VT fallout? One broken B.B. gun = four arrests
Not since a class full of
architecture mystery writing students allegedly trespassed at an abandoned hospital has a UVA class assignment resulted in as much trouble as this one. On Monday night, April 23, at just after 11pm, police responded to reports of a gunman outside an engineering building.
Coming exactly a week after the Virginia Tech massacre, terrified students barricaded themselves in rooms; several had panic attacks so severe they required hospitalization. More than two dozen police responded with guns drawn, only to discover four serious students filming a skit for their Japanese 102 class.
The weapon? A broken plastic b.b. gun used for a scene in which one character mugs another on the streets of Tokyo. The supposed gunman, 19-year-old Christopher Allen Smith, was arrested on the scene, charged with misdemeanor brandishing a firearm and spent the next two nights in jail before being released on $10,000 bond Wednesday morning. Three other students, seen in this photo, Caroline Y. Choe, Jerry N. Hsieh, and Eric Chau. were arrested last night and face the same charges. They were booked and released the same evening on their own recognizance.
Civil rights activists are calling the arrests an overreaction.
"It was stupid, no doubt," says Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead of the students decision to film such a scene so soon after Virginia Tech. "But we don't put people in jail for being stupid." Whitehead believes the issue could have been handled by the school instead of being turned over to law enforcement. UVA spokesperson Carol Wood did not immediately return the Hook's calls.
"If it wasn't a real threat," Whitehead says, "I don't understand why we're doing this." North Carolina-based Mikael Gross, a lawyer and former police officer who helped apprehend the shooter at Appalachian Law School in 2002, agrees. "How can you brandish a weapon if it's not a real weapon?" he asks. "I know it's a short period of time after Virginia Tech, but people have got to remember the Constitution is still the Constitution."
UVA police spokesperson Captain Michael Coleman declines comment on his department's response, but Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos, who brought the charges against all four students, says the egregiousness of their offense can not be underestimated.
"There's a horrific set of facts involved with this case," he says. "It put a lot of police to a lot of work and scared a number of university students to the point that several had to go to the hospital."
The students involved say they understand why people were terrified, and in hindsight they wish they could go back and undo it.
"It was a grievous lack of judgment," says Choe, who along with Chau and Hsieh met a Hook reporter hours after their court appearance on today. Smith could not attend the interview, but told a Hook reporter by telephone he deeply regrets the incident and that "there was no intent to cause fear."
Choe says she, Smith, and Hsieh had teamed up to complete their final project for a Japanese class– a film the three had written and were acting in Japanese. Eric Chau is not in the class, but agreed to help the other three film a scene in which all of them needed to be in front of the camera.
During the filming, Choe says that several people walked by and understood the group was not a threat. But after they completed filming and Smith began walking back toward the group, she says he saw someone look frightened inside an academic building called Wilsdorf Hall. Realizing how the woman inside Wilsdorf might perceive him, Choe says Smith asked another student nearby to go inside and tell other students there was no danger.
Smith then left the film scene and went to change out of his costume– all black with a black ski cap– and back into his regular clothes. He placed the plastic b.b. gun that belonged to Choe in a bag with the other props and returned to find chaos. In Smith's absence, says Choe, she, Hsieh and Chau looked up to see "eight or 10" police pointing guns and yelling for them to get out of the way.
Choe tried to explain to officers that there had been a misunderstanding. When Smith returned, she continued to tell them that he was part of the class project. Police initially didn't arrest Smith, but instead secured the building and made sure students inside were taken care of.
Only after the scene was secure did they take Smith into custody. Choe says officers told her, Hsieh, and Chau that they too might face charges once the Commonwealth's Attorney considered the evidence. Still, she says, "I didn't ever think I'd be led out of my dorm in handcuffs."
That's just what happened at 10:20pm on Thursday, when Choe and Hsieh were taken into police custody at Bice Hall. Forty-five minutes earlier, a similar scene unfoled at Lambeth Field apartments, where Chau lives and was arrested. Choe, an Echols scholar, and Hsieh, who's been accepted to medical school for the fall, say they don't believe police overreacted.
"They were concerned for our safety," says Choe, reflecting on the recent massacre at Virginia Tech. Still, she hopes their mistake won't permanently affect their chances for success in the future. "We're not bad people, and we don't have any history of getting into trouble."
Smith's attorney Charles Sipe, admits his clients' skit showed "poor judgment." But, he says, "This is a kid who has never been in trouble a second of his life, probably doesn't have a malicious bone in his body."
All the students have written letters of apology to the other students in Wilsdorf Hall who were so terrified by the skit. "Even though the alleged threat wasn't real," says Choe, "all the distress and emotional trauma that ensued was real and is just as much of a reason to feel horrible about this incident."