Arrest made in threat

Conditions at Ayers expected back to normal

T-L Photo/MIRANDA SEBROSKI All is quiet at Ayers Elementary School in Martins Ferry early Monday evening after police arrested a man suspected of making a threat against specific students there. The school was locked down for a time on Monday.

MARTINS FERRY — Officials expected everything to return to normal at Ayers Elementary School today after a man who allegedly directed at threat toward some children there was arrested Monday.

City Police Chief John McFarland said Thomas “Tommy” Smith was arrested Monday afternoon after investigators uncovered evidence that he made a threat via social media that led to a lockdown of the school. Smith was at the Belmont County Jail that evening in lieu of $23,500 total bond on charges of aggravated menacing, making terroristic threats, inducing panic and telephone harassment.

Smith’s address was not listed on his arrest record at the jail, but McFarland said the 35-year-old man grew up in Martins Ferry and, to the chief’s knowledge, still resides in the city. McFarland said all charges against Smith are related to private messages he allegedly sent to a woman via social media. That woman has a child who attends Ayers Elementary and alerted the school administration, according to Superintendent Jim Fogle.

McFarland speculated that Smith previously was involved in a relationship with the woman and got upset after recently communicating with her.

“He commented that ‘your children won’t make it home safe,'” McFarland said of the threatening message allegedly sent by Smith.

Fogle said the school district followed its established procedures for responding to such a situation. He said school officials immediately contacted the Martins Ferry Police Department and locked down the elementary school when he received word of the threat sometime after 10 a.m.

“The school did an excellent job responding to the incident,” McFarland said. “We called extra officers in to help with security. The kids are priority No. 1, and we had to make sure the entire campus was safe.”

McFarland said some of the city’s own off-duty officers responded to the call for assistance and extra manpower, as did a Bridgeport police officer whose child attends school in the Martins Ferry district.

“We had mothers and fathers who were visibly upset,” McFarland added. “I saw (one parent I knew) up there and it broke my heart.

“This disrupted everyone’s day and put fear and shock into parents’ hearts,” the chief continued. “We’re not going to take it lightly. If you make a comment like that, you’re going to be arrested and you’re going be taken to jail.”

Information from the Belmont County Jail indicates Smith is awaiting arraignment in Eastern Division Court. McFarland said he expects that proceeding to occur Wednesday. The chief said the arresting officers did not find any weapons in Smith’s possession, nor did they find any evidence that he had plans to attack or carry out the threats he allegedly made.

McFarland commended Fogle and the entire school staff for their reaction to the situation. He also singled out two officers with praise.

“My officers did a great job,” he said, giving special credit to Sgt. Jerry Murphy and Officer George Shreve. “They were real quick to gather information on Facebook to help us identify the person responsible for sending these messages. It was not obvious, it took a little bit of leg work. But they got in touch with the right people and everything moved very swiftly.”

Fogle said in addition to meeting with police department representatives and posting extra officers in buildings and at gates, school officials notified parents of the situation through the district’s “Rider Watch” AllCall automated communications system. Another message went out later in the day to inform parents a suspect had been arrested.

“I can’t thank Chief McFarland and the police department (enough) for their incredible work,” Fogle said. “They go above and beyond when it comes to our kids. First and foremost is the safety of our students and/or staff.”

Despite the fact that the elementary school was locked down, classes were dismissed as usual Monday. Fogle said the building principal made an announcement informing students of the lockdown. He said the children reacted calmly, and that may be a result of schools holding drills to prepare for such incidents once every nine weeks.

“They did exactly what they were asked to do,” Fogle said of the students. “We couldn’t be happier that they reacted in that manner.”