Suicidal man at Orlando airport in custody and ‘everyone safe,’ police say
A suicidal man at Orlando International Airport who pointed what turned out to be a fake gun at police and begged, “shoot me, shoot me,” was taken into custody Tuesday night, nearly three hours after officers surrounded the screaming suspect.
No shots were fired and no one was injured during the standoff as a crisis negotiator talked to the suspect, identified as 26-year-old Michael Wayne Pettigrew, who served as a Marine from 2009-2012.
During the ordeal, scared travelers tried to hide or flee, some planes were delayed and roads to Orlando International were temporarily closed.
Hundreds of officers from several Central Florida agencies swarmed the airport after receiving the initial report at 7:24 p.m., Orlando Police Chief John Mina said.
“When the officers got there, they realized this was a person in mental distress and wanted to do the whole ‘suicide by cop’ thing,” Mina said.
In a video posted to Twitter from a witness huddled behind a service counter, an officer could be heard telling the suspect, “You’re not going to prison, Michael, you’re going to the hospital.”
“Please don’t lie to me, sir,” the man cried back.
Mina said Pettigrew pointed the weapon at officers and at his head during the incident, reportedly telling police, “shoot me, shoot me.” Police would later find out it was a fake handgun.
The man had the weapon on the first floor of the airport in the rental-car area, airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said.
“There is no active shooter. No shots fired,” the Orlando Police Department said on social media after false reports of a shooting at the airport circulated. The department on social media asked people to stop reporting unconfirmed information.
Pettigrew was taken to a hospital but will face a charge of aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer, Mina said. Chairman of the agency that runs the airport, Frank Kruppenbacher, said Pettigrew had no connection to the airport.
Glorializ Colón Plaza, 20, said she was just getting off work from Virgin Atlantic airlines when she saw everyone hiding. She got off the elevator and saw the man on the floor near the rental-car area. He was screaming, and cops had surrounded him.
“I couldn’t make out the words, but he was screaming really loud,” she said. “Everyone there told me right before this happened a man said to everyone: ‘You’re going to need mental therapy after this,’ then he pulled out a gun and everyone ran.”
Plaza said she didn’t hear any gunshots or see anyone who was injured.
“I saw all the cops with the long rifles and started shaking,” she said. “It didn’t seem real.”
The crisis negotiator eventually got Pettigrew to drop the gun and lie down on the floor, Mina said.
The incident caused some disorder for passengers attempting to come through the airport.
Lawrence Wilbanks, 54, landed from Chicago at about 7:20 p.m. He spotted his two bags at baggage claim and started walking over when officials ushered him and everyone else away.
He did not know what was happening. His family members, who live in the area, were supposed to pick him up when he landed and, two and a half hours later, he did not know if they showed up and had no way of contacting them because he did not have his cell phone and hadn’t memorized their numbers.
It was inconvenient, he said, but he was taking it in stride.
“I’d rather be a little inconvenienced than have something really bad happen,” he said.
Police were controlling the situation well, he said.
“I commend them, they handled it pretty good,” he said. “It could have been worse, it could have been widespread panic.”
Mike Walsh and his girlfriend Celeste Peloquin said they arrived about 8:30 p.m. on a Southwest flight from Delaware into Terminal A.
They saw officers with police dogs directing people. They eventually found their way to baggage claim and hopped on a shuttle to one of the long term off site lots.
“It was scary,” said Peloquin of The Villages. “The airport was lit up like Christmas.”
Fennell said law enforcement cleared the first floor. Terminal A was shut down, and traffic entering the airport was at a standstill.
All roads leading to the airport were shut down after the incident, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. FHP troopers were telling those in the area to “stay in your vehicle and away from law enforcement personnel.” All roads were reopened by midnight, FHP said.
Throughout the incident, airport officials continued operations in the B side of the airport.
James Roland, a supervisor at Wally Park, an off-site airport lot, said he had customers who were stuck at the airport after arriving.
“We didn’t know what was going on — we just knew it was big,” he said.
By 10 p.m., other than a few airport employees blocking the escalators to baggage claim and a few television news crews on scene, little looked out of the ordinary on the main terminal floor. The line for TSA was estimated at 3 to 7 minutes.
Nearly a year after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Mina said the department has “been training all of [their] officers to respond to this type of incident at the airport.”
“We are constantly updating training and look back at past experiences,” Mina said.
Orange County deputies and the Maitland and Winter Park police departments also responded to the scene.
“You couldn’t have had a better group of people responding to what was truly a very dangerous situation,” Kruppenbacher said.
Staff writers Ryan Gillespie and David Harris contributed to this report.
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