On Monday morning, Thomas Richard Cowan loaded 13 bullets into two handguns, left his German shepherd chained to the fence and drove eight miles from his home in Kingsport to Sullivan Central High School. Whatever his mission, it was the 62-year-old Vietnam veteran’s final drive.
For about an hour, Cowan’s armed invasion spread panic throughout the school before a burst of officers’ gunfire brought him down. No others were injured.
No one knows why Cowan pointed his Honda in the direction of the Blountville, Tenn., high school, where his brother is a janitor. He is described – in court records and interviews – as a peculiar man with a history of erratic, sometimes criminal, behavior and a deep suspicion of the government.
He parked his car Monday morning in a handicapped space just in front of the school’s main entrance. Second period was just getting under way at 9:10 a.m. when Ashley Thacker, a junior, arrived at the main entrance of her high school. Thacker, 16, had been at a doctor’s appointment and was on her way to a music theory class as she approached the locked doors.
She noticed a man standing in the 10-foot waiting area between the two sets of doors, waiting to be buzzed in. His bald crown was framed with brown hair. He had a mustache, she remembered, and he was holding a cane.
He told her to go on ahead of him. But she never made it through the doors.
Instead, Melanie Riden, principal of Sullivan Central, came striding through the locked doors.
“He pulled out his gun and started pointing it at people,” Thacker said.
Cowan trained a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol at Riden’s face, said Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson. Carolyn Gudger, the school resource officer, drew her gun, then shielded the principal’s body with her own.
Thacker remembers Cowan shouting something – possibly including the words “10 years” – but she isn’t sure. She turned and ran out the set of public doors to the mulch pile in the front of the school, and hid behind bushes.
“He might shoot someone,” Thacker remembered thinking. “I just wanted to get out of there.”
Riden fled and Gudger inched back into the school, leading Cowan through the scattered pastel chairs in the empty cafeteria. It was a tactical move, meant to lure the gunman into a more contained place, Anderson said.
Sullivan County dispatch sent out a chilling alert: “Man with a gun at Central High School.”
Riden, reached by phone Monday night, said she could not comment without permission from Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie.
Gudger told him to drop his weapon; he demanded she drop hers. Once, he tried, unsuccessfully, to lunge for her gun.
Cowan repeated one thing only, Anderson said. That he wanted to pull the fire alarms.
“I don’t know why, we can only speculate about that and I think everyone will speculate why he wanted to pull a fire alarm,” Anderson said. “Either to get the kids out of class or, I don’t know. We don’t know.”
Flattened against the bushes, Ashley Thacker waited two minutes, she thinks. “I didn’t hear anything else, so I thought Officer Gudger had arrested him.”
She was wrong. As she approached the school, two assistant principals opened a window and yelled at her to run away. Crying and shaking, Thacker ran to her car and drove a half-mile to her parents’ business.
The view from the classroom
At about 9:15 a.m., a shaken voice came over the intercom.
“Code red. Lockdown.”
There was profanity in the background. This was no drill, students realized.
With the announcement, teachers sprang into action – locking doors and papering over windows, turning off the lights and closing window blinds. Students huddled in the corners of classrooms, sitting in the darkness and searching for information with a storm of text messages.
Casey Deel, a 17-year-old senior, was on his way to a doctor’s office when his girlfriend, Alicia Edwards, sent him a text at 9:15 a.m.
“There’s a code red lock down. im scared,” the 16-year-old junior texted from her government class.
“r u serious?” Deel texted back. He skipped his appointment.
In Kayla Nichols’ cosmetology class, students squeezed into a storage room the size of a parking space, and locked the door, the 17-year-old said.
Ryan Kendrick was in algebra class, just off the main office. The 17-year-old senior thought he heard the gunman making threats – about not leaving the building alive and taking others with him – and Gudger urging him to calm down.
Then he heard a volley of gunshots.
Kendrick and his friend, Andrew Ray, began to pray.
Landon Sillyman was in his honors biology class, where the teacher had instructed students to put their heads on their desks in the darkened classroom. The 14-year-old freshman estimated the suspense lasted about an hour.
But it was all over in minutes, Anderson estimated. One hundred and twenty seconds after Cowan drew his gun, two deputies, Lt. Steve Williams and Sam Matney, arrived. They entered through separate doors and met Cowan and Gudger – still in a moving standoff – as they reached a science pod behind the cafeteria. Cowan wavered; he jerked his gun from Gudger to the other deputies then back again. The three officers told him, again, to drop his weapon. He wouldn’t.
So they opened fire. Some students counted five shots, others counted six. Anderson would not say how many rounds hit the gunman.
