Quick thinking on the part of St. John’s University students and careful planning by university officials averted disaster when a freshman entered the campus last week carrying a loaded .50-caliber rifle.
The student, wearing a Halloween mask and a hood, was taken into custody without incident on the Jamaica Estates campus on Sept. 26.
Omesh Hiraman, 22, was held on two counts of fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon and several violations of the New York City Administrative code for possession of a rifle without a permit.
He was arraigned via video at his bedside in Bellevue Hospital Center two days later. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement that, “The defendant is clearly a troubled man.” Because of that he is being examined to assess his capacity to understand the proceeding.
Hiraman was spotted by a number of students with the rifle in a black plastic bag. They immediately called college security. College security officer Dan Boylan, 61, was outside Marillac Hall when reports of the gunman reached the public safety office at 2:21 p.m.
He searched Marillac Hall for the gunman, but found nothing and headed out into a breezeway on the second floor. “We just ran into each other. I was going out and he was coming in,” said Boylan, a retired NYPD lieutenant.
According to Boylan, he spotted the butt of the rifle sticking out of the plastic bag and grabbed it. “It was a bit of a tug of war, but he lost his grip and I got the gun.”
Meanwhile, criminal-justice student and police cadet Christopher Benson had Hiraman in his sights.
Benson was sitting on a bench when he spotted Hiraman as he walked across the campus in the mask. His training in law enforcement enabled him to decide to follow Hiraman despite fears that he could open fire at any time.
As Boylan confronted Hiraman in the breezeway wrestling the gun away from him, Benson came at the gunman from behind, and pinned him to the wall, removing his hood and mask. According to the security officer, Hiraman said nothing throughout the struggle.
Boylan and Benson are to be honored at an on campus ceremony Thursday. They will be presented with one of St. John’s highest honors, The President’s Medal.
Thomas Lawrence, St. John’s vice president of public safety, witnessed the capture from the courtyard below and ran to the scene. Because Hiraman had covered so much ground on campus, there were many reported sightings and it was considered imperative to ensure there were no other shooters.
The NYPD arrived quickly and took over, ordering a lockdown on the campus. No one was permitted to leave until approximately 6:30 p.m.
Nicholas Palmisano was attending his metaphysics class in Marillac Hall at the time of the incident. “Several kids said they received a text message about someone having a gun. Then we heard helicopters and they just got closer.”
He said at first they were dismissed from class, but then were prevented from leaving the building. Later, they were evacuated to Carneseca Hall, where upward of 300 students were held.
“I wasn’t scared because we knew he was caught. Also the police and public safety (officials) were outstanding. They had the whole situation under control,” Palmisano added. He went on to say that there were regular updates and everyone felt safe. “Our main concern was, when can we go home?”
Lawrence was the man on the spot in terms of having only moments to decide the level of response to the incident.
At a press conference on Thursday, Lawrence described eight minutes of apprehension, between the time Hiraman was taken into custody and sending out the first text message.
He settled on the following message, which was sent at 2:38 p.m.: “From Public Safety. Male was found on campus with rifle. Please stay in your building until further notice. He is in custody, but please wait for the all clear.”
During a mass Thursday to celebrate the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, the Rev. Donald Harrington, president of St. John’s, called on the standing room only congregation at St. Thomas More chapel to pray for mercy for Hiraman and his family.
“Whatever pain or distress we suffered yesterday, Omesh and his family’s pain is far greater,” he said during his homily.
In line with many other colleges across the country St. John’s reviewed its security system following the Virginia Tech massacre last spring. The system they settled on, “inCampusAlert” by MIR3 Inc. enables rapid “global” response via text and voice messaging systems. Although students had to have signed up to receive the messages, the university’s many-pronged approach, which also included use of their E-Boards (plasma screens located around the campus), the university’s Web site, phone chains and e-mails, ensured that most students were quickly informed of the danger.
“I was at my residence off campus, but I got about 50 e-mails and text messages from the university and my friends,” said a female freshman who refused to give her name.
According to university officials, there has been a flood of students signing up for the system since the incident. Prior to that, only a few thousand students had signed up. The university had set up tables at various locations to encourage all students to plug into the system.
Ilana Ciccone, a senior, said, “I was very impressed with the response. The whole Web site was shut down and just carried updates.”
Dr. James Pellow, executive vice president and chief operating officer at St. John’s, said the university had been planning a dry run to test the system but felt blessed that it could be tested under real conditions in which no one was hurt. There will be a further review of the response following Wednesday’s scare to see if it requires any further fine tuning.
“Overall, we were very pleased with the response. The main thing we learned is that you can never have too much communication,” he said.
The suspect entered the campus at 2:20 p.m. from a livery cab and was apprehended by 2:30 p.m., although lockdown wasn’t lifted until 6:30 p.m.
According to his lawyer, Anthony Colleluori, Hiraman suffers from schizophrenia. The gunman allegedly told police he had not been taking his medication. A graduate of Stuyvesant High School, the East Elmhurst resident studied at Cornell University but allegedly flunked out.