After a nearly four-hour standoff that disrupted traffic for tens of thousands of Santa Barbara commuters Monday morning, an alleged gunman was taken into custody on the La Cumbre Road overpass near Calle Real just before 11 a.m.
Santa Barbara police Sgt. Lorenzo Duarte, a department spokesman, said Eddie Van Tassel, a 28-year-old Iraq War veteran, was arrested without incident after being ordered to remove his ski mask and military-style fatigues to ensure he had no other weapons. Van Tassel had surrendered his revolver at about 9:25 a.m.
No shots were fired during the standoff and no injuries were reported.
Also arrested was Aaron Jacob Levy, 33, of Santa Barbara, who police said drove Van Tassel to the scene with the intent of “accomplishing the task,” Duarte said in a statement. Both men were booked into the Santa Barbara County jail.
Van Tassel was arrested on suspicion of possession of a concealed firearm; possession of a dangerous weapon; conspiracy; resisting or delaying arrest; brandishing a firearm toward police officers; disturbing the peace; wearing a mask for the commission of a crime; and permitting another person to operate a vehicle without a valid license. He was also booked on charges of burglary, possession of a concealed firearm and brandishing a firearm for an unrelated incident Friday. (Click here for a related story.)
Levy was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit the brandishing of a firearm toward police officers; disturbing the peace; possession of a dangerous weapon; and driving with a suspended license.
Duarte said multiple 9-1-1 calls were received about 7:10 a.m. reporting a man with a gun and waving an American flag and other objects on the La Cumbre Road overpass at Calle Real and Highway 101 near La Cumbre Plaza. SWAT units and officers from SBPD, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol responded, quickly shutting down La Cumbre Road, Calle Real, the freeway and Modoc Road. Officers loosely surrounded the man, who was wearing a black ski mask and fatigues, and commenced negotiations with him.
For hours the suspect defiantly refused requests to surrender. About an hour after he put down his gun, he began fastening the flag and an Obama-Biden sign to the bridge fence as SWAT teams edged closer. Duarte said Van Tassel had made comments that indicated he was protesting the war in Iraq. As part of the negotiations, Duarte said, the man demanded an Obama-Biden sign. Officers located a sign nearby and delivered it to him using a bomb-squad robot.
An hour after the arrest, the flag and yard sign remained affixed to the fence. A team of investigators was combing a suspicious car that had been parked nearby at La Cumbre Plaza.
The overpass, Highway 101, Calle Real and Modoc Road were closed at about 7:15 a.m. The freeway’s morning commuter traffic had been backed up for miles in both directions but had thinned out by 10:30 a.m. as vehicles were rerouted at Las Positas Road on the northbound side and at Highway 154 and State Street on the southbound side. The volume of traffic gridlocked surface streets, however, and alternate routes such as State Street, Cathedral Oaks and Foothill roads and through Hope Ranch were reported at standstills all morning. Authorities asked that motorists stay away from the area if possible.
The commotion took a heavy toll on several nearby businesses and one of the worst hit was the Conserv gas station in the 100 block of South La Cumbre Road. Soon after the alleged gunman was spotted, a police blockade taped off the entrance to the station and directed traffic into La Cumbre Plaza across the street, to ensure safety as a bomb squad examined — and destroyed — a bag the man had left behind.
James Mitchell, a Conserv manager, said that by noon Monday the station had sold less than 100 gallons of fuel; under normal circumstances, he said, the station would have sold 2,000 gallons in the same period.
Mitchell said the suspect walked past the store wearing his ski mask. At one point, he even looked inside.
“He waved and smiled at me,” Mitchell said. “I thought it was just a typical homeless guy.”
Not long after, Mitchell said swarms of police arrive at the scene. Meanwhile, Mitchell said, for about an hour, the man paced on the bridge, casually holding the pistol in one hand while waving an American flag with the other, shouting chants about Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Across the street, at The Habit burger joint, manager Michael Vico said the store opened a half-hour late, at 11 a.m., because employees were stuck in traffic.
“We have five guys who get here at 8:30; they were an hour late,” he said.
About 200 yards away from the overpass, several bystanders lingered for as long as an hour after the man was apprehended.
Mike Peka, a construction boss who lives in the area, said the traffic was too jammed to go to work.
“Someone told me ‘There’s a madman on the bridge,’ and they saw it on TV,” he said, looking through a pair of binoculars toward a swarm police officers scouring the area around the bridge, possibly in search of other clues or potentially dangerous devices. “I said, ‘To hell with that, I’m going to go see for myself.’”
“I called, and they said only half the school is there, and not to worry about it,” he said.
A Vieja Valley receptionist who asked not to be named said many students showed up late for school, but that attendance eventually reached normal levels.
At Hope School, 3970-A La Colina Road, Principal Barbara LaCorte said a few teachers got stuck in traffic. As a result she said she found herself teaching a first-grade class for about an hour.
“We fill in the holes really fast,” she said.
Throughout the morning, LaCorte said, students and teachers could hear helicopters flying overhead.
“We were in a semi-lockdown,” she said. “I don’t think we necessarily felt a threat. … We respond based on what the authorities tell us. We were prepared to do whatever they needed us to do.”
Barbara Keyani, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara School Districts, said all of the district’s schools were open and that administrators recognized that some students, staff and parents may have been caught in the traffic. Laguna Blanca School said late-arriving students at the Hope Ranch campus were excused.
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