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Bomb threat part of a pattern of 16 similar incidents in two days, sheriff says

Sheriff Lowell Griffin speaks to reporters about the bomb threat that forced evacuation of North Henderson High and Apple Valley Middle schools. Sheriff Lowell Griffin speaks to reporters about the bomb threat that forced evacuation of North Henderson High and Apple Valley Middle schools.

The suspicious package that caused the evacuation of North Henderson High School and Apple Valley Middle School appears to be consistent with a pattern of similar threats at 16 high schools in 13 North Carolina counties in the past two days, Sheriff Lowell Griffin said Thursday.

Investigators are focusing on the similarities in the bomb threat cases, which besides their prevalence in North Carolina have been reported as far away as Florida and Tacoma, Washington.

"We've learned that this event seems to be associated with a disturbing pattern of similar calls across the state," Griffin said in a news conference held jointly with Schools Superintendent John Bryant six hours after the bomb threat forced students and staff from the two schools. "It's my understanding that very similar situations have occurred at 16 different North Carolina high schools encompassing 13 different counties beginning on April 5. I've just now received information from a federal authority that says this spans as far as Tacoma, Washington, and even threats made at schools in Florida."

Because so many bomb threat incidents have suddenly popped up under similar circumstances, Griffin said he expects that the SBI and federal investigators will help Henderson County detectives hunt for suspects and solve the crime.

“Basically we're looking at something that might not only be statewide, but maybe national," he said.

Griffin described the package as looking "like something you might find in any school."

But based on information from the caller who told a 911 dispatcher that there was a bomb in a North Henderson classroom, detectives approached the scene with cautious and called in bomb-sniffing dogs from Buncombe County and explosive ordnance teams.

The caller "gave us some specifics that would make this package sound like it was potentially harmful," he said. "And it was to that point that it really caused us to move into the state of alert that we were in. There's a point where — although we wonder, sometimes, is this actually a real event, or is this a hoax? — ourselves and Henderson County Public Schools, we will choose to err on the side of caution. We want to make sure above all that our students are safe and if it's a hoax, whatever the case may be, we'll deal with that subsequently."

It's unclear whether the North Henderson incident is related to two other nearby bomb threats, one in Transylvania County and one in Rutherford County.

"What I will say is, with my conversations with the SBI, and with North Carolina emergency management, we have strong reason to believe that this is directly connected to several other events that have happened across the state," he said. "We basically have evidence to say this is directly connected."

The sheriff warned that the offense is serious that "will not be treated as a joke."

“This disrupts a lot of lives. This uses up a lot of resources," he said. "Anytime we have an event like this, whether it's actual or it's a hoax. We have successfully investigated cases like this before, and we successfully prosecuted these cases. And that's what we intend to do this time. Although it may seem like a joke to someone, it's far from it. Let me assure you, from the Henderson County Sheriff's Office, we will pursue this with the appropriate criminal charges."

He said his investigators and the SBI are digging into whether information is being shared and in what ways.

"The SBI actually has basically an information center, where they compile a lot of information to include threats that may be pertinent to or within North Carolina, and they are currently trying to compile as much information as we move forward with these investigation," he said. "I have my suspicions."

Griffin made a point of appealing to parents and the school community not to panic or jump to conclusions in a stressful situation involving their children.

"The parents of students in Henderson County, you know, they're great people, they love their children as they should," he said. "There's going to be a great deal of concern. And that concern can drive people to worry even when they they shouldn't be worried, especially when you add false information to that. So we had some folks today that that really weren't aware of what was going on, which caused them, you know, some extreme worries, some extreme despair for a little while.”

In addition to thanking school administrators for their response, Griffin thanked the Hendersonville Police Department, bomb-sniffing dogs from the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office, the Henderson County Fire Marshal's office, Henderson County Emergency Management, Henderson County EMS, Henderson County Rescue Squad and the Dana, Edneyville and Mountain Home fire departments.

Schools Superintendent John Bryant speaks to reporters.Schools Superintendent John Bryant speaks to reporters.Superintendent Bryant also thanked the law officers and praised the schools' response.

"It is on days like today that we want to start with deep gratitude that our students, our staff and our school communities are all safe and well at this time," he said. "And that is a credit to the responsiveness of the staff of our students, and certainly our law enforcement partners."

He also responded to some anxiety parents had expressed about how quickly the schools and sheriff's office made announcements and why the plans for reunification were not announced sooner. After bus riders and students drivers were let go, the school system enacted the reunification plan to bus children to Fruitland Bible College for pickup by their parents.

“As the sheriff said, anytime you're dealing with a crisis situation, the information can't be communicated fast enough," Bryant said. "That's always true. Our gold standard is making sure that that information is accurate, timely, and that we are certain of what we are communicating. The sheriff said the exact same thing: we push it out as soon as we can when we know what the circumstances are."

“I don't think that there's a parent in our community that doesn't want to know in real time what's taking place,” he added. “And because we have to make sure that we balance accurate communication with timely communication, we're going to always push it as fast as we can.”

The sheriff added that his department provides the security for a location to reunite students with parents and needs time to make sure everything is safe.

“If we were to prematurely say we're evacuating students to a location, before we have secured that location, and we're able to secure the routes to that location, if we've got threats on on campus, we don't we don't want somebody figuring out ahead of time where the students may be headed (and) the way they may be headed there," he said.

Griffin said he could not at this time identify the approximate age nor the gender of the caller, noting that the perpetrator could have used voice-distorting technology. Although it's possible to identify where the call originated, that too could be thwarted. "There's also a lot of technology out there that bad guys use," he said.

The school system announced Thursday afternoon that students could collect any items left behind from 3 to 4 p.m. today. Class resumes Friday morning at both schools.