to enter or leave the building.
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