Family and community members on Wednesday were mourning the deaths of two campus officers described as a “dynamic duo” who were shot and killed Tuesday at Bridgewater College in Virginia.
Campus police officer John Painter and campus safety officer JJ Jefferson were close with each other and the college’s students, said David Bushman, the school’s president, in a statement.
“John was JJ’s best man in his wedding this year,” Bushman wrote to the campus community. “They were beloved by students, faculty and staff. I hurt for their families and loved ones, as I know we all do.”
The officers were fatally shot while responding to a report of a suspicious person on the campus of the small liberal arts college Tuesday afternoon located about 125 miles northwest of Richmond. The suspect, who was injured in the shooting, was arrested and charged with murder and other crimes, police said.
‘A sad and dark day’:2 campus officers killed in shooting at Bridgewater College in Virginia
Jefferson’s mother, Willie B. Jefferson, told the Washington Post he was a hard worker who loved his family and had just celebrated his 48th birthday on Saturday.
“I loved my son, and he loved us,” she told the outlet. “He went beyond to help people.”
Jefferson previously worked and took classes at Shenandoah University from 2012 to 2018 where he received an award for his efforts to re-envision campus safety by focusing on relationships between students and the community, according to a statement from President Tracy Fitzsimmons.
Fitzsimmons said colleagues and students remember Jefferson’s warm smile and echoing laugh.
“He was known for walking every inch of main campus throughout the evenings, meeting students and getting to know them well,” Fitzsimmons said. “He would never just secure a building in the evening; instead, he would greet each person he encountered with genuine care and interest while securing buildings.”
Prior to working at Bridgewater, Painter was the chief of the Grottoes Police Department before retiring in 2018, said Mayor Jo Plaster. Painter worked on the force for 18 years, starting as an officer then becoming chief shortly after joining the department.
Plaster told the Staunton News Leader, part of the USA TODAY Network, that Painter was the type of officer who both defended and led the community
“He was the best,” Plaster said. “He was a community leader. He didn’t leave anything unturned.”
‘He was the best’:Former police chief was 1 of 2 officers slain at Bridgewater College
Painter’s brother, Andy, expressed a similar sentiment to the New York Times, saying: “If he knew this morning how his life would end, he still would have gotten up and put the uniform on.”
What happened during the shooting?
Police say the fatal encounter began around 1:20 pm Tuesday when Jefferson and Painter responded to a call about a man “in a location that he shouldn’t have been in,” said Corinne Geller, a spokesperson for the Virginia State Police. a brief interaction, Alexander Wyatt Campbell, 27, allegedly shot the officers.
Although authorities said the shooting happened in a relatively isolated area, students reported hearing gunshots. Giovanni Ardalan, 21, was in his strength and conditioning class on the second floor of Flory Hall when he heard the first gunshot. He and his classmates heard four more consecutive shots and that’s when they dropped to the floor and hid under their desks.
“Then we heard the officer moaning, and when he stopped moaning we all knew that he was gone,” Ardalan told The News Leader. “Both of the officers were killed like five feet away from the building I was in.”
When the commotion ended, he went to the window and saw the two officers on the ground.
After the shooting, police say Campbell fled the scene and waded through knee-high water to an island in the North River where he was taken into custody.
Campbell is being held without bond at Rockingham County Jail. He is charged with two felony counts of capital murder, one felony count of first-degree murder, and one felony count of use of a firearm in the commission of a crime, Geller said.
Officials are working to determine what caused the suspect to shoot the officers.
Bridgewater College is located in the rural farming area of Rockingham County and is religiously affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, which is grounded in nonviolence, peace and simple living.
Contributing: Celina Tebor, USA TODAY; Monique Calello, William Ramsey, Patrick Hite, Brad Zinn, Staunton (Va.) News Leader
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism