TAMPA — The call came in to the University of South Florida police Friday afternoon that a man, possibly armed, had jumped a fence on the south side of the university’s health complex.
Minutes later, the campus was locked down, dozens of police, some carrying high-powered rifles, had swarmed the area and thousands of text alerts were sent out warning USF students and faculty an armed intruder might on campus.
The high-intensity response was the latest example of the seriousness with which campus and local police view reports that an armed gunman could be in the area, particularly in high-visibility public spaces like college campuses.
The call about the gunman came in the wake of a rampage by a lone gunman at the Washington Navy Yard that left 13 people dead, including the shooter. And earlier this month, the USF area was terrorized by a man who sexually assaulted four USF students, threatened a group of partygoers at gunpoint and led police on a high-speed chase before dying in a hail of bullets in front of a Waffle House on U.S. 301.
“We would not second-guess anything,” said Lt. Charlotte Domingo, a USF police spokeswoman. “It’s today. That’s our world. We’re going to respond to the incident with the tools available to us to take care of the situation.’’
Friday’s call about the gunman brought normal student activities to a halt for hours. Armed officers marched from room to room searching for the gunman, evacuating students, staff and faculty in the process. Officers escorted hundreds of people who were inside the building to nearby parking lots.
After more than three hours of searching interconnected buildings that totaled 350,000 square feet, USF police declared the area clear and allowed everyone to return to the buildings. The suspect -- described as a black male with short hair wearing a blue shirt and khaki shorts -- was never located.
On Friday afternoon, USF medical students Olivia Kent and Suroosh Marzban were in class when a police officer knocked on their classroom door and told them to evacuate.
Kent said the officer had the gun out of the holster and pointed to the ground. She whirled around and repeated the officer’s message. In a rush, she forgot her purse and keys.
Police escorted them along the hallway. At each corner there was an armed officer guiding them to the exit as another officer escorted them out.
“It didn’t hit me until we got into the parking lot and I saw how big the guns were and how many officers there were,” Marzban said. “It’s a situation you don’t come across every day. But I felt they kept us safe.”
The health complex includes the College of Nursing, the College of Medicine, the medical clinic and the medical library. Nearby are the Shriners Hospital, Moffitt Cancer Center and the Morsani College of Medicine.
Kevin Kip, a professor at the college of nursing, said he and his co-workers initially received a text alert from university officials telling them to stay indoors. Police entered the building with guns drawn and searched room-to-room. At one time, an estimated 30 police officers had surrounded the health complex, Kip said.
Domingo said her department received a call at 1:41 p.m. regarding a man jumping a fence on the south side of the health complex. The man dropped what appeared to be a handgun, picked it up, then headed north toward the cluster of health buildings, she said. Carrying a concealed weapon is not allowed on campus, Domingo said.
Kristen Marcet, a USF basic life support instructor, said she was in the clinical simulation center when an officer walked in and told them to leave. She said as she left the hallway, there was an officer every 10 feet.
“I just think the police handled the situation appropriately,” Marcet said. “They brought out a lot of their force. They didn’t mess around. They took it seriously.”