Police: Ohio man planning bank robbery used threats to Norwin, Jeannette schools as diversion
An Ohio man wearing an elaborate mask to make him appear decades older slipped a note across a North Huntingdon restaurant counter Tuesday morning that warned of “an active shooter threat and multiple bombs” at Norwin and Jeannette high schools, authorities reported.
The ruse by Luke J. Dell, 35, of Beavercreek, Ohio, was intended as a diversion to a planned bank robbery — which police said a local patrolman foiled when he pulled Dell over on his way to the heist.
Donning a rubber mask depicting the wrinkled face of an aging white man with disheveled blond-gray hair, eyebrows and beard, Dell entered a Bob Evans Restaurant on Route 30 around 9:15 a.m. and placed a note on the counter describing the school threats, said Chief Robert Rizzo of the North Huntingdon Police Department.
“Dell admitted that he passed the note … in order to get police to respond to the threat at the schools,” Rizzo said.
Restaurant employees immediately called police and provided photographs of the man along with the black Dodge Charger he was driving. Police soon learned the Charger had a Pennsylvania license plate stolen off a car on Robbins Station Road.
Around 11 a.m., “a North Huntingdon officer who was going to the Robbins Station Road address then noticed the black Dodge Charger with the stolen license plate on it (ahead of him) … and performed a traffic stop,” Rizzo said.
Police did not identify the bank they claim Dell intended to rob.
Dell is charged with risking a catastrophe, making terroristic threats, reckless threats to use weapons of mass destruction and theft of a license plate. He was awaiting arraignment Tuesday afternoon.
Gongaware denied bail for Dell ordering him held in the county prison, saying that he made a terroristic threat toward two school districts and that he was carrying items that could have been a bomb.
Dell attempted to explain that the terroristic threat of which he is accused was not really a threat, but a warning to the schools.
Gongaware, however, cut off Dell’s explanation, telling him that he should not speak without an attorney and that what he was saying in the courtroom could be used against him.
Dell was in handcuffs and shackles as he was led out of Gongaware’s office to await transport to the prison. His hearing is scheduled Nov. 27.
Det. William Henderson said that Dell has a friend in the North Huntingdon area. Although Dell told police he had bought a gun, Henderson said they did not find any gun on him or any bomb.
The note left at Bob Evans caused school officials to cancel classes at both high schools so police could search the buildings.
“North Huntingdon Township Police report that the subject of their community investigation has been identified, is in police custody, and is no longer a threat,” Norwin School District said in a statement.
Norwin, at the advice of police, dismissed its high school students at 11 a.m. so police dogs could search the school “as a precautionary measure.”
The school district’s statement at 9:50 a.m. said that it was placing the high school, middle school, Hillcrest Intermediate School and Hahntown Elementary School on a modified lockdown, meaning no one was permitted to enter or exit the buildings.
That lockdown was lifted after Dell’s arrest, officials said.
Secondary students in Jeannette also were dismissed at 11 a.m. as a precaution, Superintendent Matthew Jones said.
“Upon notification (of the threat), the two Jeannette School District campus locations were put on a modified lockdown. Jeannette police and administration worked in concert with North Huntingdon police and Norwin school officials to share information and discuss actions to be taken,” Jones said.
“As the suspect was taken into custody, school officials felt it would be appropriate to conduct a complete and thorough search of the building with canine units,” Jones said.
In a letter to parents that Jones posted to Facebook, he said police conducted numerous sweeps inside and outside the schools and found nothing. He said police dogs also searched the junior-senior high school.
About 1 p.m., Norwin Superintendent Jeffrey Taylor said police determined “that the threats were not credible.”
“However, as an additional precaution, the high school students and employees were dismissed early so that bomb detection canines could search the high school. During the police search of the high school, nothing of a threatening nature was found, and police have determined that the building can resume normal operations,” Taylor said.
Taylor said all previously scheduled after-school activities would be held Tuesday.
As part of the investigation, police issued an alert at 10:40 a.m. that motorists should avoid Robbins Station Road at Clay Pike Road because it was blocked while state police hazardous device and explosives personnel searched Dell’s vehicle. Rizzo said no explosives were found.
That area to Route 30 reopened about 1 p.m.
If convicted of the charges, Dell faces a maximum prison sentence of 29 years in prison and fines in excess of $50,000, Gongaware said.