Buchanan County deputies investigating a report of a robbery at Roger’s Service Center in Vansant on Sunday afternoon were met by gunfire from long range, Virginia State Police said. Two were hit and died at the scene. Two others who arrived also were shot, said State Police Sgt. Steve Lowe.
One deputy has life-threatening injuries and the other was in serious condition, state police said. No names were released late Sunday.
A candlelight vigil for the four officers was planned Monday evening at the Buchanan County Courthouse in Grundy, according to two Facebook pages set up in honor of the deputies.
Christina Stiltner lives across the street from the salvage yard and had just walked into her home with her 10-year-old son when she heard “pow, pow, pow.”
She opened her front door and saw one deputy run into a neighbor’s yard. She heard another “pow” and the deputy went down. He was one of the injured, she said.
“It scares you so much,” she said. “I sat there thinking ‘what’s the number to 911’? It shocked me so badly, I didn’t know the number to 911.”
Residents said such violence is rare in the rural area of about 1,000 people, though in January 2002, a student opened fire on the Appalachian School of Law campus in Grundy just down the road from Vansant after learning he had flunked out of school.
The school’s dean, a professor and a student were killed in the attack. Three other students were wounded. The shooter, Peter Odighizuwa, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
“This is a laid-back community. Everybody knows everybody,” said Tivis O’Quinn, 68, who has lived in Vansant for 40 years and operates a business less than a mile from the salvage yard. “Nothing like this ever takes place, except for the law school shooting.”
Police did not say what sort of weapon was used, but Lowe said the suspect shot from long range. The owner of the salvage yard told police his business was being robbed and he had blocked the suspect’s vehicle with his own.
State police and other officers found the suspect after a two-hour search and after “some sort of engagement” they shot and killed him, Lowe said.
“I’m not sure what the confrontation was when they encountered him,” Lowe said. “Apparently he was identified as the right person.”
Lowe said he didn’t know if the man fired on police, or if he was armed at the time.
Stiltner said she knew all the deputies involved in the attack because they would often stop by the gas station and restaurant where she works.
Stiltner said she wasn’t allowed to return to her home seven hours after the shootings ended. Several other residents were out of their homes late Sunday.
Vansant is a former coal mining town in the mountainous region of southwestern Virginia. O’Quinn said the community experiences “little petty thefts now and then,” but nothing like what occurred Sunday.
On display in O’Quinn’s office was a 2011 calendar of the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department. The photo features the department’s 47 members, including Foster and 24 uniformed deputies.
Buchanan County Sheriff Ray Foster called the shooting “one of a kind” for his department but declined to say anymore.
According to the website The Officer Down Memorial Page, the last Buchanan County sheriff to die in the line of duty was in 1975 of a heart attack. The website lists four on-duty deaths for the department since 1905. The last by gunfire was in 1964.