Valley manhunt triggers school lockdown

Dimitri Storm, 42, is suspected of stealing a car and evading police on Friday, April 5, 2011.

Longtime Woodacre resident Joan Hopkins was quilting at her dining room table when she came face to face with a wanted man. Having eluded a pursuit involving eight law enforcement agencies, he was now standing outside her window, eight feet away, staring at her and her husband, Steve. “Wow, there goes a stranger,” Mr. Hopkins said.

What was most uncanny to Ms. Hopkins was that the man—whom officials on Wednesday identified as Dmitri Storm, a 42-year-old transient—appeared unfazed.  He was quiet, he moved deliberately and he did not let on to any fear or anxiety when he looked at the couple.

“What was interesting about him was he was clean-shaven, straight out of the shower, his hair had been blown, he looked great,” Ms. Hopkins said of the man whom she thought could be a PG&E repairman, disoriented outdoorsman or “anybody’s son.” “He was completely in control of the situation.”

“It was pretty exciting, but you really get down to business when you have to, and then you react later,” she said. “I’m hoping we don’t have to do it that often—to catch us at home like that was just amazing.”

Ms. Hopkins said the man—wearing a fresh set of clothes and sporting an engorged daypack—tipped his head so he could not be seen clearly, then walked down her driveway, forced open an electric gate, strode through an adjoining property and fled into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

Dozens of law enforcement officials spent most of Friday searching West Marin’s forbidding terrain for the subject, whom Sonoma County authorities said had threatened their lives after he was tracked for a car theft in Petaluma and jolted by Taser gun early in the morning. The manhunt led to a lockdown of local schools including Nicasio School and the Lagunitas School District’s two schools and disrupted the lives of residents now being warned that a possibly armed and dangerous criminal was on the loose in a sleepy and unguarded community.

The suspect, who is believed to be connected with robberies and burglaries from Calistoga to Santa Cruz, fled through the Chileno Valley on Petaluma-Point Reyes Road before being spotted by a Marin County sheriff’s deputy near the Nicasio Reservoir in an S.U.V. The deputy lost sight of him shortly thereafter, but the stolen vehicle’s OnStar navigation device tracked the man driving through Point Reyes Station, Olema, Bolinas and eventually past the northern slope of Mount Tamalpais to Fairfax, according to Marin Sheriff’s Lieutenant Keith Boyd.

Law enforcement agencies were not able to stop the car as it led a chase back through Fairfax into the San Geronimo Valley along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. The man abandoned the car in Woodacre before 8 a.m. and fled into a neighborhood of wooded parcels arranged alongside a canyon crisscrossed by hiking trails and fire roads for emergency vehicles.

“It’s obviously heavily dense forestry areas so he could have hunkered down in any of the trees,” said Marin Sheriff’s Lieutenant Jamie Scardina.

Meanwhile, a group of local parents of young students saw the law enforcement activity set up to end the car chase and went to the officials at Lagunitas School District.

The district principal, Laura Shain, faced a dilemma, with some students on campus and others scheduled for a field trip. Some students had already left on a field trip, and others were scheduled to depart to Roy’s Redwoods. The district—which has students as young as 5 years old—cancelled the trip that had not departed and decided to enter a partial lockdown, locking classrooms and supervising students’ walks to bathrooms.

“Considering that Sir Francis Drake and the valley has two exits, there’s a chance that the person in my mind would have tried to get out,” said Ms. Shain, who was worried that he might consider taking refuge at the school. “The adrenaline starts flowing, but I think in this situation, because it was not in our immediate vicinity, it felt like our actions were precautionary.”

The school has continued to revise its procedures for a lockdown since a shooter killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in December.

The rural pursuit of a man who had pledged violence against sheriff’s deputies also sparked reminders of the manhunt for a disgruntled former police officer whom authorities say killed four people—including two law-enforcement officials—in February before taking hostages and holing up in a cabin in the mountains outside of Los Angeles. Lieutenant Scardina said threats against officials are always a cause for concern.

“There was no weapon seen, but the individual did make comments that he was going to kill a police officer,” Lieutenant Scardina said.

The suspect, who was described as a five-foot-eight, 160-pound, Caucasian male with pulled-back hair, was last seen near the Hopkins’ Laurel Avenue home at the edge of While Hill Open Space Preserve. Officials set up a one-square-mile perimeter in Woodacre, but after several hours with no new reports, authorities told local press that they felt the man had slipped out of the area they were monitoring and had probably fled for good.

“It’s just interesting to think he made some really smart choices of how to get out of here and how to get undercover, so he’s really smart to have outstepped all these police in this area,” Ms. Hopkins, the eyewitness, said.

The Marin and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Offices are conducting parallel investigations into the incident.

At Lagunitas School District, officials are treating the manhunt incident as an opportunity to learn how to better secure their school. In the future, officials said they would like a sheriff’s deputy on site throughout the lockout to give guidance.

As for the students, younger children were not expecting recess on the rainy day and they were not told what was going on, but older students who had remained calm on hearing the news gained “a lot of pent-up energy” as the day wore on. Ms. Shain, the principal, said a classroom of middle-school students cheered when the lockout ended.