Student with rifle sparks St. John’s lock down

This breaking news story was covered by Queens Courier reporters Nick Brown, Tonia N. Cimino, Pete Davis, Jessica Lyons, Victor G. Mimoni and Christina Santucci. It was written by Tonia N. Cimino.
A 22-year-old student was arrested on the St. John’s University campus for carrying a .50-caliber Wolf rifle, police said.
Campus security was alerted by off-duty police cadet Christopher Benson, 21, that freshman Omesh Hiraman, of East Elmhurst, was carrying the powerful firearm in a black bag at approximately 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 26 near Marillac Hall.
University Public Safety officers quickly disarmed the suspect, who was wearing a George Bush mask, and turned him over to the New York Police Department (NYPD). There were no injuries.
Divya Madhu, a freshman from New Hyde Park, was on the first floor of Marillac Hall, while the gunman was on the second floor. She witnessed the arrest.
“We walked over and the cops were holding him down and they were holding the rifle in the air,” she said.
When Madhu arrived home, she heard Hiraman’s name on the radio, and realized that he was in her Discovering New York freshmen honor’s class, which was supposed to meet at 3:30 that day.
“He seemed very quiet and unsocial with others,” Madhu said. “A lot of people used to make fun of the way he walked.”
However, she struck up a friendship with him, and they even walked out of class together on Monday, September 24.
“I couldn’t imagine it being him,” Madhu said.
“I got to campus at about 2:30 p.m. and they had already blocked off one part of campus,” said senior Cyrina Lewis. “I saw a police car, and a guy handcuffed. We heard that he had a rifle and a George Bush mask, but honestly, there was a lot of confusion.”
The campus was locked down, and SWAT teams swarmed the grounds, searching for additional possible suspects.
Students and teachers were instructed to remain inside classrooms until further notice by text messages, public address system announcements and emails in addition to an alert statement posted on the school’s web site.
The university recently implemented an emergency alert text message system, and students who had signed up for the service received a text at 2:46 p.m. stating to the effect that a man with a rifle was on campus and telling everyone to stay in place.
A second message went out at 3:32 p.m., saying, “Male was found on campus with rifle. Please stay in your buildings until further notice. He is in custody.”
“They definitely didn’t want us to leave,” said journalism professor Roger Wetherington, who was locked in his office in Bent Hall, across from Marillac. “They had a police helicopter fly over and what looked like a police bus of some sort. The new emergency system worked, so that’s a bright side.”
Volleyball player Viola Leszczysnka, a senior, said that she was practicing with her team in Carnesecca Arena when an announcement was made.
“All of a sudden a lot of people came into the gym,” she said. “We were told to stay. We weren’t even allowed to leave the court.”
Concerned loved ones flocked to the area, but were kept at a safe distance by authorities on the scene. Friends and families kept in touch with students locked down on the campus by using cell phones.
“I’ve been keeping in contact with my family,” said Taryn Zuvizarreta, a freshman. “They’ve been calling a lot.”
Following Hiraman’s arrest, he was taken to the 107th Precinct in Fresh Meadows.
Additional SWAT teams went to the home Hiraman shares with his parents at 31st Avenue and 92nd Street in East Elmhurst and conducted searches for further evidence, and a potential motive.
The St. John’s campus was declared secure and taken out of lock down status at about 5:30 p.m., nearly three hours after the ordeal began.
Stanley Dennis of Jamaica expressed relief when his daughter Stanique, a sophomore, walked out of Gate 4, where he was waiting for her.
“I’m so glad,” he told The Queens Courier. “When I realized what could have happened to [my daughter], it’s like a dream come true.”
Many frightened students and parents couldn’t help but draw parallels between this incident and the April 16 shooting on the Virginia Tech campus, where 32 people were killed by student gunman Seung-Hui Cho.
Despite the scare, students and local officials commended St. John’s for their handling of the situation.
Assemblymember Rory Lancman said, “I commend St. John’s University for having the foresight to prepare for an incident such as this by establishing a text-message-based emergency notification system, enabling students and the community residents to take immediate steps to protect themselves. Government at all levels must work with our colleges and universities to ensure that proper safeguards and procedures are in place so that future incidents are also resolved without injury to students or residents.”
“After this I think I will sign up for the [emergency] text messaging [service],” said Leszczysnka, who plans to continue her graduate education at St. John’s.
“This can happen anywhere. I’m just glad no one was hurt.”

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