One arrested after false report of man wielding gun, bomb, knife sends scare through USF in Tampa

TAMPA — The sirens wailed. Gunman on campus. Text messages told University of South Florida students to lock themselves indoors. Police with assault rifles searched the library for an intruder dressed in black.

Then, nearly an hour into the chaos, USF student Vincent Thomas Perry McCoy, 23, stood up on a campus shuttle bus and made an announcement:

"I have the bomb," he said, according to an arrest report that quoted several witnesses. "Don't move." "I've got the bomb here." "I'm the bomber." "The bomb is in my bag."

The backpack, blasted with two explosive charges by the Tampa bomb squad, turned out to contain nothing more dangerous than textbooks, notebook paper and school supplies.

But while officials said the threat was fake, the trouble was real. Police charged McCoy with a felony: making a false report concerning planting a bomb on state-owned property.

"That's so out of character for him," said his mother, Sonja McCoy, speaking at the front door of her east Tampa home. "He's not the kind of person who would stand up in front of a bunch of people and say that."

He's an only child. He attends New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. He transferred to USF from Hillsborough Community College, she said.

A detective called her and put McCoy on the phone. He told his mother he said something in jest on a shuttle but didn't think it would get him in trouble.

"He does have a tendency to joke too much," she said.

Police couldn't say who made the first of three calls that shut down the 40,000-student campus for almost three hours Monday afternoon. By the end of the day, they had investigated reports of a gunman at the library, a man with a bomb on a bus and a knife-wielding man with a puppy at Cooper Hall.

They took the reports seriously, the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech still in memory.

Students were told to run. To lie down on shuttles. Classes were canceled.

If everything happened because of a hoax, USF police spokeswoman Lt. Meg Ross said authorities could not only file criminal charges, but also seek restitution for the "tremendous" cost of the day's massive law enforcement presence.

Monday was a normal day until 1:36 p.m. That was when a caller told the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that someone he knew was near the library, dressed in black and carrying a gun and bomb.

That report prompted the University of South Florida to send out a warning in a mass text message and sound an alarm that could be heard all over campus.

Nadine Babb and Ingrid Marin heard it when they were standing outside the library, and decided to go in. They weren't there for long. Police entered, guns drawn.

Doctoral student Alexander Andujar, 30, was taking an exam on the third floor when he heard police say, "Get your hands up!"

Andujar said, "I saw the police come by with the assault rifle and I thought, 'Okay, now is a time to leave.' "

"They were storming in," said Babb, 24. "I was shaking."

"Get out!" she heard them yell. "Go! Go!" She ran, along with a couple of dozen others.

Police found nothing in the library. But soon, the threat shifted to a shuttle. McCoy, police say, had made his announcement.

They converged not only on McCoy's shuttle, but on a second one as well. Inside the second, a driver told her 10 passengers to lie down on the floor.

Sophomore Lauren Neita did, and called her mom. Business management student Anita Arnett was in disbelief. Anahita Hassanzadeh, 25, got a headache.

"We were so scared, all of us," Hassanzadeh said.

Said Arnett, "It was unreal. I couldn't believe it was happening."

Then, they were told to jump out of the back of the bus.

McCoy exited his bus without a struggle, telling police he was kidding. They arrested him anyway. McCoy's previous charges include possession of marijuana and theft from a person 65 years or older.

Police would spend the next couple of hours treating his backpack like a bomb.

Meanwhile, across campus, someone called in another alarm. This is what the USF Web site posted: White male subject seen in Cooper Hall area in black tank top, cowboy hat, carrying black puppy and large hunting knife. Officers in (sic) route.

Soon after, police questioned the man and let him go.

As some students remained in lockdown, others skateboarded and congregated at picnic tables.

This was the third gunman scare at the University of South Florida this year.

In June, police received reports of a man with a pistol in the campus' Greek Village area. A search found no one.

In July, a man told a crisis center operator he was carrying a gun on campus and wasn't afraid to use it. Turned out, he was neither armed nor on campus, but was suicidal. He was detained under the state's Baker Act.

This time, like the others, no shots were fired. No bomb went off. Nobody was hurt.

Ignoring threats is never an option for campus police. Not after the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. "Yes, it's a huge inconvenience," Ross said. "But parents send their children to school hoping they'll be safe."

Times staff writers Amy Mariani and Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

A police officer runs in front of the USF library Monday after someone called the Sheriff’s Office and said someone dressed in black was carrying a bomb and a gun in the area.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

A police officer runs in front of the USF library Monday after someone called the Sheriff’s Office and said someone dressed in black was carrying a bomb and a gun in the area.

Timeline of police lockdown at USF

1:36 p.m.: A caller tells the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that someone he knows is near the library with a bomb and a gun.

1:43 p.m.: USF police arrive at the library.

1:51 p.m.: The campus warns students by text message. Sirens blare across campus.

2:32 p.m.: The university's transportation office calls to report someone stood up on a shuttle bus and identified himself as the suspect who prompted the campus lockdown. Police go bus by bus, clearing people off.

2:52 p.m.: Campus police take bus passenger Vincent Thomas Perry McCoy, 23, left, into custody without struggle.

3:05 p.m.: A tipster reports seeing a white man in a hat with a big knife and a puppy at Cooper Hall.

3:48 p.m.: Police detain the man but let him go. Though wearing a small sheath, he hadn't exposed the blade.

4:22 p.m.: The lockdown is lifted for most of the campus.

5:18 p.m.: After a bomb squad checks out McCoy's backpack, the rest of the lockdown is lifted.

7:32 p.m.: McCoy is booked into the Hillsborough County Jail on a felony charge of falsely reporting the planting of a bomb on state property.

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One arrested after false report of man wielding gun, bomb, knife sends scare through USF in Tampa 10/05/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 6, 2009 11:15am]

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