Cowan fell to the ground, his shoes just feet from door to the library full of teenagers. The pistol in his hand had seven bullets in the magazine and another in the chamber. He had a second handgun in his back pocket, loaded with five rounds.
“That’s how close he was,” Anderson said. “We all know this could have been much more dangerous.”
A troubled history
In a file at the Kingsport General Sessions courthouse, there is a handwritten note by a police detective:
“This is the fellow we discussed,” it reads. “He needs a mental eval.”
The note was written in 2001, after Cowan was charged with stalking. According to court records, a newspaper carrier said that twice he followed her as she drove her route.
When she turned, he turned. When she stopped, he stopped.
“At one point, he followed [her] into a driveway and would not let her pull out,” the affidavit reads. “Both instances put [the carrier] in fear as she does not know the defendant.”
The case was later dismissed because a witness did not show up at court.
The same affidavit also recites an incident from the previous year, when Cowan produced a gun at the Kingsport Police Department.
According to court documents, he arrived at the police station in February 2000 to talk with officers about “a problem that has been discussed with him several times in the past.”
Cowan confessed that tucked in the waistband of his blue jeans, he had a loaded .380-caliber Jennings handgun – the same type of gun used in Monday’s standoff. He was convicted of unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon, sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to seek a mental evaluation and counseling.
He did not do either, court records show.
His brother, Rodney Cowan, a janitor at the high school, declined to elaborate Monday evening on his brother’s history or character.
“Right now, I haven’t got a comment,” he said. “We’re just trying to get everything figured out.”
A “textbook” response?
At a Monday afternoon news conference at the Board of Education building in Blountville, Yennie, the director of schools, read from a prepared statement that lauded police, staff and students for following their emergency protocol.
“The students were never in any danger,” he said. “And Carolyn Gudger performed her job admirably to ensure the safety of students and staff.”
Anderson, too, said the school’s protocol worked perfectly. He hailed it “textbook” and “perfect.”
“These officers saved children’s lives today,” Anderson said.
But some students were not reassured.
Camry Collins, a 17-year-old senior, wonders about the effectiveness of the second set of locked doors. She said she does not feel safer despite the outcome of Monday’s intrusion.
“Tomorrow, the same thing could happen again,” she said.
And tomorrow, Carolyn Gudger, Monday’s uncontested hero, won’t be there.
“Gudger is the “bomb-diggity,” Collins said. “She goes out of her way to protect us.”
Gudger and the other two deputies involved in the shooting are on administrative leave as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation concludes its investigation.
Anderson said they are doing well, considering. Cowan was taken to the hospital by helicopter, where he was pronounced dead at 10:15 a.m.
“This is not TV; you don’t shoot somebody then go to the local bar and have a drink and talk about it and laugh and go on and do something else,” Anderson said to dozens of teachers, school administrators and students packed into the news conference. “This is very, very – I can see by your faces how traumatic it is for you. You can imagine being that officer in that spot.”
An unusual man
Thomas Cowan’s house, on Mountain View Avenue in Kingsport, is hung with a brand-new American flag and an empty hummingbird feeder. His lived alone with his dog, Radar.
Cowan’s next-door neighbor, Jessica Strom, had heard of a gunman at Sullivan Central on the news, but she never connected it to Cowan.
“Not Tom. No way,” she said in an interview.
When showed a photograph of Cowan released Monday by law enforcement, Strom clutched her head in both hands and said, “Holy crap.” She sank to the ground and discussed what she knew of her “unusual” neighbor.
Cowan often talked about government conspiracy theories, Strom said. He believed the government used electro-magnetic waves to make his dog bark. He only used disposable cell phones because he believed the government was listening in on his conversations, she said.
“He didn’t seem to be crazy,” Strom said. She and her husband “just kind of ignored him,” when he spouted his conspiracy theories. “We let him say his piece and go on.”
Last week, he went to the Dollar General store where Strom works and purchased the American flag, and some household goods.
“Why Central, though?” Strom wondered. She had no answer.
In his newspaper box was an old, yellowed newspaper from Jan. 4, 2007, still wrapped in plastic. The lead story that day was about a fugitive wanted in Pennsylvania who drew a gun on Johnson City police officers.
The headline read, “JC police kill gunman in shootout.”
By Claire Galafaro and Daniel Gilbert
This article originally appeared in Tricities.com
Check out Ivan Kenneally’s new book The Benghazi Report: Leading From Behind, Into Decline.
Obama's big new scandal?
One of America's most widely read financial journalists says a huge new scandal is working its way through the Obama administration. Learn more here.