On Monday morning, August 30, 2010, Thomas Richard Cowan loaded 13 bullets into two handguns, left his German shepherd chained to the fence and drove eight miles from his home in Kingsport to Sullivan Central High School. Whatever his mission, it was the 62-year-old Vietnam veteran’s final drive. For about an hour, Cowan’s armed invasion spread panic throughout the school before a burst of officers’ gunfire brought him down. No others were injured.
No one knows why Cowan pointed his Honda in the direction of the Blountville, Tenn., high school, where his brother is a janitor. He is described – in court records and interviews – as a peculiar man with a history of erratic, sometimes criminal, behavior and a deep suspicion of the government. He parked his car Monday morning in a handicapped space just in front of the school’s main entrance. Second period was just getting under way at 9:10 a.m. when Ashley Thacker, a junior, arrived at the main entrance of her high school. Thacker, 16, had been at a doctor’s appointment and was on her way to a music theory class as she approached the locked doors.
She noticed a man standing in the 10-foot waiting area between the two sets of doors, waiting to be buzzed in. His bald crown was framed with brown hair. He had a mustache, she remembered, and he was holding a cane. He told her to go on ahead of him. But she never made it through the doors. Instead, Melanie Riden, principal of Sullivan Central, came striding through the locked doors. “He pulled out his gun and started pointing it at people,” Thacker said. Cowan trained a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol at Riden’s face, said Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson.
Carolyn Gudger, the school resource officer, drew her gun, then shielded the principal’s body with her own.
Thacker remembers Cowan shouting something – possibly including the words “10 years” – but she isn’t sure. She turned and ran out the set of public doors to the mulch pile in the front of the school, and hid behind bushes. “He might shoot someone,” Thacker remembered thinking. “I just wanted to get out of there.”
Riden fled and Gudger inched back into the school, leading Cowan through the scattered pastel chairs in the empty cafeteria. It was a tactical move, meant to lure the gunman into a more contained place, Anderson said. Sullivan County dispatch sent out a chilling alert: “Man with a gun at Central High School.”
Gudger told him to drop his weapon; he demanded she drop hers. Once, he tried, unsuccessfully, to lunge for her gun. Cowan repeated one thing only, Anderson said. That he wanted to pull the fire alarms. “I don’t know why, we can only speculate about that and I think everyone will speculate why he wanted to pull a fire alarm,” Anderson said. “Either to get the kids out of class or, I don’t know. We don’t know.”
Flattened against the bushes, Ashley Thacker waited two minutes, she thinks. “I didn’t hear anything else, so I thought Officer Gudger had arrested him.” She was wrong. As she approached the school, two assistant principals opened a window and yelled at her to run away. Crying and shaking, Thacker ran to her car and drove a half-mile to her parents’ business.
The view from the classroom
At about 9:15 a.m., a shaken voice came over the intercom. “Code red. Lockdown.” There was profanity in the background. This was no drill, students realized. With the announcement, teachers sprang into action – locking doors and papering over windows, turning off the lights and closing window blinds. Students huddled in the corners of classrooms, sitting in the darkness and searching for information with a storm of text messages.
Casey Deel, a 17-year-old senior, was on his way to a doctor’s office when his girlfriend, Alicia Edwards, sent him a text at 9:15 a.m. “There’s a code red lock down. im scared,” the 16-year-old junior texted from her government class. “r u serious?” Deel texted back. He skipped his appointment. In Kayla Nichols’ cosmetology class, students squeezed into a storage room the size of a parking space, and locked the door, the 17-year-old said. Ryan Kendrick was in algebra class, just off the main office. The 17-year-old senior thought he heard the gunman making threats – about not leaving the building alive and taking others with him – and Gudger urging him to calm down.
Then he heard a volley of gunshots. Kendrick and his friend, Andrew Ray, began to pray. Landon Sillyman was in his honors biology class, where the teacher had instructed students to put their heads on their desks in the darkened classroom. The 14-year-old freshman estimated the suspense lasted about an hour. But it was all over in minutes, Anderson estimated.
One hundred and twenty seconds after Cowan drew his gun, two deputies, Lt. Steve Williams and Sam Matney, arrived. They entered through separate doors and met Cowan and Gudger – still in a moving standoff – as they reached a science pod behind the cafeteria. Cowan wavered; he jerked his gun from Gudger to the other deputies then back again. The three officers told him, again, to drop his weapon. He wouldn’t. So they opened fire. Some students counted five shots, others counted six. Anderson would not say how many rounds hit the gunman.
Cowan fell to the ground, his shoes just feet from door to the library full of teenagers. The pistol in his hand had seven bullets in the magazine and another in the chamber. He had a second handgun in his back pocket, loaded with five rounds. “That’s how close he was,” Anderson said. “We all know this could have been much more dangerous.”
Yes, it could have been much worse. It could have been another national headline about multiple deaths, sparking a national outcry for stricter gun laws. But it wasn’t. Why? Because the good people of Tennessee have enough sense to place armed officers inside of our schools to protect our children.