YOUNTVILLE, Calif. — A gunman slipped into an employee going-away party at the largest veterans home in the United States and took three people hostage Friday morning in a shootout and standoff that has kept the sprawling California grounds locked down for hours, authorities and family members said.
Nearly eight hours after the standoff began at about 10:30 a.m., authorities said they still didn’t know what was going on inside the room where the gunman and the hostages were.
California Highway Patrol Sgt. Robert Nacke told reporters Friday evening that the conditions of the hostages were not known and that negotiators had not been able to reach the gunman by phone after trying for several hours.
Nacke said the situation remained “dynamic and active” during the brief news conference and that police tactical teams were deciding how to proceed.
Authorities said they know who the gunman is but didn’t reveal his identity or know the motive for the attack at the state-run Veterans Home of California-Yountville, in one of Napa Valley’s most upscale towns in the heart of wine country.
A sheriff’s deputy responding to an emergency call shortly after 10 a.m. got into a shootout with the gunman, but the officer was not injured.
“We are approaching this as an active-shooter situation,” Napa County Sheriff John Robertson told reporters. “There was an exchange of gunfire by both our deputy and the suspect. There were many bullets fired.”
Larry Kamer told The Associated Press that his wife, Devereaux Smith, was at a morning staff party and told him by phone that the gunman had entered the room quietly, letting some people leave while taking others hostage.
Smith, a fundraiser for the non-profit Pathway Home, was still inside the facility’s dining hall and was not allowed to leave, he said. The Pathway Home, a privately run program on the grounds of the veterans home, treats veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The three hostages were Pathway House employees, California Highway Patrol Assistant Chief Chris Childs said. The gunman, who had a rifle, was confined to one room and authorities were trying to reach him on his cellphone and facility landlines as hostage negotiators stood by, he said.
Police evacuated the property and closed off nearby roads. An armoured police vehicle, ambulances and several firetrucks were at the facility, which houses about 1,000 residents.
Army veteran and resident Bob Sloan, 73, was working at the home’s TV station when a co-worker came in and said he had heard four gunshots coming from the Pathway Home. Sloan sent alerts for residents to stay put.
“People are starting to get concerned because it’s been going on for so long,” he told AP by phone from inside the lockdown.
Except for helicopters buzzing overhead, the home was eerily quiet, Sloan said, adding that he could see police with “long-barrel assault-type weapons” crouching around the building, some taking cover behind trees.
Jan Thornton of Vallejo, California, was among hundreds of relatives worried about how their loved ones were coping with the lockdown. Thornton said her 96-year-old father, a World War II fighter pilot, was inside a hospital wing and that she had reached one of his friends who said he was safe.
Still, she worried about the stress of the lockdown, considering her father’s age and that he has PTSD and some dementia. Thornton said her “heart just bleeds for the people that are being held hostage.”
A group of about 80 students who were on the home’s grounds were safely evacuated after being locked down, the sheriff said. The teens from Justin-Siena High School were at a theatre rehearsing a play.
“They were a distance away from the shooting situation,” Robertson said.
Some of the children were driven away on school buses and others in cars. Sasha Craig spotted a car carrying her 15- and 17-year-old children and ran toward it blowing kisses.
“There are my kids,” she said. Like many parents, she was texting with her children inside and said the teenagers were telling their parents to “chill.”
The state Veterans Affairs department says the home that opened in 1984 is the nation’s largest veterans home, with about 1,000 elderly and disabled residents.
Yvette Bennett, a wound-care supply worker who supplies the veterans centre, was turned back when she tried to deliver what she called urgently needed medical supplies for two patients inside.
Of all the medical institutions she has worked with, “this is the most placid, calm, serene place,” she said. Earlier this week, when she last visited, she asked a doctor, “What’s your magic here?”
“And then 48 hours later this happens,” Bennett said.
Yountville is a small town that’s home to wineries such as Domaine Chandon, which is less than a half-mile from the veterans facility, and Thomas Keller’s famed restaurant The French Laundry, which is about a mile away.
Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez, Paul Elias and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Amanda Lee Myers in Los Angeles and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.
Ellen Knickmeyer And Janie Har, The Associated Press