WYTHEVILLE, Va. – A daylong standoff at a small-town Virginia post office ended peacefully Wednesday with three hostages set free and a disabled suspect surrendering to police in a wheelchair.
Warren "Gator" Taylor of Sullivan County, Tenn., was being questioned and authorities do not yet have a motive, state police Sgt. Michael Conroy said.
The standoff began at about 2:30 p.m. when shots were fired in the freestanding, one-story brick post office in the mountain town of Wytheville in western Virginia. No one was injured, and at least two of the hostages were able to call family or friends.
It ended about 8 1/2 hours later without the dozens of SWAT members armed with automatic weapons having to fire a shot.
"We're just grateful it ended peacefully," Conroy said. "This is just the best outcome we could hope for."
Police in the town of about 8,500 in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains told the Wytheville Enterprise that the suspect had what appeared to be plastic explosives strapped to his chest.
However, although police found weapons, they located no explosives on Taylor or his wheelchair, Conroy said. Authorities were searching the building and Taylor's truck also, he said. He confirmed that several shots were fired inside the downtown post office, but did not reveal what type of weapons were used.
FBI negotiators had been talking with Taylor throughout the evening, and a state trooper delivered food to the door, which was picked up by one of the hostages. Originally, the town mayor said five hostages were taken. Later, he said some of the people thought missing had been accounted for, but he wasn't sure how many remained.
After hours and hours of little activity on a night that was growing colder, at about 11 p.m., authorities using a bullhorn told the suspect: "Come out with your hands up."
Soon after, one by one, the hostages walked down about 20 steps in front of the building with their hands up. As the three came closer to police, they lifted their shirts to show they had no weapons.
Taylor, who Conroy said has an artificial leg, came out last, wheeling down a ramp from the building. A bomb-sniffing robot went up to him, examined him and he also lifted his shirt. Taylor, a heavy-set man wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, then got out of the wheelchair under his own power and lay down face-first on the cold concrete.
He got back up and was taken away in a police vehicle.
"It proves it can happen anywhere at anytime," Mayor Trent Crewe said. "Why he picked here, I don't know."
Conroy said little was known about Taylor, not even his age. He did not know if Taylor had a military background.
The suspect made no demands other than to ask for a pizza, said Pete Rendina, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Carlton Austin said his daughter, postal worker Margie Austin, was among the hostages. She managed to call a family friend around 4:30 p.m. and said she was fine.
Niki Oliver told the Enterprise that her brother, Jimmy Oliver, was one of the hostages and had been able to phone family members.
"We love you," she yelled to him as his mother was speaking to him on the phone.
She said her brother went to the post office to mail a Christmas gift to his son.
Postal worker Walt Korndoerfer said he was in the building when he heard shots and a co-worker ran past. He called police and then ran himself.
His wife, Christine Korndoerfer, said he called around 3:30 p.m. to tell her he had gotten out safely.
"My husband is not one to get upset," she said. "When he called, I don't think I've ever heard him so upset."
Jim Daniels, 62, a retired coal miner stood at the police tape with wife, June, watching as the situation unfolded.
"This is horrible and right before Christmas," he said.
The traditional-looking American town was decked out for Christmas and the downtown was crowded with shoppers when the hostage standoff began. But police advised store workers and those in other nearby buildings to leave as authorities cordoned off a three-block area surrounding the post office and snipers stood at the ready on some roof tops.
June Daniels could only shake her head as she watched the SWAT members in flak jackets, guns at the ready.
"I can only imagine what their families are going through," she said of the hostages. "The fear. It's just not right. Why in the world would anyone do this?"