Man who prompted USF scare tells police he was suicidal but unarmed and never on campus

TAMPA — A man police thought was armed and dangerous and roaming the University of South Florida last week claims he was never on campus, never armed and never intending to hurt anyone other than himself.

All he did, according to a police report, was dial 211, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, to seek help for his suicidal thoughts.

Morris Major, 40, of Valrico told police he called 211 from a Lowe's parking lot in Brandon, a statement police couldn't disprove. They closed the case without any criminal charges.

But 911 communications released by the USF police on Thursday make it clear all the information police received indicated Major told a crisis counselor that he was on campus and threatening to kill a cop if he saw one.

Just before 12:30 p.m. July 24, police responded to the USF Bio-Science Building after getting a report from a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office dispatcher that a mentally ill man phoned the crisis center.

The man had said he was in the only car parked in a parking lot outside of building "SCA 110" — the building number for the Biology department — a dispatcher told USF police. But he wouldn't give his car description.

"If he sees any police cars," the sheriff's dispatcher said, "he's going to pull the trigger."

Within minutes, the campus sent text messages to students, staffers and faculty members warning them of the threat. A siren blasted throughout the campus, and a voice echoed from eight towers directing everyone within earshot to stay inside.

Police drew their weapons and cleared and secured the parking lot near the Bio-Science Building — and other lots on campus. As they did so, they got word from their communication system that the man may have fled and was thought to be in a gold Saturn, the report shows.

Meanwhile, police tracked down a 19-year-old full-time USF student who told them she had broken up with the suspect two weeks earlier. Major, she said, had been acting depressed and was continually calling and sending her text messages.

She said she worried Major might be following her to an on-campus job and decided to park off campus — at Willowbrook Apartments off 42nd Street — and ride in with a friend.

The address rang a bell.

According to information USF was getting from the crisis center, Major told the counselor he was driving off campus and toward 42nd Street, where his girlfriend had parked. He said he was pulling his car next to hers.

Neither police nor sheriff's deputies located him.

Later that day, after police sent out the all clear and were satisfied that their suspect was off campus, officers got a call from Major's estranged wife.

She said Major told her he had called 211, the crisis center number. She said he'd tried to take his life before.

Just before 10 p.m., Major called police and told them everything he'd done that day.

He said he'd borrowed his mother's gold Saturn and spoken to his ex-girlfriend. Then he called the crisis center because he was having suicidal thoughts. He said that during the call, he mentioned a psychiatric evaluation he'd had at USF.

And when a crisis counselor asked him where he was, he told police, he responded he was "in a parking lot."

Major told police he is familiar with the campus and its surrounding streets and admitted that he had been on campus at 10 a.m. — hours before the 211 call.

"Major's statements were consistent with that of the statements given by the crisis center and that of the police audio recordings," the USF police report concludes.

Crisis center spokeswoman Carissa Caricato said the center keeps details of all its emergency crisis calls confidential but contacts police when detecting a threat to public safety.

USF police helped Major get psychiatric care through the state's Baker Act, a law that compels mental health treatment if police consider someone a danger to themselves or others.

Records show that Major had previous problems with the law, but they were more than 17 years ago, involving arrests on charges of battery, burglary and carrying a concealed weapon.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said she would release details of how her agency handled the call today.

At one point, a county dispatcher told USF police that the crisis center was trying to establish a latitude and longitude for Major's location. The address relayed was on Cherry Drive, which is the street leading to the Bio-Science Building.

But on Thursday, USF police Sgt. Mike Klingebiel said he couldn't be sure what led dispatchers to that location — whether it was an effort to triangulate Major's cell phone signal location or just put an address to the words "Bio-Science Building."

From USF's standpoint, authorities did what they could to spread word of danger and concluded there was no evidence he was on campus.

"This truly was a success of an emergency system," Klingebiel said.

In the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a student armed himself and opened fire on campus, killing 32 people, universities nationally have ramped up their emergency response plans to include quick and broad communication of violence threats.

Klingebiel pointed out that had the threat happened within any other local police jurisdiction, the same kind of widespread emergency response — text messaging and sounding sirens — would not have been possible.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Man who prompted USF scare tells police he was suicidal but unarmed and never on campus 07/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 2:43pm]

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