Lessons of shooting travel with sheriff
Vail, CO Colorado
Wherever Fred Wegener goes ” and these days he travels far and wide ” he doesn’t go alone.
In his pocket, he keeps a silver medallion that was anonymously sent to him. It has an angel on one side.
“On the back of it is Emily’s name to remember. I don’t think I’ll ever not remember that incident,” he said in an interview.
Emily Keyes was shot to death at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., on Sept. 27. Wegener, a 1981 graduate of the school, is the Park County sheriff and was the fourth officer on the scene of the shooting.
Keyes died at the hands of gunman Duane Morrison as police raided a schoolroom where she was being held hostage. Morrison also killed himself.
“Every day I go over what happened,” Wegener says of the incident and his response to it. He has received hundreds of e-mails about it, and only two were negative. One writer said he should have gone in after the gunman faster, and another argued he should have shown more patience.
Wegener said he thinks he is obligated to think about those e-mails and evaluate the decisions he made. In the end, though, he can live with his choice.
“Yes, I would have liked a different ending. I’ve looked and examined and soul-searched and everything. There’s just no other choice that could have been made,” he said.
These days Wegener spends a lot of time on the road, speaking about his experience and the lessons surrounding it. It’s therapy for him, he said. He’s traveled as far as Washington, D.C., and on Friday spoke at a school safety seminar for law enforcement officials at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs.
By and large, Wegener tells law enforcement personnel, the procedures and training his department had in place before the hostage incident were successful. Those procedures were a result of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
“The old philosophy was we were going to contain the situation and wait for the SWAT team,” Wegener said.
Since Columbine, many law enforcement agencies have adopted an “active shooter” policy that seeks to better isolate a shooter as soon as possible rather than continue to let him roam.
Wegener said the first officers were on the scene at Platte Canyon in about three minutes and were able to go right to Room 206, where Morrison was holed up with some students.
“They basically at that point had him pinned down in a room ” he wasn’t coming out,” Wegener said.
When Wegener decided a SWAT team should move in, Morrison hadn’t shot anyone and had been releasing hostages, and only two remained inside.
“I really thought that when the entry was made by the SWAT team, Morrison would have hit the floor and let Emily go, but he didn’t,” he said.
Instead, Morrison was hiding behind Keyes and had her in a chokehold. He shot her through his own hand before shooting himself, Wegener said.
As someone who knows how it is to be second-guessed, Wegener defended the police response to the recent Virginia Tech shooting.
“There is a lot that they did do right. The situation as it was reported, they responded correctly to,” he said.
He noted that police originally were told there was a domestic violence situation in a dorm. Only later did the magnitude of the situation become apparent.
Wegener now wears a medal on his chest with the letters “PCHS” as a tribute to Platte Canyon High School, where he has such close ties. His son, Ben, is a junior there. Wegener knew Emily since she and Ben were in fourth grade together.
Wegener believes such familiarity makes it easier for rural law enforcement to respond to school emergencies.
“I had officers that spent a lot of time inside the school. They’re coaches, they weightlift there. I think that’s critical,” he said.
Wegener said when he first arrived on the scene, “Staff looked right at me. It was almost like, ‘Fred, you’re here, thank God.'”
He said he opened a door to one classroom and an English teacher was there, waiting to strike with a baseball bat.
“As soon as he saw me it was like, oh, Fred.”
Officers also benefited from being familiar with the school’s layout.
“When you’re responding to something like this, time is of the essence. (Officers) were able to go right to room 206 because they knew right were it was at.”
There, in Room 206, police took the only action against Morrison that Wegener thinks to this day was prudent, despite the tragic outcome for Emily Keyes.
“You try to give him a chance and maybe things will work out. I think he forced us into what we thought we had to do, and that was try and rescue those hostages,” he said.
“It wasn’t supposed to end like that,” he said, as he put Emily’s medal back in its permanent resting place in his pocket.