NEWS- VT fallout? One broken B.B. gun = four arrests

Caroline Y. Choe, Jerry N. Hsieh, and Eric Chau– arrested three days later than their classmate

Not since students in an English class allegedly trespassed at an abandoned hospital has a UVA assignment resulted in as much trouble as this one. On Monday night, April 23, just after 11pm, police responded to reports of a gunman outside an engineering building.

Coming a week after the Virginia Tech massacre, terrified students barricaded themselves in rooms; a least one had a panic attack so severe she had to be hospitalized. More than two dozen police responded with guns drawn, only to discover four students filming a skit for their Japanese language 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, a UVA second-year, was arrested on the scene and spent the next two nights in jail before being released on $10,000 bond Wednesday morning. He was then charged with misdemeanor brandishing a firearm.

Three other students, Caroline Y. Choe, Jerry N. Hsieh, and Eric Chau. were arrested Thursday night, April 26. Facing the same charges as Smith, they were booked and released the same evening.

Civil rights activists are calling the arrests an overreaction to a mistake that might have been handled by the school instead of law enforcement.

"It was stupid, no doubt," says John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute. "But we don't put people in jail for being stupid."

North Carolina-based Mikael Gross, a lawyer and former police officer who helped apprehend the shooter at Appalachian Law School murders 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 to remember the Constitution is still the Constitution."

UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says once police are called, it is no longer up to the school. Wood says all terrorized students are receiving support from the Office of Student Affairs, and that on the night of incident, three administrators including Dean of Students Penny Rue and Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Pat Lampkin responded to the scene.

Wood says that the errant filmmakers might also face a Judicial Committee hearing, which has sanctions ranging from a verbal reprimand to expulsion. That process, she notes, is confidential.

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 cannot be overestimated.

"There's a horrific set of facts involved with this case," says Camblos. "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 film students 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 Friday, April 27. Smith could not attend the interview, but told a Hook reporter by telephone he deeply regrets the incident. He says there was "no intent to cause fear."

Smith's friends say they were caught off guard.

"He's the last person you'd ever expect to have something like this happen," says grad student Julie Ragsdale, who met Smith in a comic book and animation club. "He's the quiet, steady dependable friend everyone wishes they could have."

Choe says she, Smith, and Hsieh had teamed up to complete their final project for their class, Japanese 102. 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, 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 Wilsdorf Hall, a new engineering building dedicated last fall. Realizing how the woman inside Wilsdorf might perceive him, Choe says, Smith asked another student nearby to go inside and tell the students there was no danger.

Smith then left to change from his costume– all black with a black ski cap– into his regular clothes. He placed the plastic b.b. gun that belonged to Choe in a bag with the other props. When he returned, chaos had erupted. In Smith's absence, his three fellow filmmakers looked up to see "eight or 10 police pointing guns and yelling for them to get out of the way, Choe says.

She says she tried to explain to officers that there had been a misunderstanding, but after police were convinced the scene was secure, they took Smith into custody and informed her, Hsieh, and Chau that they too might face charges once the Commonwealth's Attorney considered the evidence. Still, Choe 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 from their residence, Bice House, and into police custody. Forty-five minutes earlier, a similar scene had unfolded at UVA Lambeth Field residences, where Chau lives. Choe, an Echols scholar, and Hsieh, who's been accepted to medical school for the fall, say that, given the Tech massacre, they don't believe police overreacted.

"They were concerned for our safety," says Choe. Still, she hopes the students' mistake won't permanently affect their future. "We're not bad people, and we don't have any history of getting into trouble," she says.

Smith's attorney, Charles Sipe, admits his client's 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."

The students say they have written letters of apology to the affected students in Wilsdorf Hall. "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."

Christopher Allen Smith