Communication system put to test during search for suspect

Armed robbery suspect Terrance Gowder is loaded into a Champaign Police Cruiser after hiding out in an apartment building for more than 4 hours, May 9, 2008. Steve Contorno

Armed robbery suspect Terrance Gowder is loaded into a Champaign Police Cruiser after hiding out in an apartment building for more than 4 hours, May 9, 2008. Steve Contorno

By Kathleen Foody

When James Rice, graduate of LAS, went out to rent “Grand Theft Auto IV” on Friday evening, he never expected to return to the “real deal” at his own apartment building.

The 160-unit Campus Property Management apartment building at 512 S. Third St., was surrounded by police officers with weapons drawn, cars with lights blazing and confused residents by the time Rice and his roommate returned from their errand.

The pair were among about 100 people standing outside the building at the corner of Third and Healey streets as officers and members of the Champaign Special Weapons and Tactics team conducted an hours-long search for an armed gunman who sought a hiding place in the building’s garage.

Eighteen-year-old Terrance Gowder was arrested at approximately 9 p.m. Friday and has been charged with one count of armed robbery, according to the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office.

Little else has been released by Champaign police about Gowder but his age.

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    Members of the SWAT team entered the building in groups of 10 or 12 and began searching individual units, releasing residents who had been inside their apartments since the situation began.

    Police notified residents of the situation by phone Friday evening, said Robin Kaler, University spokeswoman. That method was preferable to sending out a mass message through e-mail or text messages through the emergency notification system in Friday’s specific situation, she added.

    “In this case, the target audience was the people in that apartment building, and we had the numbers of those people, so why notify thousands?” Kaler said. “Less than half the student body is signed up for the system, so there’s a pretty good chance that less than half of the people in that building will receive the information.”

    Some residents of the building were also called by the realtor.

    “CPM called it a ‘severe situation’ and told us to lock our doors, not go on our balconies and to avoid windows,” said Brad Johnson, a fourth-floor resident of the building and graduate from Business.

    Administrators also feared that sending a mass message could create more word of mouth about the situation and draw more onlookers, she added.

    “A lot of people who had nothing to do with the building showed up to gawk and that’s the last thing police need when handling a potentially violent situation,” Kaler said. “The police were very confident they had created their perimeter quickly enough that (the suspect) had not escaped.”

    Justin Randall, former student body president and graduate of LAS, said he understood the University’s reasoning but did not think it was the best explanation.

    “It’s important to be forward with students,” he said. “Students could see what was happening, but they didn’t know what was happening.”

    Allowing students access to a protocol for determining “text-message-able” incidents could be a step in the right direction, he said.

    “We’re fortunate in that nothing happened,” he said. “But who knows?”

    Randall’s concern is legitimate, said Jaclyn O’Day, Randall’s successor for the 2008-09 year, but she was concerned a mass text message would create fear or panic among students.

    “The police had more control than the attacker, unlike incidents like Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois,” she said. “Police were not there to respond as quickly as those incidents developed and there was also a specific intent to harm other people.”